• December 19, 2019

    Thomas Mann’s Portrayal of Tamar—A Self-Reflection?
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeshev
    By Rabbi Len Levin

    I first encountered Thomas Mann’s portrayal of the biblical heroine Tamar (from Joseph and His Brothers, pp. 1016–42) as a high school student; it was assigned reading in our Jewish day school. I have never been able to see her otherwise since.

    Thomas Mann was arguably the greatest German writer of his age. He worked on his massive fictional rendition of the Joseph saga from 1924 to 1942, years of turbulence and tragedy for Germany and Jewry. He modeled his portrayal of Rachel on his wife Katia, who came from an assimilated German Jewish family. Seeking a leading female character for the fourth part of his tetralogy, he chose Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah who became the progenitress of the two leading clans of the Judah tribe, Peretz and Zerah, and ancestress of the Davidic dynasty.

    Mann masterfully reworks the Read More >

  • December 19, 2019

    Thomas Mann’s Portrayal of Tamar—A Self-Reflection?
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeshev
    By Rabbi Len Levin

    I first encountered Thomas Mann’s portrayal of the biblical heroine Tamar (from Joseph and His Brothers, pp. 1016–42) as a high school student; it was assigned reading in our Jewish day school. I have never been able to see her otherwise since.

    Thomas Mann was arguably the greatest German writer of his age. He worked on his massive fictional rendition of the Joseph saga from 1924 to 1942, years of turbulence and tragedy for Germany and Jewry. He modeled his portrayal of Rachel on his wife Katia, who came from an assimilated German Jewish family. Seeking a leading female character for the fourth part of his tetralogy, he chose Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah who became the progenitress of the two leading clans of the Judah tribe, Peretz and Zerah, and ancestress of the Davidic dynasty.

    Mann masterfully reworks the Read More >

  • October 11, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Moses’ final message to the assembled Israelite people came in the form of a poetic song (shirah) that described in brief the spiritual history of their relationship with the Almighty. As with all poetry, what appears to be a simple, readily understood expression can upon careful examination actually contain layers of deeper meaning. One such verse is the following (Deut. 32:6):

    “Do you thus requite the Lord, O vile people and unwise (am naval ve’lo hakham)? Is He not your father who has created you, who fashioned you and made you endure?”

    The word naval, which is found only twice in the Pentateuch (in this verse and again a few verses later, in v. 21), denotes a person or a nation that repays its benefactor with evil. It is used most famously to refer to the husband of Avigail in the Book Read More >

  • August 23, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Eikev
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    In the beginning of this week’s Torah reading we have two references to the manna (man in Hebrew) that sustained the Israelites in the desert for forty years as a test (nisayon) by God. In this essay I wish to explore what was the nature of this test and how it relates to us in practical terms.

    In his long exhortation to B’nei Yisrael, Moses reminds them that God had them travel in the wilderness for the past forty years that “He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not. He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” ( Read More >

  • May 9, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Kedoshim
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s sidra begins with the Divine command directed to the Children of Israel to be holy (kedoshim tih’yu) “for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). In Hebrew, the root meaning of kadosh is separate. This prompts us to ask what is the nature of this holiness or separation that God requires of us and how do we achieve it?

    At first glance one might respond to these questions by saying: “Look further in the text.” Indeed the very first commandment that follows is the obligation to fear one’s father and mother. This is followed in the same verse by the instruction to observe the Sabbath. The next verse warns us against idolatrous practices. This is followed by some specific instructions regarding the offering of sacrifices. And many more specific halakhot follow in the ensuing verses and chapters without Read More >

  • March 22, 2019

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The prohibition in the Torah against the consumption of blood, which is expressed in this week’s parashah (see Lev. 7:26-27), is generally seen in the context of the laws of kashrut. Just as the Torah prohibits the eating of meat from unclean animals or from animals that were improperly slaughtered or were unfit due to organic disease, so too certain parts of a kosher animal, like the fat (heilev) or the blood (dam) are off-limits. In connection with the latter, the Shulhan Arukh describes various salting and draining methods to rid the meat of any blood that may have flowed into it in order to render it kosher. The pertinent rules and techniques are juxtaposed to the laws that deal with shehitah (ritual slaughtering) and tereifot (diseased animals).

    Interestingly, the Torah does not mention the prohibitions against eating the fat or the Read More >

  • December 6, 2018

    Joseph: Is He Greater than the Patriarchs?
    A D’var Torah for Parashat Miketz
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    As the lights of the Hanukah menorah grow from day to day, so does our fascination with the story of Joseph in the Bible (which we read about in the synagogue on Hanukah) increase from year to year. What is it about this story, the longest in the Torah, that we never tire from discussing and thinking about?

    While there are many answers to this question, most of which relate to Joseph’s character, a new thought came to me that I would like to express in this D’var Torah, and it starts with a question. Why is it that Joseph, who the Rabbis referred to as Yosef ha-Zaddik (see, e.g. Yoma 35b) – Joseph the Righteous – never received any communication from God, not even from an angel, as did his forebears, the Patriarchs, all of Read More >

  • October 12, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Noah
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Much has been written by the Bible commentators on the sins that caused God to bring on the Great Flood in the time of Noah. But little ink has been spilled (or keys pressed) in regard to what motivated the Supreme Being to ensure that there will never be a flood again to destroy the world (see Gen. 8:21, 9:8-17).

    Surely if the corruption of humankind, and possibly the animal kingdom as well, brought on God’s anger (see Gen. 6:5-7, 11-13) and justified the destruction of all beings (except for Noah and those with him in the Ark), then what would happen if there would be a replay of this selfsame corruption? God’s hands, so to speak, would be tied by the oath He took not to put an end to all life. But then does that imply that He Read More >

  • August 8, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    For this week’s d’var Torah on parashat Re’eh, I would like to share with you some homiletic interpretations that pertain to the mitzvah of tzedakah (roughly translated as “charity”) and that express some deep insights into this mitzvah.

    The Torah devotes several verses to encouraging and demanding that the Jewish people give charity (through tithes) or lend money to the poor. In this week’s Torah sidra, the obligation to give to the needy is first expressed in the form of two negative commandments – “You shall not harden your heart and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother” (Deut. 15:7). This is followed by a positive instruction – “Rather you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs which he is lacking” (15:8).

    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Pentateuch Read More >

  • June 14, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Korah
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The conflict between Moses and Korah, which occupies much of this week’s parashah, is usually seen as a struggle between right and wrong. Indeed the Torah itself warns us (Numb. 17:5) that we should not be like Korah and his followers (ve’lo yiyeh khe’Korah ve’kha’a’doto). In a similar vein the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers 5:20) depict Korah and his followers as engaging in a mahloket she’lo le’shem Shamayim (“a conflict that is antithetical to Heaven”) and thus one that we should stay away from. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) it is stated, according to R. Akiva, that Korah and his followers have no portion in the World to Come.

    However, a more nuanced reading of the Korah story leaves one wondering whether there was some merit in the arguments that he advanced against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership – Read More >

  • May 17, 2018

    Seeing Those We Overlook
    A D’var Torah for Bemidbar
    by Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

    When we study our Torah portions, we often notice what’s missing, what’s not said. What happens during the three days between the time God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and the time Abraham and Isaac arrive at the mountain where the sacrifice is to take place? What happens to Jonah while he is in the belly of the fish?

    This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, the first parashah of the book of Numbers, is all about counting people. That’s where the name of the book in English, Numbers, comes from. (In Hebrew, Bemidbar means “in the wilderness.”) All the men from every tribe except Levi are counted, and in a separate count, the men from Levi are counted. A glaring absence in this Torah portion, something that we notice is missing, is any mention of women. Women are not in our Read More >

  • February 15, 2018

    A D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpatim
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s Torah portion deals with the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the various vessels to be placed in it or in front of it. Most of the vessels were to have rings built on their sides through which rods or staves would be inserted that would allow for the Priests or the Levites to transport them easily from one encampment to another during the sojourn of the Israelites in the Desert. In particular, four vessels were to have these rings adjoined to them: the Holy Ark (Ex. 25:12-15), the Table of the Lehem ha-Panim (Ex. 25:26-28), the Altar for Sacrifices (Ex. 27:4-7), and the Incense Altar (Ex. 30::4-5).

    Of the above vessels, only one had a special instruction that applied to it and to none of the others, namely, that the staves must remain in the rings permanently. That vessel Read More >

  • November 1, 2017
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann
    I would like to share with you a very insightful ethical interpretation of a midrashic comment that I heard in the name of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Pam, who was the Rosh ha-Yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath in the latter part of the 20th century.

    Commenting on the verse in Genesis 21:6, which describes Sarah’s reaction to her giving birth to Isaac at the age of 90 (“G-d has brought me laughter; whoever hears about this will laugh with me”), the Midrash adds that many barren women became pregnant (literally “were remembered by G-d”) along with her, many sick were healed along with her, many prayers were answered along with her, for there was much laughter (i.e. joy) in the world (quoted by Rashi ad loc.).

    The Midrash is apparently responding to the question of why would everyone who heard about Sarah’s birth erupt into joyful Read More >

  • October 24, 2017
    On Being a Blessing
    A Dvar Torah for Lekh Lekha
    By Cantor Sandy Horowitz

    “I’m on the 5th floor and my window is open
    and someone outside sneezed so i shouted ‘BLESS U’ out the window
    and he said “THANK YOU BUILDING”
    –From the twitter feed of Jonny Sun

    In Parashat Lekh Lekha when Abram is called to go forth from his home God tells him, “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

    What is the significance of God saying Abram will “be a blessing”?

    One might assume that the one chosen by God to “be a blessing” would be pure of character and righteous in action.  But this is not Abraham (as Abram is later renamed).

    True, he is no doubt considered a blessing by his nephew Lot after he rescues Lot from captivity in Genesis Read More >

  • June 23, 2017

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Much ink has been spilled on trying to explain what motivated Korach and his followers to rebel against Moses and Aaron, which is the main story in this week’s Torah portion. Was it jealousy, envy, desire for honor or power, dissatisfaction with Moses’ leadership, or maybe all of the above?

    Interestingly, as if the above are not enough, we also find other explanations of a more halakhic nature playing a role in the dispute between Korach and Moses. The Midrash (Midrash Tanhuma, beginning of the parashah), part of which is quoted by Rashi (ad loc.), suggests that Korach began his dispute with Moses by summoning the Sanhedrin (i.e. the religious leadership at the time) and asking them to rule on whether a tallit that is entirely dyed with tekheilet (a kind of bluish-purple dye) still needs tzitzit consisting of only one tekheilet fringe on each corner. When the Read More >

  • April 7, 2017

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    One of the key principles that the Haggadah follows in recounting the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is “matchil be’genut u’mesayim be’shevah” (literally, “one begins with the disgrace and ends with the glory”), i.e. one starts with the negative or low point of our history and concludes with the positive. What is the negative? On this Rav and Shmuel disagree, as recorded in the Talmud (Pesahim 116a) – “Rav said  that one should begin by saying: At first our forefathers were idol worshippers, before concluding with words of glory. And Shmuel said: The disgrace with which one should begin his answer is: We were slaves.

    It would appear that by following this order, whether according to Rav or Shmuel, we are focusing our attention on the glorious outcome of the Exodus story, namely our emancipation from Egypt and achievement of freedom. By starting out with what we were in Read More >

  • November 23, 2016

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    After Abraham buries his wife Sarah, he attends to the future of his offspring, in particular to the marriage of his son Isaac. In rather strong terms, he instructs his servant to go to his birthplace, to Haran, to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham has his servant take an oath that he will not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan “amongst whom I dwell” (Gen. 24:3).

    Several commentators take note of the latter expression and question the need for that comment. Surely Abraham’s servant (traditionally assumed to be Eliezer, but never named as such in this narrative) knew that Abraham lived in Canaan. Why the need to emphasize it?

    Among the solutions that I read, I found the most insightful to be that of the Keli Yekar, a popular commentary of R. Ephraim Luntschitz (17th century)In explaining the above phrase, he asked why Abraham was so insistent Read More >

  • November 9, 2016
    by Rabbi David Almog
    People Following God and God Following People
    For generations, readers of the Bible have admired Avram’s emigration to Canaan at the start of Parashat Lekh Lekha as a quintessential act of faith. One can only imagine a divine voice giving a command to uproot one’s life and one’s family to travel to an unspecified location. As Midrash Lekah Tov explains, the reason for the vague instruction was to grant Avram “merit for each and every step” he took while following God with such pure devotion. He could not have been sure if he was going to a good land, where he and his family could prosper. On the other hand, looking back to the previous parashah, one can easily interpret that the impetus for choosing the land of Canaan was entirely one of human making, which God “ratifies”, so to speak. This would neither be the first Read More >
  • June 9, 2016

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud refer to the holiday of Shavuot not by its usual Biblical name — Hag ha-Shavuot — but by the term Atzeret (see e.g. Rosh Hashanah 16a and Pesahim 68b), which is used in the Torah to refer to Shemini Atzeret and to the seventh day of Pesah (Num. 29:35 and Deut. 16:8, resp.). While there are several interpretations among Jewish commentators as to why the Rabbis eschewed the Biblical and more common name and instead used a new designation for the Holiday of Weeks, my favorite is one that I heard from my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z”l, affectionately called “the Rav” by his students and followers.

    On several occasions the Rav suggested that the Rabbis were eager to show a strong nexus between the holidays of Pesah and Shavuot in order to emphasize the notion that the physical freedom Read More >

  • April 27, 2016

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Many commentators on the Haggadah have pointed to the apparent contradictory symbolism of the matzah at the Seder table. On the one hand, we start the Maggid (telling of the story) section with referring to the matzah as hah lahma anya — this is the bread of affliction — symbolizing the bread that the Israelites ate in Egypt during their slavery. On the other hand, as we get to the end of the Maggid and we quote Rabban Gamliel’s famous explanations for the basic ritual items at the Seder, we observe that the matzah is the bread that the Children of Israel ate when they left Egypt in haste, thus making it a symbol of freedom and liberation from slavery.

    Well, which is it? The simple answer is both. To distinguish between the dual symbolism, we point to a broken matzah as the lahma anya and to a Read More >

  • March 18, 2016

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    With many of us glued to the news at a time when we are trying to decide who should be our next leader, it may come as a surprise that this week’s Torah portion, which deals with animal and meal offerings, has what to teach us about leadership qualities.

    In chapter 4 of Vayikra the Torah speaks of four individuals or groups who if they sin unintentionally are to bring a hatat (sin) offering. Each of the offerings is described in detail and is somewhat different from the others. The four categories, in accordance with rabbinic tradition, are as follows: the high priest (vv. 3-12), the Sanhedrin (high court) (vv. 13-21), the ruler or king (vv. 22-26), and the individual Israelite (vv. 27-35). Interestingly, three of the categories are introduced by the word im, which means “if” — i.e., if the individual or group will sin, then such Read More >

  • February 4, 2016

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    One of my favorite derashot (homiletical interpretations) is one that is found in this week’s Torah portion in connection with the mitzvah of lending money to those in need.

    The Torah writes (Ex. 22:24) — “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.” To be sure, the wording of the Torah, using the conjunction im  (im kesef talveh et ami…), which usually means “if,” suggests that  lending money to the poor is optional and not a mitzvah (religious obligation) per se. But the Rabbis interpreted this im to mean “when” rather than “if” (see Mekhilta ad loc.; see also Rashi on this verse). Thus they read it as if it says, “When you lend money…do not act towards the recipient as a creditor who charges interest.” Besides not charging interest, a Read More >

  • December 25, 2015

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Did Jacob ever find out that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and that they deceived him into thinking that he was killed by a wild animal?

    The Torah never directly addresses this issue, but according to one popular interpretation of the “blessing” that Jacob gave Simeon and Levi, it would appear that he did know that the brothers, in particular those two, were instrumental in Joseph’s kidnapping. Thus, his parting words to them — “Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they hamstrung oxen” (Gen. 49:6). The last phrase of this verse reads “u-virtzonam ikru shor,” which can be translated, as does the Midrash, “willingly they uprooted (in the sense of harmed) the ox.” Who is the “ox” that the two brothers uprooted or Read More >

  • November 12, 2015

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The story of the conflict between Jacob and Esau, which is central to this week’s Torah portion, leaves us with many unanswered questions. Among them is one that is raised by the famous 13th century exegete Nachmanides (Ramban) that has us wondering if the entire episode involving Jacob’s subterfuge could have been avoided.

    In his commentary to Gen.27:4, where we are told that Rebekah instructed her son Jacob to dress like Esau in order to fool his father Isaac and snatch from him the patriarchal blessing, Nachmanides asks why couldn’t Rebekah simply reveal to her husband the prophecy that had been given to her when she was still pregnant and in difficult straits. As the Torah mentions in the beginning of Toldot (25:23), she was told by G-d, directly or indirectly (Nachmanides assumes the latter), that the older son will be subservient to the younger. Had she told her husband the Read More >

  • June 10, 2015

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The importance that the Torah gives to someone’s name is underscored in this week’s Torah portion of Shelah. Before Moses sent forth the twelve spies to scout out the land of Israel, he changed the name of one of them, namely Hoshea, the representative of the tribe of Ephraim, to Yehoshua (the Hebrew equivalent of Joshua) (Bemidbar 13:16).

    The purpose of the name change is obvious. While the meaning of “Hoshea” is salvation, there is no indication whence comes the salvation. By adding a yud to the name, it now makes reference to G-d as the source of the salvation. As Rashi suggests (ad loc.), Moses prayed for Hoshea — “May G-d save you from the conspiracy of the spies.” Thus when the spies returned from their mission and brought back a negative report, only two maintained their faith in G-d’s promise that Israel would conquer Read More >

  • April 30, 2015

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    In parashat Kedoshim we come across what some of our rabbinic sages (Hazal) tell us is the most important principle of the Torah — ve’ohavta le’reiakha ko-mokha — “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In particular, it is Rabbi Akiva of the second century C.E. who selects this phrase in a debate with Ben Azzai over what should be considered the most fundamental teaching of the Torah. (see Gen. Rabbah 24:7)

    We also find Hillel in an earlier century expressing the same idea. In a famous Talmudic story a potential convert comes to this sage seeking to learn the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Unlike Shammai, who rejected him outright, Hillel tells him “that which is hateful to you don’t do unto others; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go learn it.” (Shabbat 31a) No doubt Hillel had Read More >

  • March 18, 2015

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    In chapter 4 of this week’s Torah reading, we have four categories of people who sinned unknowingly and who have to bring some kind of sin offering (korban hatat) as a result. The Torah describes in some detail the specific animals and manner of offering for these four, who are, in chronological order, (1) the high priest, (2) the entire congregation (interpreted by the Rabbis as referring to the high court or Sanhedrin), (3) the nasi or king, and  (4) the individual.

    In each case, save for the third category, the Torah introduces the possibility that one may sin by the word im or ve’im, which means “if.” For the nasi, however, the paragraph is introduced by asher, which can also mean “if.” Indeed the Targum Onkelos translates it with the same word (im) that he uses for the other categories. However the Midrash Read More >

  • February 4, 2015

    Parashat Yitro
    Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, coming to the Israelite camp along with his daughter Zipporah (Moses’ wife) and her two sons, after hearing about the Exodus from Egypt and G-d’s role in that event. The Torah goes into some detail about the initial encounter that seems rather unusual and even unnecessary — “Moses went out to his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him, and they greeted each other, and they went into the tent” (Ex. 18:7). One might expect such trivial details in a modern novel, but what purpose does it serve in the Torah with regard to Moses’ and Yitro’s coming together? Would one expect that they did not greet each other warmly? After all, there is no indication of any enmity between the two, as we find, for example, with regard to Jacob and Esau, where Read More >

  • December 23, 2014

    Parashat Vayigash
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s Torah portion Vayigash begins with a dramatic confrontation between Joseph, Pharaoh’s viceroy, and Judah over the fate of Benjamin, in whose sack was discovered Joseph’s silver goblet. The Egyptian leader insisted, as we learn from last week’s parashah, that the “thief” Benjamin remain a slave in Egypt while Judah offered to remain in his stead and allow Benjamin to return to his elderly father.

    In his plea to the Egyptian ruler, not knowing of course that he was their long-lost brother Joseph, Judah recounts their previous conversations as well as those that took place with their father over the issue of bringing Benjamin down to Egypt. The entire tone of Judah’s monologue is very plaintive, pleading with the ruler in almost a begging manner to show mercy and compassion for a bereft father. Judah was the supplicant entreating the all-powerful lord.

    While this appears to be Read More >

  • November 12, 2014

    “Where is Eliezer?”
    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s Torah portion elaborates on two life-cycle events involving Abraham and his family — the death/burial of his wife Sarah and the betrothal/marriage of his son Isaac. There are some interesting similarities between them, most notably that both contain dialogues or speeches that seem either redundant or unnecessarily detailed or possibly both.

    The first part of the sidra (Sabbath Torah portion) details Abraham’s quest for a burial place for Sarah and his verbal exchange with Ephron, who possessed the portion of land that the patriarch wanted to purchase as a burial plot. The second and longer part of Hayyei Sarah deals with the mission that Abraham assigns to his servant to find a wife for Isaac and how that mission is carried out. The latter can be divided into two sections. The first is the narrative itself, wherein we have Abraham’s assignment to the servant, the Read More >

  • November 5, 2014

    Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The opening Rashi of this week’s Parashah (Numbers 13:2) addresses himself to the question of what is the connection between the story of the twelve spies sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan and the end of the previous sedra (Beha’alotkha), which recounts the incident of Miriam speaking against her brother Moses. In answer to this question, Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains the connection on the basis of both stories involving speaking ill of someone or something, or what we would call lashon ha-ra. In Rashi’s words – “…for she [Miriam] was punished for speaking ill of her brother, and these wicked people [ten spies] saw it [the punishment meted out to Miriam] and didn’t take it to heart.” In other words, the ten spies who claimed that the Israelites would not be able to conquer the Land and disparaged it as well (“a land that devours its Read More >
  • November 5, 2014

    Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The beginning of this week’s Torah portion is in a sense a continuation of last week’s, which dealt with the tenets of kedushah (holiness) that are incumbent upon all Israelites. In Emor the Torah begins with the specific strictures that apply only to the kohanim (the priests of Israel) due to their added state of holiness.

    The Talmud (Yevamot 114a) takes note of the unusual wording of the first verse in this parashah (Lev. 21:1)  –  “G-d said to Moses ‘Say (emor) to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them (ve’amarta aleihem) do not defile yourself by coming into contact with the dead…” The duplication apparent in this verse (see Rashi and Siftei Hakhamim ad loc.), which rabbinic interpretation generally eschews, is interpreted by the Rabbis as a warning to the priests – and by extension to everyone else – not to cause their offspring to violate the laws of the Torah. Thus, the first emor is directed Read More >

  • March 27, 2014
    This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, begins with laws pertaining to the ritual cleanness or uncleanness of a woman who just gave birth and then proceeds to deal at length with the same ritual issues regarding someone with tzara’at (often mistranslated as leprosy). That this parashah follows on the heels of Shemini, which largely deals with the cleanness or uncleanness (more commonly referred to as laws of kashrut) of various species of animals calls forth the attention of the Midrash.
    In a well-known statement attributed to R. Simlai found in the Midrash Rabbah (quoted by Rashi to Lev. 12:2), he remarks on the order of the above two Torah portions. Instead of dealing first with laws pertaining to the ritual status of man/woman and then that of the animal kingdom, the Torah inverts the order and seems to give priority to the latter over the former.  R. Simlai resolves this “illogical” sequence by referencing ma’aseh bereishit (Creation) – “Just as the creation of Read More >
  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Tetsaveh
    Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Thoughts on Parashat Tetzaveh

    This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tetzaveh, consists primarily of two parts – (1) a description of the priestly garments to be worn during the service in the Tabernacle and (2) detailed instructions to Moses on initiating Aaron and his sons into priestly service, involving mostly various sacrifices to be offered during a seven-day period. However, at the beginning of this parashah there is a two-verse instruction regarding the preparation of pure olive oil for the menorah that stood in the Tabernacle and its lighting by Aaron and his descendants, and at the end of the parashah we have instructions for the building of the altar made of gold that was to be used only for incense (mizbeah ha-ketoret) and that stood inside the Tabernacle.

    The opening and ending both seem out of place, especially the initial verses regarding the olive oil preparation and menorah lighting. Indeed, Abravanel (a famous Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Bo
    Rabbi Isaac Mann

    This week’s Torah portion contains the description of the last three makkot (plagues) that struck Egypt before the Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Jewish slaves to leave. With that the geulah (redemption) began.

    I was always intrigued by the penultimate makkah – that of hoshekh (darkness). It does not seem to fit into the order or sequence established by the other plagues whereby they seem to get more and more severe as they progress from the first plague of blood to the last one – death of the firstborn. The early makkot, those of blood, frogs, and lice were more like nuisances, not really destructive of humans or property.  The first two were even duplicated to some extent by the Egyptian magicians. But as the plagues continue they get more destructive culminating in barad (hail) and arbeh (locusts). The former was severe enough to kill animals, as well as humans, not brought indoors and to destroy crops and trees Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Vay’hi
    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    As a Jew, and in particular as a hazzan, I’ve always felt very comfortable with life in thegolah, in exile from the Land of Israel. As much as I love it when I’m there, I feel my Judaism strengthened by my life here in the United States. In the final parashah of the book of Genesis, Vay’hi, we close out the narrative of the families of our patriarchs and prepare for the next story, one that will take the tribes descended from those patriarchs from servitude in Egypt to the brink of the Land of Canaan, which will later become Israel. The essence of Parashat Vay’hi is life and death, specifically the lives and deaths of Jacob and his beloved son Joseph. Curiously, the ways in which they lived are not necessarily reflected in the events surrounding their deaths. Is there something to be learned from these two men about relationships to family, to Read More >

  • February 13, 2014

    Parashat Vay’hi
    Hazzan Marcia Lane

    As a Jew, and in particular as a hazzan, I’ve always felt very comfortable with life in thegolah, in exile from the Land of Israel. As much as I love it when I’m there, I feel my Judaism strengthened by my life here in the United States. In the final parashah of the book of Genesis, Vay’hi, we close out the narrative of the families of our patriarchs and prepare for the next story, one that will take the tribes descended from those patriarchs from servitude in Egypt to the brink of the Land of Canaan, which will later become Israel. The essence of Parashat Vay’hi is life and death, specifically the lives and deaths of Jacob and his beloved son Joseph. Curiously, the ways in which they lived are not necessarily reflected in the events surrounding their deaths. Is there something to be learned from these two men about relationships to family, to Read More >

  • May 23, 2013

    “Dealing With The Enemies In Our Midst”

    By Rabbi Dorit Edut


    As we open the Ark to remove our Torah scrolls every Shabbat, we recite these lines which come from this week’s parashah, Numbers 10:35:

    “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

    Advance, O Lord!

    May Your enemies be scattered,

    And may Your foes flee before You!”

    Around this verse and the next one are inverted letter nuns, something which is only seen here in the Torah and seven times in the Book of Psalms. Our Sages of the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 115b-116a, discussed this and said that these lines are either an insertion meant to go elsewhere or actually form their own separate book of the Torah – which would mean there are really SEVEN books of the Torah, not five!

    Yet I think these verses are really very integral to this portion and speak to us very personally today. First we must imagine Read More >

  • May 9, 2013

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    I often wondered when I was in a doctor’s examining room and he had to see my private parts that he told me to undress in private and only then would he come back in to examine me. Wasn’t he going to look at those erogenous zones anyway? If he was going to see me in my birthday suit in any case, why did I have to shed my clothes when he wasn’t looking? Was he some kind of fetishist or did he get sexual pleasure from watching someone disrobe – and thus, as an honorable man, told me to do so in private?

    Actually, the doctor, perhaps unknowingly, was in sync with a very interesting Torah teaching that springs forth from a passage at the very end of the parashah of Bemidbar (Numbers 4:17-20), this week’s Torah reading.

    In this passage God tells Moshe Read More >

  • March 28, 2013

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Freedom From or Freedom To

    The Pesah holiday is referred to in our liturgy as zman heruteinu, the time of our freedom. The reference is of course to our freedom from Egypt, our release from slavery. Interestingly, the word heruteinu or any form thereof does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The standard Biblical word for freedom in its root form, especially freedom from slavery, is hofesh, as in Ex. 21:2, where the Torah instructs us that a slave shall work for six years and go out to freedom (yezei la-hofshi) in the seventh. We also find the word dror used in the general sense of freedom or liberty, as in Lev. 25:10, which is the source for the famous quote on the Liberty Bell – “Proclaim liberty (dror) throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The Biblical words hofesh and dror were Read More >

  • February 14, 2013
    By Rabbi Isaac Mann
    One of the most popular derashot (homiletical interpretations) that rabbis make use of when delivering sermons on the Sabbath of Terumah is one that explains the reason that the Torah forbids the removal from the Aron (the Ark) of the staves that were used to carry it. The other vessels of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) described in this week’s parashah, such as the Shulhan (the Table) and the Mizbei’ah (the Altar), also had staves that were inserted through the rings attached to the vessels to allow easy transport from place to place. But unlike the Aron, for which the Torah says (Ex. 25:15), “The staves shall be in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it,” no such prohibition is stated for the other vessels. Indeed, Maimonides lists this prohibition as one of the 613 commandments of the Torah (mitzvah 313).

    The darshanim (homileticians) observe Read More >

  • January 7, 2013

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    There are certain verses or expressions in the Torah that lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations despite their having a simple plain meaning (referred to hereafter as peshat). One of these is found in this week’s sidra of Shemot that describes Moses’ very first action as an adult. The Torah tells us (Ex. 2:11-12) that when he grew up, he went out [from Pharaoh’s palace] and looked at the plight of his brethren and saw an Egyptian man [presumably a taskmaster] beating a Hebrew [slave] from among his (Moses’) brethren. “And he turned this way and that way (ko va-kho) and saw there was no man (va-yar ki ein ish), and he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

    The peshat of ko vakho is obvious. Moses looked all around and saw – or thought he saw – no one observing him. Of course, as Read More >

  • November 26, 2012

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Parashat Vayeitzei speaks of Jacob’s sojourn in Haran after fleeing from Eretz Canaan (the Land of Canaan) to escape Esau’s wrath. As he comes into Haran, Jacob engages in a dialogue with some of the shepherds of that town who have just arrived at the watering well with their sheep and are waiting for others to come and help them roll off the heavy stone that sits atop the well (Genesis 29:1-8).

    The dialogue begins with a greeting of “My brothers, where are you from?” They respond that they are from Haran. He further asks them, “Do you know Laban son (actually grandson) of Nahor .” They respond, “We know him.” Jacob continues with, “Is he OK (more literally: Is he at peace).” Their response: “He’s OK (literally: Peace).” At that point Rachel appears on the scene, but the dialogue continues: “And he [Jacob] says, ‘The day is still Read More >

  • October 4, 2012

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    In this D’var Torah I would like to expand upon an interesting insight into the character of Shemini Atzeret based on a teaching that I heard from my beloved teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, affectionately referred to by his students as “the Rav.”

    Rabbi Soloveitchik addressed the rather perplexing phenomenon of a large segment of observant Jews disregarding the clearly stated halakhah that requires Jews living outside the land of Israel to have their meals in the Sukkah (as well as sleep there) on Shemini Atzeret as they would during the holiday of Sukkot albeit without the recitation of the blessing of leisheiv ba-Sukkah (“to dwell in the Sukkah“). This halakhic rule is based on the conclusion of a talmudic discussion (Sukkah 47a) and is codified in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Sukkah 6:13) as well as in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 668:1) without any Read More >

  • August 31, 2012

    by Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Parashat Ki Tetze is replete with laws and regulations, some of which are found elsewhere in the Torah and some of which are partially or completely new. It would appear that the section towards the end of the parashah (Deut. 25:13-16) that deals with honest weights and measures is of the former type. The Torah here specifies that one may not have two types of weighing stones in one’s pouch – a large one and a small one (even gedolah u’ketanah) – nor may one have two types of ephahs (an ephah is an ancient Hebrew measure) in one’s home – a large one and a small one (ephah gedolah u’ketanah). These items were used for weighing and measuring merchandise that was bought and sold. But rather one must have only an honest stone (even shelemah va-tzedek) and an honest ephah (ephah shelemah va-tzedek).

    As Rashi explains, quoting Read More >

  • August 9, 2012

    Gratitude to God, Source of Our Wealth

    By Rabbi Len Levin

    “Beware lest your heart grow haughty…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth…” (Deuteronomy 8:14-18).

    On first sight, the portion Ekev-like most of the first eleven and last six chapters of Deuteronomy-appears purely sermonic in character. A sermon offers ethical inspiration and goals that are commendable to strive for.  But we draw a vital distinction between ethics and law.  Ethics teaches what is commendable but to some degree optional; law lays down what is obligatory.  In classic Jewish parlance, ethics is in the realm of agada, law is coterminous with halakha.

    But is the distinction so hard and fast?  The medieval work Sefer Ha-Hinnukh comprises a discussion of the 613 commandments of Read More >

  • July 12, 2012

     By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The beginning of Parashat Pinhas seems out of place. We have here some details of a story that is basically recounted at the end of the previous parashah of Balak, and instead of finishing the story there, some of the details are left out and only filled in at the beginning of the next parashah. Why the need to spread the rather brief story over two parashiyot?

    To elaborate, at the end of Balak, we are told of the Israelites engaging openly in an orgy of idolatry and immorality with Moabite/Midianite women with whom they had recently come into contact as they were approaching the Land of Canaan. Among the offenders was the head of a prominent family (nasi bet-av) of Shimon. The brazenness of their sinful activity sparked God’s anger against His people and resulted in the outbreak of a devastating plague. 24,000 people were killed until Read More >

  • November 4, 2010

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    Of the three Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, we know the least about Yitzhak (Isaac), around whom this week s Torah portion is centered. Unlike his father or his son, the Torah tells us precious little about Yitzhak s life or his encounters with others. Even where we have a somewhat lengthy story regarding Yitzhak s blessings of his sons, Yaakov and Eisav (Esau), the emphasis seems to be more on Yaakov and the manner in which he received the blessing than it is on his father Yitzhak.

    Despite the dearth of incidents to work with, one thing is clear from what the Torah does tell us of Yitzhak, and that is that he had a communication problem. Whatever the reason may be, Yitzhak did not do a great job communicating with his family or with those around him. Regarding the latter, we Read More >

  • September 3, 2009

    By Rabbi Halina Rubenstein

    One of the most rewarding experiences of my rabbinical career has been teaching conversion classes. It is exhilarating seeing the students learning Judaism step by step and then witnessing their evolving Jewish identity when everything you have been teaching congeals and becomes love and acceptance. The close relationship that the students and I develop through many months of weekly sessions is essential for this transformation to happen. Working through their struggles, their strengths and weaknesses, their joys and tribulations, together, creates a strong connection and gives them the support to go through the last stage of the conversion process -which is usually charged with anxiety – the meeting with the Bet Din and the mikvah ceremony. This rite of passage which marks their ‘official’ acceptance is a powerful ritual usually accompanied by a dialogue between the Bet Din and the convert Read More >

  • May 18, 2006

    By Rabbi Isaac Mann

    The opening verse of the parashah – “Say (emor) to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say (v’amarta) to them ‘do not defile yourself to someone who died amongst his people,'” (Lev. 21:1)is a major source in the Midrash and Talmud for an important rabbinic teaching. From the redundancy of “emor” “v’amarta” the Rabbis derive that the adult priests must teach their young to follow in their ways, and just as the former are forbidden to be defiled by contact with a corpse so too the young must be instructed to follow this law. Thus the phrase of “and you shall say to them – v’amarta aleihem – applies to the offspring, so as to say, “You shall teach them what I am teaching you.”

    By extension, the Rabbis teach us that every adult Jew must teach his children to follow the laws of the Read More >

Rabbi Isaac Mann

Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.