Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim February 9, 2018

Torah reading:  Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 11:17 – 12:17


In this week’s Torah reading, we find a series of specific commandments given by God to Moses.  Most are elaborations on the basic principles of the Ten Commandments.

We’ll look at just a few.

21:15  He who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death.  Can you imagine if this law was in strict effect today?  But does it just mean literally ‘strike’ them; that is, hit them, beat them physically?  Well it certainly includes that but there is more than one way to ‘strike’ a parent. Defiance, rebellion, disrespect – all are means of ‘striking’ one’s parents.  And there’s more.

21:17 He who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death. Abusive words towards one’s mother or father is just as sinful, according to this commandment.  Showing dishonor and even cruelty to older parents is reprehensible.  Ignoring your parents because you are so busy with your own life is displeasing to the Lord.  And perhaps the worst: speaking evil of your parents to others.

The positive commandment is ‘Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you and you may live long upon the earth.’ (Exodus 20:12)

21: 22-25  If men fight each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the women’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judge decides. But if there is injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty, life for life; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 

This passage has bewildered people at times because they don’t understand what it is saying.  There is no way that God would demand the barbaric act of gouging out someone’s eye or cutting off someone’s hand.  The language here is Hebraic idiom and what it means is this: the offender must pay the injured in proportion to the level of injury.  To put it in modern terms, if your teenage son got in a fight and knocked out the front teeth of another teenager, under this commandment, you as the parent would be responsible to pay for the dental work needed by the injured person.

21:32 If an ox gores a male or female servant, the owner shall give his or her master thirty pieces of silver and the ox shall be stoned.

The value on the life of a servant in those days was thirty pieces of silver so if you owned an ox and it killed one of your neighbor’s farmhands, you would be responsible to pay damages – 30 pieces of silver.

Chapter 22:22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.  If you afflict them at all and if they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My anger will be kindled and I will kill you with a sword and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. 

Widows and orphans have a special place in God’s heart.  He is protective of them and commands us to be the same.

22:28 You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.  This commandment is particularly timely at present, especially for my fellow Americans.  With the daily news this week being dominated by exposure of corruption and fraud at the highest levels of government,  many are angry at what’s been done.

Anger towards sin is one thing; but ‘cursing’ the sinner is something else entirely.  The adage is most appropriate here: Hate the sin; have regard for the sinner. Regardless of how upset we may get at the moral failures of leaders, we must guard our tongues lest we violate God’s rule: do not curse a ruler of your people.  The Scripture commands us to pray for those in authority over us and it does not carry with it an addendum that says, pray for them as long as they’re good in your eyes.  No, pray for them – period!

In Chapter 24, after hearing these and other instructions Moses gave them from the Lord, the people cry out, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.” (vs. 3b) In fact they repeated the same commitment again in verse 7.

In Tune with Torah this week = if we are honest, there are times we come across difficult passages when we read the Torah or listen to a teaching.  Perhaps it touches a nerve or puts a demand on us to change or to grow spiritually and we chafe against it.  It is precisely at those times that we need to echo the cry of the children of Israel: “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.”  

Weekly Torah Commentary -V’etchanan August 19, 2016

Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Within this week’s Torah reading is the great declaration that has become the hallmark of Judaism:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is one!  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your resources.  These words which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets on your forehead.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  Deut. 6: 4-9

In the Hebrew language there are two words that English versions of the Torah translate as ‘soul’ missing a key insight that is apparent in the original text.  The two words are neshama and nefesh.  The neshama describes man’s spirit, that essence which God ‘breathed into Adam and he became a living soul.’  He formed man from the dust of the ground and then breathed of His own life into the man he formed.  The word neshama could be rendered in English, the ‘breath of God’.

Genesis 2:7 Then the Lord, God, formed a person [Hebrew: adam] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being.It is through our spirit (neshama) that we communicate with God and hear from Him.

On the other hand, the nefesh describes our ‘animal’ soul – the seat of our mind, will and emotions; that place in us where we think, feel and make decisions. In other words, the ‘soul’ comprises our thoughts and our feelings and the resultant decisions that flow from both. For example, animals have a nefesh; it’s because a dog is not just a mass of flesh that you are able to teach and train your dog to act in certain ways. His intelligence and ability to learn comes from the ‘animal’ soul.

The reason these distinctions are important is to help us properly understand what God is saying in the ‘Shema’ – Hear, O Israel!  In the Hebrew, the phrase: ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul‘, the word used is nefesh, not neshama. 

So what God is commanding us is to love Him with our thoughts, feelings and decisions.

Every act of disobedience to God’s word begins in the mind as a thought. If we entertain that thought, it leads to a decision which then is played out in our behavior.

Likewise, every act of obedience to God’s word also begins in the mind as a thought which leads to a decision to conform our behavior to God’s revealed Word.

It is in this active arena of daily life – what goes on in the nefesh – that God addresses in this week’s reading.  He calls us to demonstrate our love for Him in the way we think, in our decisions and in our consequent behavior.

It is written in Proverbs 23:7 For as he thinks within himself, so is he. Our thought life is therefore critically important to our relationship with God, with ourselves and with others.  Your thoughts have tremendous effect on your life. They can direct you in the ways of God or totally divert you into unwholesome living.  Negative and degrading thoughts you have toward yourself can paralyze you into apathy and rob you of the life God intends for you to have.   Entertaining negative thoughts towards others can cause you to develop a bitter attitude that will poison your relationships.

It all starts in the mind – the thought life – in the nefesh.  So when God tells us to love Him with our nefesh, it is a clear mandate urging us to be careful how we think in order that our decisions and behavior will be pleasing unto Him.

Negative or evil thoughts present themselves to everyone from time to time.  That is a reality of life.  However, what this commandment exhorts us to do is to recognize and reject evil thoughts before they have a chance to formulate a decision that will be harmful to our spiritual life.

‘You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your nefesh’… [your thoughts, your feelings and your behavior].

In Tune with Torah this week = taking stock of our thinking patterns.  How often is your mind focused on God, on His Torah, on that which is positive and life-giving?  Are you consciously aware when negative or evil thoughts try to take over and lead you astray?  Let us ask the Lord this Shabbat to cleanse our thoughts of ungodliness and unrighteousness and grant us grace to develop a clean and pure thought life.

Shabbat Shalom




Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim Feb. 5, 2016

Exodus 21-24

This week’s Torah reading opens with this verse:

Now these are the ordinances which you shall place before them [the Children of Israel].  21:1

The word ‘ordinance’ is defined as ‘an authoritative decree’; an edict, an injunction, a command, rule or mandate.  This Torah portion goes on to outline a series of rules that are to govern interpersonal relationships among His people.


Let’s face it – human beings generally don’t like ‘rules’.  We don’t like being told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and with whom to do it! We seem to have this innate resistance to ‘authority’ in whatever form it happens to ‘encroach’ on what we perceive as our ‘freedom.’  This attitude is so prevalent in modern times that it’s difficult to have a calm and non-emotional discussion about it at times.

That should not be among God’s people.

Recently a friend of mine was on a plane sitting opposite a mother with her young son who was perhaps about seven or eight.  As soon as they were belted into their seats, the boy began playing on an IPad.  When it was time for take-off, the flight attendant instructed the boy to turn off the IPad.  He kept playing. And Mom said nothing.  A second time the flight attendant passed by, told him to shut it down and give it to his mother until he could resume later.  The boy paid no attention.  And Mom said nothing.  The boy continued to play on the IPad all through take-off and afterward.  And Mom said nothing.  My friend commented later, “She is training him to ignore authority. Where will he be ten years from now?”

Sound too harsh?  What about the killing of 13 year old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa, California, by police who thought he was about to shoot them with an assault rifle. It turned out to be a toy gun. Two times, the police told the boy to drop the gun. Instead he turned it on them. They fired.  Did he not hear what they told him or was he in the habit of not responding to direct commands? We may not know for sure but we know one thing.  It cost him his life.  Parents, take heed!

The word ‘obedience’ today seems to have fallen into the dictionary of political incorrectness.  Just ask any school teacher what it’s like in today’s classroom compared to twenty years ago.

Among God’s people, it should not be.  Obedience is necessary in private life, social life and in every other sphere of life where one is expected to do his duty or earn his livelihood. An individual must obey his elders or superiors. Children must obey their parents. Students must obey their teachers. Obedience is the rule of life and without it life will sooner or later lead to misery.

Does obedience ‘ruin’ your ‘freedom’?  Absolutely not – in fact, it enhances your freedom.  The thief serving his eight year sentence in prison for breaking the law is hardly ‘free’.  The person who was tempted to steal but didn’t is going on with his life outside prison bars. Get the point?

Freedom is not doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want.

The Bible says quite a bit about freedom, despite any impressions people have about it being filled with restrictive rules. In reality, if we are willing to consider it, the Bible teaches us how to distinguish between what it means to be free from something and to be free to do or be something. Freedom from and freedom to are two sides of the freedom coin.

Suppose ‘John’ has a real problem with gluttony and is consequently terribly overweight.  (NOTE: I am not referring to people with a genuine medical problem and/or who suffer uncomfortable weight gain as a side effect of certain medicines for other issues in their body!)  Let’s just focus on the person who can’t seem to resist the quart of chocolate ice cream or the whole package of chocolate chip cookies just before bed every night, etc.  So ‘John’ goes to a doctor for help.  He’s put on a rigorous diet and over a period of six to twelve months, John drops 100 lbs.  The doctor is pleased, John is pleased, his wife is pleased. Fast forward to three years later, John has gained back all the weight and then some. Why?

Because his heart, his inner person didn’t change.  For a short period he was “Free From” excess weight but he didn’t make the leap to be “Free T0” maintain his achievement. The external symptoms were treated but there was no change to the root cause of his problem.

God’s commandments are designed to lead us into true freedom; to be “Free To” become holy, righteous, kind, compassionate and generous individuals, reflecting in our own lives the character of our Father in Heaven who commands us “Be holy as I am holy.” Lev. 19:2

In Tune with Torah this week = before getting past the first verse of this week’s reading, examine your own attitude toward obedience in general and God’s Word in particular.  Is your focus more on being ‘free from’ or have you made the leap to be ‘free to’ become what He created you to be?

Shabbat Shalom


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Weekly Torah Commentary — Matot July 17, 2014

MATTOT – Bamidbar/Numbers 30:2 – 32:42

In this week’s Torah reading, the tribes of Gad and Reuben approached Moses, asking that he allow them to remain on the other side of the Jordan where there was sufficient land for them to farm their animals. They had vast numbers of cattle and the area they desired was perfect pasture land.

Moses became angry at their request and replied with a strong rebuke pointing out to them that by not entering the land of Israel they would be abandoning their fellow Israelites in the upcoming conquest.
He solemnly reminds them of the incident of the spies and its terrible consequences. In reply to Moshe’s criticisms, they assured Moses, with his permission, they would build houses for their wives and children and corrals for the animals and then they would gladly join the rest of the nation in conquering the land.

Some have asked, “Isn’t it possible that they intended to do just that all along? And if so, why didn’t they defend themselves at the first sound of Moses’ stinging rebuke?

There is a verse in the book of Proverbs: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” (Proverbs 27:6) The commentaries explain that the ‘wounds’ delivered by one’s friend here refer to words of rebuke, of discipline or correction. The rebuke of someone who genuinely cares about his friend is of great benefit because it is aimed at helping him improve himself and one’s friend is inclined to deliver even a very firm correction with love. Our friend actually does us a great service because, if we will receive the correction with humility of heart, he or she is actually helping us to grow spiritually. This is one of the greatest gifts we give each other. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben heard Moses rebuke them, they knew that he was doing so from the purest of motives and only had their best interests in mind. Thus, even though they perhaps could have defended themselves, it was more worthwhile to listen to his words and try to profit from them.

Lest anyone misunderstand, however, we must realize that every rebuke or correction we receive is of great value, now just those who come from a loving friend. It is part of life that at times we all experience a harsh rebuke. The truly spiritual person will hear the words, evaluate them and be willing to examine himself, no matter who delivered the rebuke. Rather than focus on the inept or unkind way in which the accuser spoke to us, the more important issue is to focus on the words that were spoken for, truth be told, even in the most unwelcomed rebuke or correction, there is usually some kernel of truth.
If we are truly committed to growing in spiritual maturity, it behooves us to be humble enough to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

Another verse in Proverbs admonishes us: “Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise for the rest of your days.”Prov. 19:20

Did you notice that we are told here to ‘listen’ to counsel (advice) but to ‘accept’ discipline. Listening implies an element of contemplation and thought – when a person is given advice he should think about it before he acts upon it. In contrast when one is rebuked he should accept it without self-defense and then reflect on it as a means towards spiritual growth. Does this require a healthy dose of Humility? Absolutely! But then, isn’t humility considered one of the greatest of virtues?

It is understandable that most people do not enjoy being rebuked – it is unpleasant to be told that you have a character flaw or that your behavior was unacceptable. However, if we can determine to leave our ego out of the situation, push ourselves past the feelings of embarrassment, we will learn from every experience in life and over time appreciate rebukes and criticisms as powerful tools for our spiritual growth.

In Tune with Torah this week = ask yourself: how do I respond to correction? to criticism? Do I seek to learn from it to become a better person? Or do I get angry or indignant? “He has told you, O man, what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly before your God.”

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayeira October 18, 2013

Vayeira – Genesis 18-22

“And God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre.” (Genesis 18:1)

The Midrash relates that when God commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and his entire household, Avraham sought the advice of his three friends: Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner told him that the circumcision would weaken him and render him vulnerable to attack from relatives of the four kings he had just vanquished. Eshkol stressed that the operation itself, with the attendant loss of blood, was life threatening. His friend, Mamre, however, told Avraham that having experienced God’s deliverance from Nimrod’s furnace and the miraculous victory over four mighty kings, he should trust in God and follow His command. For this advice, Mamre was rewarded by God appearing to Avraham on his estate – “in the plains of Mamre.”

However, this Midrash raises questions. Why did Avraham ask his friends’ advice? Had not God already spoken to him? Was that not enough? And if two out of the three emphasized the danger involved, why did Avraham listen to Mamre, the only one who stressed the need for trust in God? Finally, why was Mamre rewarded for giving Avraham obvious advice, rather than Aner and Eshkol punished for attempting to discourage him?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the essence of friendship and the value of a friend.

Everyone’s perspective is highly subjective and biased with respect to all matters concerning himself. His personal attitudes and desires can blind his eyes and prevent him from objectively weighing the pros and cons of a situation. For this reason, writes Meiri in his commentary to Proverbs (20:18), one needs the perspective of someone who is removed from all the subjective biases that cloud one’s vision, someone who can weigh the situation without the infuence of personal emotions. A friend need not be at a higher spiritual level, or even as high, to offer valuable advice; he need only be free of the particular desires which render us incapable of being objective. In fact, it often happens that the best advice we receive is from someone — like a child or a young person — who by all appearances seems to be less spiritually mature than we may think we are. It takes a certain humility to accept advice from such a person, but then, is not humility the most prized of all virtues?

Even if we have already reached a definite decision, it is still commendable to seek the advice of others, since it is not only the action which is important, but also the feelings and intentions that go with it.

The purpose of a friend’s advice is to provide an objective view of the issue at hand. Therefore the friend must not introduce his own biases, emotions and subjectivity. His task is not to imagine himself with the same dilemma, but rather to ask himself, “If I were he, without his subjective bias, what would I do?”

Avraham never doubted that he would fulfill God’s command concerning circumcision. Nevertheless he still sought the advice of his three friends to gain a more objective view of his situation. Aner and Eshkol did not necessarily give him bad advice. In fact, the Midrash never says explicitly that they advised him not to perform the mitzvah. However, theirs were words of fear for oneself, rather than love for God.

Mamre, by contrast, projected himself into Avraham’s place and advised him on the basis of Avraham’s frame of reference and experience of Divine protection. Hence Avraham’s thoughts while undergoing the brit centered on faith and trust that God would assist him in fulfilling this command, as He had assisted him throughout his life.

Through God’s revelation to Avraham in the plains of Mamre, we learn that receiving guests is greater than receiving God’s presence, for Avraham interrupted his communion with God to run to greet the three angels disguised as men. Entertaining guests requires consideration of another’s needs and shedding one’s own narrow wants and desires; a willingness to be inconvenienced even for the sake of being a blessing to others.

The value of a true friend cannot be overestimated. Friendships that nourish, encourage and support our spiritual growth are the dearest friendships of all. May we all be that kind of friend to others.

In Tune with Torah this week: how am I doing in being a source of strength, uplifting and encouragement to my friends?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Nitzavim/Vayelech August 30, 2013

Double Portion: Nitzavim/Vayelech Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

On the day of Moshe’s death he assembled the entire Jewish people and created a Covenant confirming the Jewish people as the Almighty’s Chosen People (chosen for responsibility to be a light to the nations) for all future generations. Moshe made very clear the consequences of rejecting God and His Torah as well as the possibility of repentance.

Nitzavim concludes with perhaps the clearest and most powerful statement in the Torah about the purpose of life and the existence of free-will: “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil … the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.”

The other critically important section in Nitzavim is this one: For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that you should say, “Who shall go up to heaven for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?” But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments: then you shall live and multiply: and the Lord your God shall bless you in the land into which you go to possess it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16) The importance of this passage cannot be underestimated. It removes every excuse, every false doctrine that says “the Torah was too hard and the Jews couldn’t keep it”, and therefore something else had to be created. Nonsense! The passage says very clearly that ‘the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, you can do it…” We are bluntly and straightforwardly told that God has not asked something of us which is beyond our ability to do. So…what’s your excuse?

Vayelech begins with Moshe passing the torch of leadership to Yehoshua (Joshua). Moshe then gives Yehoshua a command/blessing which applies to every Jewish leader: “Be strong and brave. Do not be afraid or feel insecure before them. God your Lord is the One who is going with you, and He will not fail you nor forsake you.” Volumes have been written about leaders and leadership but when speaking of Jewish leadership, or biblical leadership, this verse teaches us the foundation: TRUST in God begets strength and courage. Without strength of character and moral courage, there is no leadership.

Moshe writes the entire Torah and gives it to the Cohanim and Elders. He then commands that in the future at the end of the Shmita (Sabbatical Year) the king should gather all the people during Succot festival and read to them the Torah so “… that they will hear and learn and fear the Lord your God and be careful to perform all the words of the Torah.”

In Tune with Torah this week = on this final Shabbat of the current Hebrew year, with Rosh Hashana just days away, let each of us examine our record on making excuses for failure or neglect in following God and His Torah. Let us repent of excuses and resolve to improve our obedience to Him in the year to come.

Weekly Torah Commentary — Re’eh Deut. 11:26 – 16-17 August 2, 2013

This week’s jam-packed portion opens with these words: “I set before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God…; the curse if you do not … and you follow other gods.”

It continues with rules and laws for the land of Israel primarily oriented towards staying away from idol worship and from embracing the other religions in the land.

One of the indications of the existence and necessity of the Oral Torah — an explanation and clarification of the written Torah (The Five Books of Moses) — comes from verse 12:21 “You will slaughter animals … according to the manner I (God) have prescribed.” Nowhere in the Torah are we instructed in the manner of shechita, ritual slaughter. One might conclude that there was a very sloppy editor. Or — one might conclude that there are additional teachings clarifying and amplifying the written Word which is what is referred to as the Oral Torah, the instructions Moshe taught the people and which have been handed down throughout the generations.

The source of the Chosen People concept is found in 14:1-2: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God has chosen you from all nations on the face of the earth to be His own special nation.” We are chosen for responsibility, not privilege — to act morally and to be a “light unto the nations.”

The Torah states, “For if you shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to cleave to Him…” (Deuteronomy 11:22). How does one “cleave to the Almighty?”

The Torah tells us that even someone who appears to be highly observant of the commandments and loves God, must show in his behavior and interactions with others that he is an imitator of God (“to walk in all His ways”). Only then can a person be considered as one who cleaves to Him. Emulating God means being compassionate and bestowing kindness on others. (“He is merciful so we should be merciful, He bestows kindness, so we should bestow kindness” — Rashi). One might think that a person who loves God need only devote himself to prayer and Torah study and by this means he will cleave to God. We see from this verse, however, that an essential ingredient in cleaving to God is caring about our fellow man.

It is by truly caring about others (you shall love your neighbor as yourself) that we show ourselves to be godly.

It is noteworthy that this parsha is read just before the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul which will begin on Tuesday of this coming week (actually at sundown on Monday). Elul, when spelled in Hebrew letters, is the acronym for the words, “I am to my beloved, my beloved is to me” (ani l’dodi v’dodi li — oftentimes it will be inscribed on the inside of an engagement ring).

The month of Elul is a time of heightened spirituality where the Almighty is, as it were, closer and more approachable. It is a time of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah. It is a time to do a spiritual audit and to fix up your life.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we approach the month of Elul, let us take very seriously the admonition to use this coming month as an opportunity to do a true “check up from the neck up” – to examine ourselves and our thought life as it is our thoughts that give birth to our words and our behaviors. How are we doing at loving others as we love ourselves, for example? This is the month to search our own souls and determine to grow in godliness in the new Hebrew year which will begin on September 4, 2013.

Shabbat shalom