Friday October 4, 2019 – Tishrei 5, 5780
Torah Portion Vayelech
Yom Kippur begins Tuesday evening at 6:03 and ends Wednesday evening at 7:04
This week’s Torah portion recounts the events on the last day of Moses’s life. He died on his birthday, Adar 7, at 120 years old and is buried outside Israel.
It is impossible to imagine the depth of grief and fear of the people when Moses died. They had to have wondered how they would manage without him. After all, whenever they had a question, Moses had a direct line to G-d and was able to give them an answer. Now they were on their own.
Moses was well aware that the people were fearful and so just before his passing, he wrote thirteen Torah scrolls and gave one to each tribe. This was his way of passing the torch to the next generation. Even though he was no longer with them, the Torah and his teachings would remain.
Which brings us to our generation. Who wouldn’t want someone to give us answers to our very real existential questions? Our Sages declared that Moses never died. He was buried, and succeeded by Joshua, but his works continued to live through the students who followed his lead – to this day, passed from generation to generation.
Most of us are not Torah scholars. We are simple Jews who try to follow the Torah to the best of our ability, given our circumstances. Which brings me to something that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote this past week. He was the chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth and is both erudite in the spoken and written word.
What he wrote gets to the essence of who we are as Jews. It tells us that G-d appreciates everything we do, no matter how small. It tells us that being a Torah scholar or ‘religious’ is not the be all and end all.
“The beauty of Jewish is that in Judaism G-d is close. It is there around the table at a Shabbat meal, in the light of the candles and the simple holiness of the kiddush wine and challahs.
In the peace of mind that comes when you leave the world to look after itself for a day while you celebrate the good things that come, not from working, but resting, not from buying but enjoying the gifts you have had all along but did not have the time to appreciate.”
Without Moses, the Jews had to look at Judaism with the eyes of a newborn. Many of us are like the Jews in the desert before they entered Israel. A bit fearful, not sure what to make of our Judaism and often with no one to talk to about it. We know that we don’t have to do anything to belong and yet, there’s a certain uneasiness about how to approach our own religion.
This week’s Torah portion comes to tell us that this is nothing new. Jews have felt this way since the time of Moses. We are just as big a part of Judaism as the Jews when Moses died. Now it’s our turn to keep the torch burning. What an honor G-d has bestowed upon us, entrusting that we will do our part.
When you fast on Yom Kippur, perhaps keep this in mind. Yes, fasting is uncomfortable. But it’s also part of who we are. Part of what we are passing down to the next generation. Each of us is a light both unto the nations and within our own families. Who does not want to keep the flame alive, burning brightly for the next generation?
Have an easy fast.
Friday August 30, 2019 – Av 29, 5779
Torah Portion Re’eh
Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbos
Begin sounding the shofar daily on Sunday
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses mentions some very crucial mitzvahs for the Jewish people, among them our kosher dietary laws. Doesn’t get much more physical than that.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the National Jewish Retreat. I gave a cooking demonstration highlighting my new cookbook The Big Jewish Mama’s Cookbook. That was in the afternoon. In the evening I was part of another session for young college students who also attended the retreat.
They are the Sinai scholars, so named because they are, for the most part, secular students in university studying about Judaism in their respective Chabad houses. From each group, two students are chosen to come to the retreat, all expenses paid.
One of the sessions for the students was about ten different mitzvahs such as tefillin, mezuzah, family purity and the one I gave, kosher. The 150 students were divided into groups of 8 and they had 8 minutes at each station. If you do the math, that meant I spoke about keeping kosher eleven times. Part of my shpiel also included making something kosher that they could eat. We decided on hummus so…I made eleven batches of hummus, one every 8 minutes.
One of the messages I tried to impart to them was that you are what you eat. It’s not just a cliché, it’s the truth.
It’s also not random that the kosher laws lay out specific requirements. The Torah is telling us that we can learn different things from these laws.
If we take a look at the kinds of animals G-d deemed kosher, for example, deer, sheep and cows, we find that they are naturally timid, modest, non-predatory, quiet animals. The birds which are kosher are those which are not birds of prey. We see that at the simplest level the characteristics of kosher animals are those that we would seek to emulate — peaceful, modest, non-predatory, and civilized.
There are two signs to look for on a kosher animal: they chew their cud and have cloven hooves.
The lesson of chewing their cud, is as just an animal chews its cud over and over again, we don’t always have to say the first thing that comes to mind. I’m sure you all know someone with no filter. What they think they say. Wait, says the Torah. Chew it over before spitting it out, giving some consideration to the consequences of what we are about to say.
The cloven hooves have yet another message for us. A cloven hoof, which is split, is the lowest part of the animal, hitting the earth with every step. The earth represents our physical world, the separation in the hoof – the split – teaches us how we are to approach that world.
Yes, we have to be involved in the material, but we also always have to remember that there is another part – the spiritual, meaning that there is a higher dimension to everything in our material world.
As I told the students, much of our life revolves around food. It’s the same message as in my cookbook. You’re going to eat anyway, the food literally becomes a part of you, you’re a Jew, so try to eat kosher.
It’s not always easy, but the feeling of pride at even trying to follow one of the mitzvahs that
G-d bestowed upon us makes one feel somehow very connected.
Here’s the link to my cookbook. It’s for sale and I’m ready to get out there, speaking and doing cooking demos.
Here's the link to the podcast:
Listen yourself or share it with someone else.
Friday August 2, 2019 –
Menachem Av 1, 5779
Matos – Masei (Double portion)
The Nine Days
The first nine days of the month of Av, and also the morning of the tenth until noon, are days of acute mourning for the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples. This year Tisha B’Av actually falls out on Shabbos so it’s pushed off till the next day. That’s called a nidche.
As this is considered a time of mourning, there are many restrictions. I’m not listing all of them, just the ‘biggies’ which are: We don’t eat meat except for Shabbos, no haircuts, no nail cutting etc no buying new clothing unless it’s a great sale. This is because the Temple was set ablaze on the afternoon of the ninth of Av and burned through the tenth. More on Tisha B’Av next week.
This week’s Torah portion has a very important lesson. We learn that the Jews were in the desert for 40 years and during that time had 42 journeys. While that sounds like about one per year, it didn’t quite work like that.
Eleven of those journeys were during the first year out of Egypt, with a further 11 over the last year before entering Israel. That leaves a grand total of 19 trips over the intervening 38 years. Still quite a bit of traveling.
So how did the Jews know when it was time to move? G-d created a very interesting system.
While they traveled, the Clouds of Glory followed them, protecting them from the harsh desert weather. However, at any time, with almost no warning, the Clouds of Glory that accompanied them could rise into the sky, signifying that they were about to leave.
That means every single day of their sojourn they would have found themselves staring up into the heavens above, wondering what the next day would bring. Would they be packing up and leaving, or staying put? And herein lies the lesson.
The Jews never felt permanent. They never knew when they would be leaving to set up another tent city. It could not have been a very secure life. In fact, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been, never knowing what the next day would bring.
And here’s the lesson of our desert journeys: There are no guarantees in life, and nothing is forever. No one ever guaranteed you permanent residence, and past performance is no indication of future returns. The only one constant is that wherever we travel in life, we are led by G‑d. He is directing our footsteps.
How many times do we see someone who exercised, ate well, didn’t smoke or drink get sick while the guy who ate everything that didn’t get up and walk away from the table, smoked like a chimney and drank himself into oblivion, lived a long life? I did all the right things and yet, wham, I got hit. So, what choice do we really have in life if G-d has really determined what will happen to us?
This is a loaded question but sometimes, as in this week’s Torah portion, we see a glimpse of the answer.
We are taught by the journeys of our ancestors that the choice left to me is how I utilize the time that I have been allotted, and what inspiration and memories I leave behind me when I'm gone.
There are no guarantees in life no matter how prepared we think we are. Jews are a G-d fearing people and know, more than any other peoples in the world how fragile life can be. Make the most of every moment, hour and day. G-d is reminding us to live, not just exist.
Friday July 26, 2019 – Tammuz 23, 5779
Torah Portion Pinchas
We are currently in the period of the Three Weeks (see last week’s blog) which will intensify once we reach the month of Av which begins next Thursday night. As we still have a week until the nine days begins, I’ll deal with it next week. No use to up the ante of anticipation:)
This week’s Torah portion has the five women I admire most in the Torah. They are colloquially known as the Daughters of Tzelafchad and their names are: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. It is interesting to note that Noa and Tirzah are popular Israeli names today.
In a nutshell, their story is as follows: It was the fortieth year since the exodus from Egypt, shortly before the Jewish people were to enter the Promised Land. G‑d had informed Moses that each tribe’s territory would be determined, among other things, by lottery. Each man in the tribe would receive a parcel of land in his tribe’s territory. Upon the man’s death, his sons would inherit his property, thus guaranteeing that each plot would remain in the family to which it was originally assigned.
One man, Tzelafchad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had only daughters. Tzelafchad himself died in the desert and his daughters were worried that they would not receive a share in the land of Israel. They therefore turned to Moses and requested that they be granted the land that would have gone to their father.
They went before Moses and said the following:
“Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no sons? Give us a landholding among our father’s brothers!”
Moses brought their case before G‑d. G‑d spoke to Moses as follows: “The daughters of Tzelafchad have spoken correctly. You shall certainly give them a landholding among their father’s brothers and transfer their father’s inheritance to them.”
And that’s what happened. In their merit, the laws of inheritance follow this precedent. From then on, one who died without sons would have his daughters inherit his estate.
All the sisters married later in life and all had children.
The Tzelafchad’s daughters represent the Jewish women’s love for the Land of Israel. Our sages note the contrast between the men, who were afraid to enter the land and cried, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt,” and the women, who were eager to possess the land and even demanded a share in it.
Which brings us to what we, as Jewish women, can take from this Torah portion. While it is true that we live in the Diaspora, nonetheless we have both a love for where G-d has deemed we live and the Land of Israel. It is a testament that one’s heart can be in two places at once.
It is also interesting to note that the men were afraid to enter the Land of Israel while the women, with complete and unwavering faith in G-d, were eager to go there, despite what can only be described as fear of the unknown.
As Jewish women, as the heart and soul of our homes, we are very well aware of when we have to push, ever so gently, those in our families to take a chance, to make a move, to take on something that seems way too big for them – to go to a place that is unknown. We believe in ourselves and our families. We encourage them to take chances, to be the best they can be. And if that means, as the Daughters of Tzelafchad did, moving out of our comfort zone, so be it.
I am living this right now with my new cookbook – The Big Jewish Mama’s Cookbook. I have to go completely out of my comfort zone to places I never thought I would find myself. And in doing so, I often think of the five courageous women who came thousands of years before me. They feared only G-d Himself. After reading their story, I realized how liberating that thought-process is. Naysayers simply fall by the wayside.
How fortunate we are to have those tenacious, gutsy women to emulate.
Torah Portion: Sh’lach
Blessing of the New Month of Tammuz
This is a very busy Torah portion. Moses sends the twelve spies into the land of Canaan, asking them to report back to him what they saw. They returned after forty days and, with the exception of two (Joshua and Caleb), ten of them reported that it would be impossible to conquer the land due to the strength of the people and the giants living there.
Their lack of faith and trust in G-d, Who promised to give them the Land, influenced the people and they too refused to enter into the Promised Land. As a result, G-d decreed that every male over the age of twenty at that time would not go into the Promised Land.
We also get the mitzvahs of taking challah and wearing tzitzis. I found some interesting information about wearing Tzitzit thanks to Rabbi Zalman Marozov:
The Torah states the reason for the mitzvah of Tzitzit, “So that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the L-rd”. By exposing the Tzitzit, one can “look upon it” and thus “remember” all the mitzvot.
How does one remember all the Mitzvot (commandments) when looking at the Tzitzit?
There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. The numerical value of the Hebrew word Tzitzit (90+10+90+10+400) is 600. Each of the Tzitzit has 8 strings and 5 knots. Together (5+8) they add up to 613 which is the total amount of mitzvot.
Back to the spies. Believe it or not, this incident took place a little more than a year after the Jews had received the Torah at Mount Sinai, worshiped the Golden Calf, been forgiven, and built the Tabernacle where G‑d’s presence was to dwell.
The spies were the cream of Israeli society, so why did they come back and tell Moses that the land devours its inhabitants? Not only that, but they did this in front of everyone, creating, we are guessing, a mass panic situation.
The truth is, the spies had the best of intentions in what they reported. The problem was that in the desert they lived a totally spiritual life. What they saw in the land of Canaan was that those days were over. They would have to work for a living, planting, sowing and harvesting.
Ultimately, the spies were wrong. G-d created the world to be a dwelling place for all of us, with all of our failings, foibles, weaknesses, desires, hopes and dreams.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a place of perfection, although I’m thinking it would be a bit boring? G-d created the world with tests and challenges for us. We need be prepared but we also need to have faith in G-d. There needs to be a balance between structure and creativity, between following G-d’s rules and being ourselves.
It’s not always easy as there are times when we don’t quite get what G-d has in mind. But, as we were born and are here in this world, each of us has our own personal mission to fulfil, one personally created by G-d for each of us. This is where the spies failed, and this one of the lessons from this week’s Torah portion for us today.