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The Rabbi's Desk

02/15/2019 02:33:09 PM


My Derasha topic this Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh in the
Benaroya Sephardic Center / Chetrit Sancutary:
Scent of a People, Whoo-ah
(Rabbi Kuessous will be in the Straus Main Sanctuary)

Inside: (no longer linked, please scroll down)
Last Week's Derasha: Make a Little 'Godhouse' in Your Soul
Parent-Child Learning Parsha Questions
Intra and Inter Faith Monday

For This, Hashem Made the Internet (NEW FEATURE)

Last week's Derasha for Parshat Terumah
בלבבי משכן אבנה – Make a Little 'Godhouse' in Your Soul

Parent-Child Learning Continues
Last year's questions on Parshat Tetzaveh. 

Intra and Inter Faith Monday

This past Monday I had the great pleasure to attend two meetings focused on strengthening bonds both intra-faith and inter-faith.

I first met with Rabbi Lindsey Healey-Pollack, the Rabbi at Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, to welcome her to Englewood and her new pulpit. This afforded us the chance to get to know each other and set the stage for future opportunities for our communities to work together. I wish her Hatzlachah Rabbah in serving her community and our people.

Later that day, I was honored to host in our shul the second meeting of the Clergy sub-committee of Mayor Wildes Cultural Affairs Committee. We are discussing projects we can work on to bring members of our community together for the benefit of our town. Plans are underway for a joint effort to tackle the problem of hunger as it affects Englewood. Many of us may not be aware how many of our fellow citizens rely on programs to provide meals to individuals and families and supplementary snacks and the like to school children. I am very excited at the opportunity this presents for shul to reach out more than before to our neighbors of other faiths and partner with them to support those disadvantaged. Stay tuned!

(Photo Credit: Bett Schwartz)
Standing (l to r): Rev. Preston E. Thompson, Jr., Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, The Rev. Dr. William H. Allport, II, Rector of St. Paul's Church, Mayor Michael Wildes. Sitting (l to r): Rev. Richard Hong, Pastor of the 1st Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Poupko, Rabbi Shmuel Konikov of the Chabad, Pastor Eddie Spencer IV, lead servant of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church. We were joined later by Rabbi Reichman.

For This, Hashem Made the Internet

As a product of the information age or the computer age, I do a lot of Torah learning and teaching preparation on the computer and benefit greatly from a number of websites that have become important tools. I'd like to share just a few of them.
This website has the entire Chumash and major commentaries. What makes this site so useful is that the commentaries are accessed by verse and organized by topic or question. So when a visitor to the site selects a pasuk, the major issues addressed are displayed and one can view the classical commentaries that address the issue. The first pasuk of this week's Torah reading, Teztaveh, contains the word תָּמִיד (lit. always or constantly). Looking here, one can find how Rashi distinguishes between different usages of the word as well as other approaches in other commentaries. Please note, this website has no English translations. Which brings us to another excellent site. 
This website describes itself as "a one-stop Tanakh study resource, providing the texts, tools, techniques, and technology to help scholars, educators, and laypersons...". One of the best parts of the site is the Mikraot Gedolot section where one can view a number of the classical commentaries arrayed in a clean, accessible format and there are many ways the user can customize the view and get English translation. The site has sections for GemaraRambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and more. There is a lot of other good stuff there and ways to customize your learning experience.

I also use and often which are great databses of Jewish texts are easy to copy and paste from. Sefaria recently added the English translation of the Talmud based on Rabbi Adin Stensaltz's explanation of the Talmud.

It was for these websites and may others like them that Hashem created the internet.

The Rabbi's Desk

02/08/2019 02:50:19 PM


My Derasha topic in the Straus Main Sanctuary
this Shabbat Parshat Terumah

The Prophetic Message of the Song
"Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh"

Inside: (click links to jump to a section or simply scroll down)
REMINDER: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes
Parent-Child Learning Parsha Questions
Two Midrashim Cited in Introducing Last Week's AIPAC Shabbaton Guest Speaker Elliot Brandt

For This, Hashem Made the Internet (NEW FEATURE)

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes announced for the Straus Main Sanctuary begin this Shabbat

  • Start time moved to 9:00am
  • Derasha will be delivered BEFORE Musaf
  • Thoughtful messages for meditation will be offered to help us focus on the Tefilah
Parent-Child Learning Continues
Click here for last year's questions on Parshat Mishpatim. 

Two Midrashim I Cited in Introducing Last Week's AIPAC Shabbaton Guest Speaker Elliot Brandt

Friday Night Introduction
A Midrash quoted in Yalkut Shimoni (306) introduces Parshat Mishpatim by quoting a pasuk from Tehillim (99 4) - וְעֹז מֶלֶךְ מִשְׁפָּט אָהֵב “mighty king who loves justice”. The Midrash observes that this pasuk underscores a fundamental difference between Hashem, as a king, and kings of flesh and blood. Human king who want to assert their authority have little interest in democratic principles or the rule of law. The king is the law or above the law. His will shall not be restricted by any other force. Not so for the King of Kings. Hashem wants his subjects to rule themselves grounded on principles of justice and fairness. Indeed, Hashem's will or commandments only seek to provide justice, righteousness, and kindness between people.

The Modern State of Israel is a sacred country that aspires to follow Hashem’s model. As the only true democracy in the Middle East, Israel strives to maintain a just and fair society. No human endeavor is perfect, but these are clearly Israel’s values and in that way the State is a sanctification of God in this world. Not so for Israel’s enemies both within her borders and surrounding her. These are societies, in large measure, run by authoritarian regimes that seek to quell democratic principles and who actively or tacitly promote anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

This is one of the many reasons why the good work of AIPAC, and other organizations such as NORPAC, are so valuable in promoting the US-Israel relationship. Our countries share an important dedication to the democratic principles of justice identified by the pasuk in Tehillim, principles that Hashem our King wants us to uphold.

Shabbat Morning Introduction

There are few personalities in our history with more chutzpah than the prophet Yirmiyah. His sharp criticism of his people and their corruption made him unpopular in his generation. But his true chutzpah can be seen in his fierce advocacy on their behalf in contending with Hashem. It would take someone like Yirmiyah to look at an innocuous pasuk in Parshat Mishpatim, one that has to do with lending, and find a stinging rebuke of Hashem, as it were. We read אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי “If you lend money to My people” (Shemot 22 24). The Midrash Rabbah (31 10) notices that the use of the word “My people” is strange. Money is lent to an individual or a group of people. So then why frame the concept in reference to the entire nation? The Midrash takes up the voice of Yirmiyah in developing a homiletic understanding of this nuance. The pasuk in Yirmiyah (6 30) states כֶּסֶף נִמְאָס קָרְאוּ לָהֶם that Hashem declares the Jewish people a rejected silver coin. The Midrash asserts that Yirmiyah complains that the Jewish people in exile would be treated as a coin. As it gets passed hand to hand, the coin’s image rubs out little by little and has to be re-stamped in order to restore the imprint. So, the Jewish people would be passed from nation to nation, suffering more and more at each successive stage. This is why the pasuk about lending is framed in terms of “My nation”, hinting at this concept that we, as a nation, would suffer in the exile like a coin passed from lender to borrower.

We, in this generation, are blessed to see that coin finally used as seed money to grow as an investment with the establishment of the State of Israel. Much of our suffering, which climaxed with the Shoah, has been relieved as we are finally able to live out part of our destiny in our homeland. And this investment is being nurtured by the enormous amount of human capital produced by our brothers and sister in Israel. The ingenuity and intelligence that are advancing Israel as a state and as an economy is clear demonstration of Divine support. AIPAC is one of the most major tools we have to ensure that from this side of the ocean we can help to continue this burgeoning, miraculous ‘investment’ that is our beloved Israel.

For This, Hashem Made the Internet

A new feature where I share fascinating links of Jewish interest that I stumble upon during my internet browsing that are so amazing they make me say “for this, Hashem made the internet.”

This week’s installment is a short poem written by Heinrich Heine the German-Jewish poet, journalist, essayist, literary critic, and (regretfully) apostate. I learned from a Tweet that in 1851, a few years before he died, he composed an ode to Cholent entitled "Sabbath Princess".

English Translation - Sabbath Princess
Cholent, beautiful spark of Divinity!
Cholent, daughter of Elysium!
So would Schiller’s song have sounded,
Had he ever tasted cholent.
Original German - Prinzessin Sabbat
Schalet, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium!
Also klänge Schiller’s Hochlied,
Hätt’ er Schalet je gekostet.

Source from Twitter

The Rabbi's Desk

02/01/2019 03:38:38 PM


This Shabbat in the Straus Main Sanctuary we will be led by
Guest Chazan Simcha Rotenberg 
and our Guest Speaker for the AIPAC Shabbaton,
Elliot Brandt, Managing Director for National Affairs & Development, 
will address following the services

Last Week's Derasha
Parent-Child Learning Parsha Questions
Prayer Recited at the Englewood Cultural Affairs Committee

Dvar Torah Given to Moriah Middle Schoolers
Dvar Torah on Korbanot from Mincha/Maariv

For This, Hashem Made the Internet (NEW FEATURE)

My Derasha from this Past Shabbat, Parshat Yitro:
The Har Sinai Fyre Festival

Parent-Child Learning returns this week! Click here for last year's questions on Parshat Mishpatim. 

I was honored to offer a prayer at the conclusion of the first Englewood Cultural Affairs Committee established by our new mayor and member, Michael Wildes, to bring leaders and citizens of our city together and address various aspects of cultural life here. I am honored to be on the Clergy Sub-committee with leaders from other denominations and faiths. I composed a prayer in English, based somewhat on the Mi Sheberach we say Shabbat morning following Yekum Purkan, which blesses the various individuals in the community who contribute their time and energy to promote Jewish life. The following is the prayer I offered:

May He who blessed our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless this Committee for Cultural Affairs who faithfully occupy themselves with the needs of the community and endeavor to bring together Your children of different faiths and different cultures for sacred work together. May the Holy One, Blessed be He, give them their reward and may He remove from before them any stumbling block or hindrance and grant them the wisdom and sensitivity to spread only goodness throughout our beloved city of Englewood. May He send blessing and success to all the work of our hands, and let us say Amein.

Dvar Torah given to Moriah Middle Schoolers following Shacharit this past Wednesday morning

Text messaging and Emoji’s have taught us how we can pack a great deal of meaning into a short expression. Just three letters such as ‘lol’ or ‘omg’ or an image of a smiley can convey so much more than the few characters that comprise them.

Similarly, the entire Torah can be packed into one idea, one phrase. We learn from the famous story of the potential convert who approaches Hillel and asks him to teach and the entire Torah standing on one foot. Hillel answers “what is displeasing to you don’t do to others, now go learn the rest.” Just like a text message or an Emoji, Hillel captured the entire Torah in a very small expression. The lesson, of course, is that the entire Torah and all of the mitzvot represent this value of treating others properly.

The opening mitzvah of this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, demonstrates this beautifully. Following the giving of the Torah, the first mitzvah we are given has to do with proper treatment of Jewish servants. This underscores the fact that we must treat servants properly because we know what it’s like to be enslaved. Indeed, more than 40 mitzvot call upon us to recall that we must behave a certain way because we know it’s like to be enslaved.

Furthermore, this overriding value to treat others properly (which sums up the entire Torah) doesn’t just relate to mitzvot between one person and another. This value relates to mitzvot between a person and Hashem as well, because when we treat another person properly we are recognizing that they were created in the image of Hashem and when we accord a person proper dignity we are thereby honoring Hashem at the same moment. We now see more deeply how the value of treating others properly encompasses all of the mitzvot.

Dvar Torah from Between Mincha/Maariv
Between Mincha/Maariv during the week, Rabbi Goldberg and I have been giving Divrei Torah on a different Mitzvah each week based on the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot. We are in the midst of a series on the Korbanot. The following is one of the Divrei Torah I shared this week. 

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

The Korban Chatat is normally translated as a 'sin offering'. And it's true that it is brought on account of a sin. In most cases, however, the sin committed wasn't done by someone intending to violate the Torah. Instead, the Chatat is commonly offered as a result of an inadvertent transgression, a prohibited act done absentmindedly. (This does not include a case of ones, where someone performed the act purely by accident or by coercion). So why then is the Chatat understood as a "sin" offering if the person didn't willfully sin?

This is why many argue that the word from which 'Chatat' derives its name isn't cheit (sin) but rather chitui - which means cleansing. The message is that a person who commits a transgression inadvertently, still needs spiritual cleansing or atonement and the Korban Chatat is an opportunity to achieve this. Someone who transgresses willfully, b'zadon, gains their atonement through punishment. Transgressing inadvertently doesn't deserve punishment, only an opportunity to atone with this Korban.

Why exactly does an inadvertent transgressor require atonement? The Ramban suggests that from a mystical perspective transgressions are harmful to the soul and even if committed inadvertently  they still leave a mark, or a stain, on the soul and therefor need to be cleansed. Furthermore, committing a transgression inadvertently indicates that a person isn't being careful enough with their observance of halachah and needs to regain more meticulous habits. The Korban Chatat, which requires the person to undergo a process of making an offering to Hashem in the Beit ha-Mikdash, will hopefully foster an experience from which the person will learn these lessons.

For This, Hashem Made the Internet

A new feature where I share fascinating links of Jewish interest that I stumble upon during my internet browsing that are so amazing they make me say “for this, Hashem made the internet.”

This week’s inaugural installment relates to the Parshat ha-Shavuah, Mishpatim, which contains halachot that deal with a violent ox. This was graphically depicted in the 14th century Italian manuscript of Pisḳei Rav Yeshayah Aḥaron found in the Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the British Museum (Or 5024)    Source from Twitter

The Rabbi's Desk

01/25/2019 11:45:32 AM


My Derasha Topic in the Straus Main Sanctuary
this Shabbat Parshat Yitro:

The Har Sinai Fyre Festival*:
How to Have an Authentic Experience

(*Click here if you don't know what the Fyre Festival was)

Last Week's Derasha
Parsha Questions from Last Year's Parent-Child Learning
Dr. Shoshana Poupko's Post on the Mikva Facebook Page
Dvar Torah on Korbanot from Mincha/Maariv

My Derasha from this Past Shabbat, Parshat Beshalach:
Moshe, MLK, and Moments of Inspiration

Though Parent-Child Learning is off this week during Yeshiva break, click here for some questions from a previous year's session on Yitro. 

My better half, Dr. Shoshana Poupko, posted the following brief Dvar Torah on the Rebbetzin Peggy Gopin Weiss Mikvah of Englewood Facebook page.

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

One of the most astounding aspects of Mikvah observance is that we have absolutely no idea why we go. We know when to go and we know what to do once we get there. We also know that our people have sacrificed throughout history in order to observe this mitzvah, and in a famous responsum, Rav Moshe Feinstein noted that it is more critical to build a Mikvah than it is to build a shul or a school.

If you search on-line or visit a local Judaica store, there is no shortage of articles and books looking to inspire Mikvah observance. Yet, the reality of why we keep these laws is best expressed by the Rambam: 

רמב"ם הלכות מקוואות פרק יא הלכה יב
דבר ברור וגלוי שֶהַטֻמְאוֹת וְהַטְהָרוֹת גְזֵרַת הַכָתוב הֶן, וְאֵינָן מִדְבָרִים שֶדַעְתוֹ שֶלָאָדָם מַכְרַעַת אוֹתָן, וַהֲרֵי הֶן מִכְלַל הַחֻקִים... וְכֵן הַטְבִילָה מִן הַטֻמְאוֹת, מִכְלַל הַחֻקִים הִיא...

It is clear and obvious that the laws of purity and impurity are Divine decrees. They are not concepts that human logic can comprehend, as they belong to the category of commandments known as חוקים - God's decrees for which He has given no reason. Likewise, the immersion to purify oneself from the impurity is in itself one of the חוקים.

As the Rambam explains, we keep these laws simply because God told us to - we do not have any rational or reason for the mitzvah of Mikvah. And yet, knowing how much our people have exerted themselves to deepen their appreciation for this mitzvah, highlights for me one of the most inspirational aspects of our people. Reason or no reason, we have a burning desire to find depth and meaning. We are not satisfied with doing the commandment simply because we are told to – albeit that in and of itself is inspiring to me! We as a people want more – we want to feel deeply connected to what we are doing. Seeing this, it is remarkable that the laws of Mikvah which have no rational basis still draw out our search for meaning and inspiration.

Dvar Torah from Between Mincha/Maariv
Between Mincha/Maariv during the week, Rabbi Goldberg and I have been giving Divrei Torah on a different Mitzvah each week based on the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot. This past week we began a series on the Korbanot. The following is one of the Divrei Torah I shared. 

♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

Whenever someone was obligated to bring both a Korban Chatat (sin offering) and a Korban Olah (wholly burnt offering), the Rabbis in the Talmud rule that the Chatat must always be brought before the Olah (unless explicitly stated otherwise). It's somewhat strange then that the Torah chooses to list the Olah first at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, before the Chatat. There is a statement in the Talmud made by Rava that explains that even though the Chatat takes precedence over the Korban Olah, the Torah presents the Korban Olah first before the Korban Chatat “because this is how it should be read” (Zevachim 90a). What exactly does this mean?

The Torah Temimah explains using a well-known idea about the recitation of Korbanot. Following the destruction of the Beit ha-Mikdash, the Rabbis teach in a Midrash that our recitation of the verses concerning the Korbanot and our study of their laws will be considered by Hashem as if we have offered them in the Beit ha-Mikdash ourselves. The Torah Temimah admits, of course, that this idea does not suggest that our recitation is considered as if we actually brought these offerings. In some cases, in order to achieve full atonement from the Chatat offering it must be eaten by the Kohanim and of course such eating cannot take place today. So, obviously the idea is not to be taken literally.

Nevertheless, the Torah Temimah keenly observes that if the Korban doesn’t require any additional actions such as eating - then the recitation of that Korban is in fact more similar to its actual offering in the Beit ha-Mikdash than others. Using this insight he argues that the recitation of the verses concerning the Korban Olah is superior to that of the Korban Chatat. The Korban Olah is completely burnt up on the altar while the Korban Chatat requires that some of it be eaten by the Kohanim. Therefore, the recitation of the Korban Olah is more similar to its actual offering in the Beit ha-Mikdash since it doesn’t require any eating.

Now we can understand the statement “because this is how it should be read”. “Should be read” means that when the Korban Olah is recited by us in an era when there is no Beit ha-Mikdash, the Olah takes precedence, or is superior, since it’s recitation more closely matches its actual offering than the Chatat. Just like the Olah wasn't eaten and offered wholly up to Hashem, so too its recitation is completely expressed to Hashem and there is no missing act of eating.


The Rabbi's Desk - NEW Feature

01/18/2019 10:17:41 AM






My Derasha Topic in the Straus Main Sanctuary
this Shabbat Shirah Parshat Beshalach:

Moshe, MLK, and Moments of Inspiration

Last Week's Derasha
Parsha Questions from Last Year's Parent-Child Learning
MLK March on Monday
Closing Invocation from swearing-in of Mayor Michael Wildes
Dvar Torah from Last Board Meeting
Short Dvar Torah given to Moriah Middle Schoolers
Shiur on Emunah to Names Not Numbers Participants


My Derasha from this Past Shabbat, Parshat Bo: “To Be Continued…”

Though Parent-Child Learning is off this week during Yeshiva break, click here for some Questions from a previous year's seesion on Beshalach. 
    Upcoming Event this Monday: I look forward to marching with fellow Englewood residents and faith leaders to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I urge anyone who can to attend the March which starts from City Hall and help me represent our shul.

Our member, Michael Wildes, was sworn in once again as mayor of Englewood last week. I had the honor of offering the closing invocation. Click here for the text of the prayer I offered.

The Board of Trustees met last week to discuss revising the shul constitution. I used this opportunity to share an idea about the Biblical origins of constitutional governments and organizations.

When a student is assigned a project such as building a model of the planets, or an exploding volcano, or an invention for the Invention Convention, clearly the expectation is that their parents will do most of the work to make sure that the project is as good as it can be. Right? Click here to read the correct answer from a short Dvar Torah to Moriah Middle-Schoolers following Tefilah last week.

I was privileged to be invited by Mrs. Rachel Schwartz and Abby Herschmann to speak about Emunah after the Holocaust to the Moriah Eighth Graders participating the Names Not Numbers program. I drew upon Elie Wiesel’s ‘Trial of God’ and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s ‘Fate and Destiny’ to discuss two important lessons. First, that faith in Hashem can exist alongside questions of Him and feelings of anger or confusion in the wake of terrible tragedy. Indeed, to turn towards God from any perspective (instead of away from God) is, in and of itself, an expression of faith. And second, that our tradition guides us how to respond to tragedy with action and not passivity. That in the wake of the Holocaust, we must develop ways to bring more light and more commitment to our faith. We discussed briefly the best example of this in the establishment of the State of Israel following the destruction of European Jewry. Click here for my source sheets.



The Rabbi's Desk

01/18/2019 09:59:45 AM


Mon, February 18 2019 13 Adar I 5779