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Seeing Stars (Ki Tissa)

In this week’s parshah, Bnei Yisrael worship the golden calf. Given the events of the past few parshas—the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the miracles of food, water and shelter, the revelation at Sinai—few might have seen this coming. But, Rashi claims, at least one person did: Pharaoh. That’s right: according to Rashi, Pharaoh predicted, all the way back during the ten plagues, that Bnei Yisrael would succumb to idolatry upon leaving his country. (more…)

On the Rocks (Tu B’Shvat)

The following is a write-up of remarks originally delivered at Cong. Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey.

I know it’s a little premature for this, but before we do anything else this morning, I just want to take this opportunity to wish you an early “Happy New Year.”

Some of you look confused, so let me explain. I know it’s almost February. And I know it’s been over five months since we dipped our apples in the honey. But that’s OK, because I’m not referring to the New Year we celebrate on the first of Tishrei, or even the new year marked on the first of January. I’m talking about “Tu B’Shvat,” the holiday we’ll be celebrating this Wednesday, and which the Mishnah in Masechet Rosh HaShanah refers to as “ראש השנה לאילנות:” “the New Year for the trees.” (more…)

The Grandfathers (Shemot)

Yesterday was the yahrzeit of my grandfather, שמעון בן יחיאל הכהן, after who I am named. In his memory, today’s post will explore the connection between two grandfathers who play significant roles in this week’s and last week’s parshah, respectively: Yisro and Yaakov.

This connection is the subject of a two-part shiur which began last Shabbos and continues this week at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey. You can find the lecture notes for both parts of that series (it’s divided into three on the document itself), annotated with footnotes to help guide you through the material, by clicking here. (more…)

On the Heels (Ekev)

And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you, but He will lay them upon all your enemies (Deut. 7:12-15).

The pledge Moshe makes to bnei Yisrael at the start of this week’s parshah strikes us, at first glance, as largely indistinguishable from dozens of similar exhortations Moshe delivers to bnei Yisrael in the final month of his life. Throughout sefer Devarim, Moshe stresses repeatedly the importance of observing Hashem’s commands and of guarding Hashem’s covenant, while highlighting the reward awaiting those that do so.

foot-310736_960_720.pngTurn your attention, however, to the word “ekev,” which appears in the parshah’s first verse, and which doubles up as the title of our parshah as well. “Ekev” (עקב, in Hebrew) literally means “heel.” By extension, “ekev” can also mean “on the heels of”—or, less semantically, “as a result of;” “since;” “because”—and it is this connotation that the term takes in our parshah’s opening verse: “And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:12).” (more…)

Taking a Stand (Chukkat)

water-flowing-over-rocksNear the center of this week’s parshah, bnei Yisrael famously complain over a lack of available drinking water (Num. 20:1-13). Many commentators have discussed the remarkable similarities between this water crisis and an earlier water crisis recorded in sefer Shemot (Exod. 17:1-7). In both incidents, the nation lacks water; in both, they protest that man and beast alike will shortly die of thirst; in both, they question Moshe’s leadership and they regret their decision to leave Egypt; in both, Hashem commands Moshe to draw forth water from a rock, and to take his staff along with him. Moreover, the first crisis occurs when the people arrive at “the wilderness of Sin” [מדבר סין], which is later renamed “Testing and Strife” [מסה ומריבה, i.e. Massa U-Merivah], while the second occurs when the people depart from “the wilderness of Zin” [מדבר צין], which is later renamed “The Waters of Strife” [מי מריבה, i.e. Mei Merivah]. The parallels continue, and they are well documented.

What has not been noted, however, is the similarly compelling set of connections tying together the aftermaths of these two water crises. To that end, consider the following episodes:   (more…)