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"Chazak, Chazak, ve-Nitchazeik!"

07/12/2018 04:10:50 PM


In this week's double parashah, Mattot-Masei, we find that HaShem commanded Moshe to send an army to wipe out the Midyanites: "And HaShem spoke with Moshe saying: 'Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Yisrael from the Midyanites'...."  What did Moshe do? The Torah tells us: "And Moshe spoke to the People: 'Arm yourselves men from the legion; and they shall engage Midyan to inflict the vengeance of Hashem upon Midyan.'"  Each tribe sent one thousand men out to do battle with Midyan, and they were led by none other than Pinchas, the zealot for whom last week's parashah was named.  Rashi, whose yahrzeit we commemorate this week, poses an interesting question: Why was Pinchas's father Elazar, who had just become the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest) after the death of his father Aharon, not sent instead?

With his assignment by Moshe, Pinchas was serving in the role of Milchamah Mashuach Kohen, the Kohen who leads an army into battle.  We find in Parashat Shoftim that before a Jewish army goes to war, the Milchamah Mashuach Kohen delivers a lecture which includes a kind of "pep talk," if you will, to the warriors about to go into battle.  Upon completion of this "pep talk," the Milchamah Mashuach Kohen is able to ascertain who should not be going into battle for whatever the reason may be.  Since most people cannot handle the sights and sounds of war, those who are determined to be too "soft" to handle the rigors of war were to be sent home.  In order to be successful in this endeavor of making such a determination, the Milchamah Mashuach Kohen must, on the one hand, be a warrior who is able to lead the troops bravely and fearlessly injecting a fighting spirit into the soldiers.  But he must also be able to lift up his soldiers in a spiritual sense.  One would think that such a job would be that of the Kohen Gadol and that it would have been Elazar who should have been sent.  After all, the succession of the Kohen Gadol was to go to the son.  Thus it was that Elazar succeeded Aharon.  However, because he is not the Koehn Gadol, when the Milchamah Mashuach Kohen dies, his son was to have no claim whatsoever to the job.  To expand on Rashi's question, why was the Kohen Gadol not automatically appointed as the Milchamah Mashuach Kohen?  Was he not the most spiritual and ethical of all the Kohanim?

To answer this question, we turn to one of the giants of European Jewry, the Chofetz Chaim, who answered the question with the following story: A community Rabbi passed away, and the kehillah (congregation) wanted to hire a great scholar to succeed him.  While being capable of handling the job, the son of the deceased Rabbi was not as accomplished a scholar as the other candidate.  As a result, a bitter fight erupted between the deceased Rabbi's family and the kehillah.  The issue was brought before the Chofetz chaim for a solution.  The Chofetz Chaim ruled that in "ordinary" circumstances, the son would inherit the father's position.  "Ordinary" circumstances are those in which the Rabbi was to deliver Divrei Torah (Torah sermons) on Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat HaGadol spending the rest of his time ruling on questions pertaining to halakhah (Jewish Law).  Such work required no great scholarship.  But, said the Chofetz Chaim, the present circumstances required the Rabbi to overcome the secular, anti-Torah forces that sought to harm the Jewish community.  One cannot assume that the son of any given Rabbi would be able to lead his community in the battle needed to withstand and defeat all the anti-Torah forces that threaten to destroy the Jewish community.  Therefore, the kehillah should hire the great scholar.

In our own day and time, I have seen first hand what is needed to be a modern Milchamah Mashuach Kohen,.  Today a Rabbi must help people "do battle" with what seeks to do harm to or even destroy the Jewish people.  Today, a Rabbi must inspire and lead in order to maintain loyalty to and unity within the People Israel.  My hope is that as we approach the coming new year, may all of us at CSS be one in service to both Hashem and to the People Israel.

"Mah Tovu!

07/04/2018 04:19:21 PM


Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham, CDR, CHC, USN (ret)

In Parashat Pinchas we will read about how Eretz Kena'an, the Land of Canaan, is to be divided up into an inheritance amongst the Tribes of Israel.  Our Torah tells us that only sons can inherit the Land.  But then we read the following: "Our father had no sons.  Why should our father be diminished?...Give us a portion." (Bemidbar 27:3-4)  The daughters of Tzelofechad are demanding what they consider their rightful inheritance, and we find that Moshe consults with HaShem about their request.  H-s reply is as follows: "The daughters of Tzelofechad are speaking correctly." (Bemidbar 27:7)  Subsequently the law is established that if a father has no sons, the daughter inherits the land.  At this point one might inquire as to why the Torah did not teach this law at the outset.  Why must it be promulgated after the daughters of Tzelofechad approach Moshe with their request?  A colleague of mine has stated that the answer to this question is HaShem wants B'Nei Yisrael to learn this lesson on their own through education.  I think this education process has never stopped and continues among our people today.

On November 18, 2009, a woman was arrested for the "crime" of wearing a tallit at the Kotel HaMa'aravi, the Western Wall.  Here was a situation where Israeli police were called upon to enforce halakhah, Jewish law, at the Western Wall, the holiest site for the People Israel.  Here was a situation where a woman was denied the right to practice halakhah in a manner that is permitted by many great traditional rabbinic authorities.  Here was a situation where the Israeli government denied this woman the right to practice Judaism as authorized by halakhah.

The mitzvah, the commandment, to wear a tallit is found in Bemidbar 15:38: "Speak to B'Nei Yisrael and command them to make tzitzit on the corners of their garments."  Tzitzit are found on both the tallit gadol worn during the shacharit prayer service as well as on the tallit katan, the smaller garment worn as a piece of clothing.  The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) in Masekhet Menachot 43a states: "The rabbis taught: all are obligated in the laws of tzitzit: Kohanim, Levi'im, and Yisraelim, converts, women, and slaves.  Rabbi Shimon exempts [not prohibits] women because it is a positive commandment limited by time, and from all positive commandments limited by time women are exempt."  So, according to this passage of the Talmud Bavli, the debate as to whether women are obligated to wear tzitzit is a debate between the Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Shimon. We learn in Masekhet Sukkah 11a that two other Talmudic Sages, Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Amram HaTzaddik, would attach tzitzit to the aprons of the women in their houses.  Even Rambam ruled in Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9: "Women who want to wear tzitzit wrap themselves in it without a blessing."  Rabbis of Northern Europe allowed women to wear a tallit even going so far as to permitting them to recite a blessing when doing so: "And it is permissible for them to make a blessing on time-bound positive commandments even though they are not required to perform those mitzvot...and if we would not let them make a blessing they would lose out on the mitzvah of tzitzit...." (Tosafot Rosh Hashanah 33a)

What we see here is that one of the reasons that Judaism is eternal is because it deals with the reality, and not the perceived reality, of any situation.  We must look upon our tradition as one which "flexes" in order to be inclusive and not exclusive.  A short while ago in our own sanctuary here at CSS a woman attended a Shabbat morning service wearing a tallit.  Contrary to what some might see as a challenge to existing Orthodox/traditional tenets of halakhah, this woman was merely exercising her halakhic right to wear tzitzit.  This woman, like the woman arrested at the Kotel HaMa'aravi, was following the teachings of Rambam, Rabad, Tosafot, and the Chayyei Adam.

What the daughters ofTzelofechad and the woman arrested at the Western Wall teach us is that, instead of perpetuating and expanding upon what divides us, we must embrace and magnify what unites us.  While we may not agree upon everything, we must always work together to prevent permanent disruption within the People Israel.

Who Is "The Greatest Generation?"

06/27/2018 03:13:53 PM


Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham, CDR, CHC, USN (ret)

Most people have heard of and many have read the book entitled The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw.  I have read this book and consider it a fitting tribute to those who lived through and/or fought in the time frame of World War II and The Holocaust.  We who came after owe that generation more than we can possibly repay.  In this week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, we find a clash between two generations of B'nei Yisrael who had been and are being led to The Promised Land.  And it is this clash that teaches us an important lesson.

The story in this week's Torah reading occurs at the end of the journey in the desert.  Last week we learned that after the death of Miryam, Moshe's and Aharon's sister, B'nei Yisrael no longer had access to the plentiful water supply known as "Miryam's Well" which miraculously accompanied them in their travels.  Nu?  So what do the people do?  They come to Moshe and k'vetch; they complain.  So what is so different from before?  B'nei Yisrael had been complaining throughout their travels in the desert.  They even complained about having no water as soon as they had crossed the Red Sea.  But the difference here is that the Miryam's death takes place 38 years after the revolt of Korach.  After the revolt of Korach, the people had stopped complaining; after the death of Miryam, the people resume complaining.  But there is a major difference here.  Rashi teaches us that the people who were complaining at this time belonged to an entirely new generation of B'nei Yisrael.  They were not of the generation of the Exodus from Egypt.  Only Kalev and Yehoshua survive that generation and eventually lead this new generation in the conquest of the Promised Land.  This new generation had not been enslaved by Pharaoh, had not escaped from Egypt, and had not fought the Amalekites.  In fact, they had not fought for anything!  They had received their food and water every morning through the mannah and Miryam's Well by the hand of HaShem without having expended any effort.  And now they had the chutzpah to complain to Moshe!  And how did Moshe react: instead of speaking to the rock as commanded by HaShem, he struck it twice.  Ibn Ezra states that Moshe was so upset with their complaining that he lost his ability to properly concentrate on and fulfill the command of HaShem.  Because Moshe hit the rock twice, he was not permitted to enter The Promised Land.  Moshe had used the approach of teaching about HaShem to the Generation fo the Exodus through physical acts of strength to try to teach this new generation, the Generation of the Wandering.  But in using this old way of teaching, Moshe failed.

The story of Bilam as found in this week's Torah reading follows the story of Moshe hitting the rock.  Some of our Sages say that Bilam's prophetic abilities were even greater than those of Moshe.  But he failed as did Moshe, for he also used force to try to fulfill his duty as a prophet: he struck his she-donkey upon whom he was riding no fewer than three times.  And the result of his cruelty is that the she-donkey never obeys his commands.  Both Moshe and Bilam made the same mistake: although they were the greatest communicators in the world because they were prophets, they failed to properly communicate what needed to be communicated at the right moment.  the difference between them is that Bilam recognized his error and turned from hitting his she-donkey to blessing B'nei Yisrael.  In fact, it is his final blessing which is used to open our daily prayers: "How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, and your dwelling places, O Yisrael!"

The message of the anger of both Moshe and Bilam is a lesson to us all: no matter how great the older generations were, no matter how much they endured, no matter how much they accomplished, each new generation needs to be handled differently, to be educated differently, to be engaged differently in order cause it to want to join with HaShem in bringing "Tikkun HaOlam," in bringing the Repair of the World, so as to recreate the moment of Creation, the moment of true and eternal Peace! 


"B'Tzelem Elokhim!"

06/26/2018 03:35:50 PM


Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham, CDR, CHC, USN (ret)

A colleague of mine, who is a well known young Modern Orthodox Rabbi living and working in Washington, D.C., attended an interdenominational rabbinic retreat in Newport, Rhode Island.  This retreat brought together Rabbis from every denomination of Judaism.  He stated that there was one particular moment that happened on the retreat that will stick with him forever.  On the last night of the retreat, the film "Trembling before God" was shown to the attendees.  the film movingly and emotionally portrays the conflicted and torn lives of individuals who come from a background of being deeply rooted in Orthodox Judaism and wish to remain within the Orthodox Jewish Community.   The conflict these individuals were having was that they had publicly announced they were gay.  My colleague said that the director of the movie did a wonderful job of contrasting the views of the Rabbis whom he interviewed for the film with those of the Jewish community and the families of these Orthodox Jews who are gay.  The Orthodox Rabbis who were interviewed responded, as expected, that these gay Jews were in violation of halakhah (Jewish Law).  But, more importantly, they also stated that a gay Jew - any gay Jew...every gay Jew - is someone whom we must love.

After the film ended, my colleague engaged in a discussion with 35 other Rabbis, some of them openly gay, who had challenged him as to how he could live in a society whose laws inflict pain on individuals who are innocent.  He said that he sat there and openly wept for the pain that every Orthodox gay Jew as well as those gay Jews who are not Orthodox but choose to follow an Orthodox lifestyle who are forever engaged in an extremely serious struggle. When he was able to regain his composure he cited the words from Parashat Chukat as well as Rashi's commentary on the Torah text.  The Torah tells us: "Zot chukat ha-Torah" - "This is the Law of the Torah."  Rashi comments on the word "chok" - "law": "For when the Satan and other nations will throw arguments at you and say: 'What is the meaning of this law and what is the reason for it?' (Rashi is peaking about the Law of the "Parah Adumah" - "the Red Heifer") we should respond: 'It is a "chok" ("law") before me and you have no permission to second-guess it.' "

My colleague further pointed out that according to the Midrash, King Solomon, the wisest Jew who ever lived, stated the following in Megillat Kohelet: "I said that I would understand it, but it is distant from me." Why was it that Rashi and King Solomon say there are no explanations for the Law of the Parah Adumah?  Simply because, stated my colleague, they felt that no single suggestion justified the "chok" in their eyes.  He then declared that he felt the same way about the Torah prohibition about living an openly gay life: it is HaShem's law, and it is distant from him (i.e.- my colleague).

My colleague suggested that because of his having viewed "Trembling before God," he believes the Orthodox Jewish Community must formulate a better response to someone who believes in the beauty of Torah and halakhah and chooses to live life as a homosexual Jew.  "Our response should be to create an environment where we as a family (i.e.- Synagogue/community) can sit together and say that this is a Law of the Torah but it is distant from me and I do not understand it; I therefore have no permission to reject the prohibition (i.e.- one who violates it)."

Sage words from a young Sage.  We must never forget that each one of us - all of us - have been created "B'Tzelem Elokhim' - "in the Image of Hashem."


"Behind Every Good Man Is...!"

06/06/2018 01:21:27 PM


Rabbi Reuben Israel Abraham

Shalom Aleychem!

       I was given the opportunity to conduct the Discharge/Installation Service for the CSS Sisterhood this week.  I am very appreciative of the role the CSS Sisterhood plays in the life of the Synagogue, and this role is directly related to this week's Torah portion "Korach."  The portion begins as follows: "Korach, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, took Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eiav, and Ohn, the son of Pelet, the son of Re'uven.  They confronted Moshe together with 250 men from the Children of Israel - leaders of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute.  They ganged up on Moshe and Aharon...."   We know by way of the Torah what happens to Korach, Datan, and Aviram.  They all eventually perish because of their opposition to Moshe and, subsequently, to HaShem.  But what happened to Ohn, the son of Pelet?

           Believe it or not, our Tradition teaches us that he is saved by his wife.  Even though she is not mentioned in the Torah text, we find mention of her in Masekhet Sanhedrin of the Talmud Bavli.  It seems as though Ohn came home and told his wife that he was joining in the rebellion against Moshe and Aharon led by Korach.  His wife asked him:  "What benefit are you going to get out of joining this rebellion?'  He answered her: "What can I do as I have already sworn allegiance to Korach?"  His wife replied: "Leave it to me."  That night she gave him wine which made him fall asleep.  She then sat by the opening of their tent and combed her hair in an immodest fashion.  When Korach and his followers came to pick up Ohn, they became embarrassed and would not walk into the tent as his wife was sitting at the opening grooming herself.  So, Ohn overslept, missed the rebellion and its result, and was saved from death.

            What this story shows us is that even in the ancient history of our people, wives have had a tremendous influence over their husbands.  And although very few women were often direct actors in the leadership of society (e.g. - Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah), they played important roles behind-the-scenes often changing the course of Jewish lives and Jewish history.  Today we see how important a role they play in the life of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.  I truly believe that this Synagogue could not exist without them.

             So to both the outgoing and incoming leaders of the CSS Sisterhood I say:"Kol HaKavod!"  I thank those of you who have served this previous year, and I encourage those of you who have "taken up the mantle" of Sisterhood leadership for the coming year to be even more successful in your  efforts to ensure that the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim will continue to play an active role in the life of the Jewish Community of Greater Northeast Philadelphia.

Mon, July 16 2018 4 Av 5778