Parshas Vayakhel/Pekudai - The question isn't What, but How.

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
-By Shoshana Rosa

I hope you can get to synagogue at some point during the week end because this week's Torah reading will not only include two Parshiot (two chapters), but will also be the finishing off of the Book of Exodus. And don't forget to join in when you hear the chazan (cantor) leading the cries of "Chazak Chazak va'Nitchazaik!" (strength strength and we will be strengthened!). If you keep an ear cocked, you may hear men crying "Chazak!" in shuls all over the city.

I once heard someone ask, "Why do we say chazak twice?" The answer had me laughing. The first one represents the person who thinks he knows everything and the second is for he who is sure he knows nothing. If we could get those two together they would make great learning partners.

In this week's Parshas Vayakhel/Pekudai, the actual building of the Mishkan and assembling priest's clothing begins. The last two chapters were instructions on which materials to bring and how to put together the mishkan (tabernacle) and its holy vestments. Now, we are greeted by a call to action. Although this week's parshiot are repeating what was done in Parshas Teruma and Tetzaveh, this time, the focus isn't on what the Jews are bringing to the table but how. For instance, in the Parshah (Parshas Vayakhel 35:22) it says, "ויבאו האנשים על הנשים"  Literally translated, this means "And the men came on the women." Why not just write "The men came 'עם - with' the women?" What's up with the weird word usage? Rashi jumps in to explain: the significance behind the word 'על - on' is to show how the women expressed a superior enthusiasm by bringing items to benefit the mishkan project. They arrive before the men. 

The above example is not the Parsha's only hurrah to women. Anyone who has experienced an uplift of heart at the sight of a handmade scarf or sweater from one's grandmother, friend etc. has recognized that love must have gone into every stitch. "Every wise hearted women spun with her hands. They spun blue, purple, crimson wool and linen" (Exodus 35:25). Universally, handmade things fetch a higher value than factory designed items. The women in the midbar (desert) understood this.

Another tribute to the special qualities of the ideal woman comes from Rashi's explanation on the copper basin, the holy vessel which was used for washing the Kohen's hands and feet before their service in the tabernacle. These women who brought their copper mirrors were the the exact ones who had used them to beautify their faces before going out to meet their husbands in the Egyptian fields. By acting thus, they were a key component for increasing the nation's population. While generally women attach sentimental value to objects that evoke pleasant memories, the women were running to give up one of their most valued possessions - the items that led to their becoming mothers. 

Overall, Bnei Yisrael's excitement when donating the materials for the mishkan shows us that they had somewhat repented for the enthusiasm they expressed during the sin of the golden calf. Also, with the mishkan completion, Hashem's missing presence returned and that was also cause for celebration. at one point, Moshe was even forced to beg the Jews to stop donating! 

Nowadays, one will find, in every Orthodox Jewish community, without exception, a directory filled with pages of listings for charitable organizations (gamachim). It's this week's Parshah that clues us in on one of the reasons giving is genetically inherent in a Jew. The Jews in the desert passed the gift of magnanimity onto posterity.

Shmirat Haloshon - Words of Gratitude

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for                                                             her neshama.
Elisheva Maline

© Jorge Royan /
Ice cream parlor. Venice, Italy 2009
If you make a habit out of thanking Hashem (G-d) for every good thing that happens to you, Hashem says, "I'll give you something to thank Me for." On the flip side, if every other word out of your mouth is a complaint, then Hashem says, "I'll give you something to complain about..." 

Loshon hara, also frequently referred to as negative speech, is what the Chofetz Chaim tells us lies at the root of many sins, evil deeds like bloodshed, idol worship and forbidden relations... At first glance, the cause and effect relationship between loose tongues and bad decisions that end in adultery or murder seems dim. What on earth does one have to do with the other? I think the following story will bring clarity as to how the two connect. Earlier in the evening, I stepped into a fairly popular ice cream place to grab a frozen yogurt. At eight o'clock, the place was still hopping. Behind me, a group of friends loudly discussed what they were going to order. As the comments grew steadily more obnoxious, the line inched forward and I could feel my shoulders growing tense. "Man, this line is so slow." "Half an hour for ice cream! (this said two minutes after they showed up)" and "Guys, did you check out these prices? Almost five bucks for a stinkin' two scoops." "Calm down bro'." 
I was ready to explode, "What, do you think you're the only ones waiting in this line? Do you think the rest of us have nowhere to be and have all night to suffer here with you? Can't you see that there's only one person available for customers? Your comments are making the rest of this place uncomfortable - pipe down." I had a lot to grouse about; however, I also knew that once I'd stepped outside and away from them, I would cease to care. So, I sealed my lips and counted to ten three times. 
When I got home, I was still mulling over what happened: what justification can a group of guys offer for making a store full of people uncomfortable? Was it because they were still self entitled, self absorbed youngsters? And if so, what was so wrong about that? "Give the eighteen-year-olds time to grow up," I chided myself. 

The truth is the incident was no longer about what happened but about what triggers these types of situations. I am sure that with every obnoxious form of behavior comes a measure of selfish apathy, and according to the Chofetz Chaim, this is the root cause not only for loshon hara but for worse forms of sin. When we don't care, or to put it nicer, we lack the sensitivity to assess situations properly, we can become capable of even the gravest of sins.   
Nowadays, people constantly preach about having a good attitude. In order to live the best possible life, the Torah, a certain code of morality, positive speech, vocal gratitude in particular, is essential. It isn't just the icing on the cake. 

Parshas Ki tisa - How do we learn from old mistakes?

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama
-By Elisheva Maline

How do we learn from old mistakes? By repeating them over again.
Image taken from Jumpintotheword.
In this week's Parshat Ki Tisa Hashem reveals Himself on Mt. Sinai and gives over the ten commandments before asking Moshe to  ascend for more in depth instruction. Actually, Hashem only tells us the first two commandments while Moshe gives over the remaining eight. This is because every time G-d spoke, "I am the Lord, your G-d, there is no other but I," and "You should have no other g-ds before you," everyone dropped dead. Well, the situation was becoming a tad stressful so the nation begged Moshe to take over.

Moshe goes up to heaven for forty days while the Jews are told to wait at the foot of the mountain. The nation watches the sand in the forty day hourglass trickle to an end, or so they think (in reality, they were off by one day). Unease sweeps through the camps and where there is doubt, there is room for mayhem. The yetzar hara's (the evil inclination) influence isn't long in coming. He takes advantage of their vulnerability by creating illusions of the sky splitting, stars exploding, and the ground shaking etc. Then, the form of Moshe's coffin appears in the sky. This, more than anything, convinces the panicked people that the end of the world is nigh. Without Moshe who will connect them to Torah? Without Torah, the universe reverts to its state of being null and void. The people jump up, turn to Aaron, Moshe's brother, and scream "Get up! Make us G-ds that will lead and instruct us because Moshe, the man who brought us out of Egypt, we don't know what became of him" (Exodus 32:1). Several verses later, we are informed about a golden calf walking, lowing and eating grass. Bnei Yisrael celebrate their quick thinking while Aaron Hakohen Gadol covers his face with his hands. This is the scene Moshe returns to.  

What is the result of Bnei Yisrael's good intentions? Hashem is furious. After all, He has just told them not to serve any other G-ds and barely a month later, they are doing just that! The situation is comparable to that of a wife committing adultery before the last notes of her wedding ceremony have a chance to fade away. How could the Jewish people have fallen so low? 

The yetzar hara was created by G-d as an adversary for exercising our bechira (power of free will). He's quite the slick salesman. It's never a simple matter of two angels perching on one's shoulders while he tries to decide, "Will I do good or commit evil?" Decision making is a murky process. The yetzar hara packages evildoing as a chance to do good even as he wraps kindness in the illusion that it is an evil. In Hebrew this is called erbuvia, confusion. The Jews thought they were saving the world by dancing around a golden cow. In reality, they were disappointing Hashem. Hashem never gives us tasks we cannot fulfill. He had just given us the means to overcome the temptation of creating a golden calf yet we failed. 

Hashem expects us to use the tools He provided us as a means to foiling the yetzar hara's plans. What are these tools? Namely, the mitzvot written down for us in the Torah and passed down through the Oral Tradition
We can see this week's Torah portion as a paradigm on the subject of angering Hashem. We sin, Hashem gets angry, and uses the current world powers to prod us into repentance via threats of genocide. In the case of this week's Parsha, the threat concerning our national destruction comes straight from Hashem. But we do teshuva (repent) and recieve Divine forgiveness. Then the process repeats itself at some point later on in history. For instance, over two thousand years ago, the Persian Empire threatened the Jewish people with annihilation. Mordachai made us do teshuva and Hashem turned the day upside down

Eventually, Persian Empire was no longer a world power. The Greek Empire rose to loom over us next (this is when the story of Chanukah occured) with the Roman Empire following close after. The tortures of Spanish inquisition came centuries later and most recently, we had that horror, Nazi Germany, inflicted on us. The time period is always different. However, the story's formula rarely changes.

If the nations of the world made up characters in a classroom, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the Jews would fill in for the role of 'kid most likely to get shoved in a locker.' Throughout the course of our existence, different people have come up with deductive reasoning for why the nations are continuously bashing us. Some of the ideas offtered range from: "it's because we flaunt our 'status as the chosen nation' in peoples faces" to "we're separatist and therefore, annoying." Jews have tried easing the nations' hatred by, among other things, assimilating. Unfortunately, as opposed to allowing us to fit in, the goyim (non jews) reacted by driving us into ghettos and even murdering us in cold blood. 

Basically, there isn't any logic behind the nations' attitude toward us. New age psychology in the form of the emotional awareness declares, "When something in your environment disturbs you, look at it as something that reflects yourself. When you point your index finger in blame at another human, notice the last three fingers are pointing back at you." In Isaiah 42:6 it says. "Be a light unto the nations." When we stop doing that, the goyim let us know. They don't let us forget. It's a blessing in the guise of a curse.

In order for us to distinguish between what is right and wrong, we need to engross ourselves in Torah and mitzvot and be guided by the righteous of the generation.  

The Story of Purim

By Samantha Hulkower - in memory of my grandmother Rochel bat Mordechai who passed away on Purim in 5770

A girl wearing a mask for Purim in Jerusalem. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Tonight March 11th and tomorrow March 12th (tomorrow night and after tomorrow in Jerusalem) marks the holiday of Purim. Most people are familiar with the characters of the evil Haman; the delicious triangle-shaped hamentaschen cookies; the lovely Queen Esther. Part of what makes the story so moving is that there are so many ways to connect to it. There are two running themes in the story that are more meaningful when we hear them as adults, than as children. The first is that things may not be as they seem, and the second is when you are insecure and unhappy with who you are, nothing will satisfy you and make you feel better.

The story begins roughly 3,000 years ago with the Jews of Shushan, Persia, who are despondent that their exile from Israel hasn't ended yet. They were only supposed to be in exile 70 years, but the second Beit Hamikdash has not yet been rebuilt, and most of them remain scattered throughout the East. Feeling hopeless that they will never again return home, they despondently attend the party thrown by King Achashverosh in their hometown. The party they attended marks the ends of a half-year long celebration of his ascent to power. What we don't appreciate when we are young is that the vessels used for his extravagant celebration are none other than the cups and other utensils that were used in the Beit Hamikdash. How painful must it have been for the Jews of Shushan to feel that they have no other choice but to join in on a celebration that is in part trampling the fact that their holy Temple is still destroyed - and with the King wearing the Kohen Gadol's own clothing!

It was at this fateful party however, that the miracle of Purim begins. It was all because Achashverosh wanted to show off how powerful  he was, that he had the most beautiful woman in the kingdom at his beck and call, Queen Vashti. This was really more than showing off how attractive his wife was - Vashti was the queen by birth, while Achashverosh was the king through conquest. He was still insecure about his place in the royal family, and wanted to show his guests, and also likely himself, that the queen submits to his rule. When Vashti refused his summons the king was at a loss what to do. He couldn't just let her get away with refusing a demand of the king - could he? Enter Haman (boo!). Haman also had his sights set on the throne. He was once a poor stable boy, who through his cunning worked his way up to advisor to the king. You would think that he would be proud of  his achievements, but nope! Like the king, Haman was also insecure about his background and needed to prove himself. Because there was one Jew, Mordechai who was also the elder of the Jewish community of Shushan, who would not bow to Haman when he walked past, Haman developed a blind hatred for all Jews and a determination to kill them all. Haman was determined to use his position as right hand man to the King in order to kill all Jews. And he was successful - the king signed a decree that in one year's time all 127 countries in his empire could kill their Jews.

Before you worry too much about the fate of the Jews, let us return to our other theme, that things aren't always as they seem. Since the king got into that fight with Vashti, he decided to kill her and start over with a search for a new Queen. The search lasted for a few years and culminated with Achashverosh picking Esther to be his queen. Esther happened to be the daughter (or wife, depending on the source) of Mordechai. So, when the decree went into effect, there was already the seeds planted for the Jew's ultimate salvation. As upset as Esther was to be taken from Mordechai and the Jewish people, she used her position to encourage the king to repeal the decree. Esther was able to see that Haman's power-hungry ways and the king's insecurity about his position could be used to her advantage. She arranged a party for the king and Haman - and then used the king's suspicion that Haman was after his position (including his queen) to convince Achashverosh to annul Haman's decree (and annul Haman's life). We learn here that when we are constantly insecure about ourselves, nothing will ever be enough to make us happy, and could eventually lead to us losing anything we've gained.

As for the second theme, often in our lives things seem hopeless (they don't get much more hopeless than what the Jews of Shushan endured between the party and the decree), but the story of Purim teaches us not to fret! G-d always has a plan, there is alway something in motion, often that we have  no idea about until after our salvation. It's only with hindsight, if we are lucky, that we can see that we never had any reason to fear in the first place. This Purim, we should all enjoy ourselves, and be secure in the knowledge that even though we might have things in our lives that seem stressful (searching for a spouse, a job, etc.) we don't know what G-d is doing behind the scenes. We should relax and know that at the end of the day, the King of the Universe is taking care of us.
Happy Purim!!

Think Fast: The mitzvot and customs of Purim

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Samantha Hulkower

Purim is this Sunday! (Monday for those living in Jerusalem) While there is a lot to look forward to, there are also a few important customs to know about before hand, to make the holiday more meaningful.

Jerusalem on Shushan Purim. photo by B.W.
While Purim is often associated with a festive meal and lots of alcohol, we first observe a fast day beforehand, one of the four sunrise to sunset fasts spread out over the year. It's known as Ta'anit Esther, or the Fast of Esther, as Queen Esther had instructed Mordechi to "Go and gather all the Jews  in Shushan and fast on my behalf," so that her plan to convince Achashverosh to nullify the decree to kill all the Jews would be successful. In that time, the Jews did sincere teshuva, repentance, regretting that they attended the meal at Achashverosh's palace and not returning to Israel when they had the chance. Fasting is helpful for teshuva (although not always required) because when we abstain from food and drink, we're not so focused on our bodies, and therefore have more time and a greater capacity to contemplate our actions. At the time of the Purim story, for three days they went without food and water, so today we are lucky we only have to do it for 14 or so hours.  

Additionally, the Jews fasted on the 13th of Adar, the day before they went to war to destroy those who were looking forward to carrying out the King's now rescinded decree. Even though Queen Esther's plan worked and Achashverosh rescinded the decree put out by Haman, the rest of the kingdom wasn't quite ready to put down their swords and let the Jews live happily ever after. As was often the case in those days, the Jews fasted before going to war, again to give themselves the opportunity to reflect on their behavior and repent what they needed to before going into a dangerous situation of battle. In commemoration of this fast, the fast day is usually the day before Purim (which is the 14th of Adar).

As many people are aware, there is also a custom to dress up on Purim and to wear masks. There are many explanations why, but most literally we can say it is to reenact that G-d's actions were 'hidden' throughout the Purim story, and likewise we hide our faces now. Also, Esther in Hebrew means 'hidden'

Aside from this, there are four mitzvot associated with Purim:
1) to hear the megillah reading at night and in the day
2) to send gifts of food (mishloach manot)
3) giving charity to the poor
4) having a festive meal
These are mitzvot anyone can get behind! Let's look at them in greater detail.

The mitzvah to hear the megillah, Megillat Esther, is understandable. The story of Purim is one of the greatest miracles and especially valuable to us today. Over a period of about nine years a series of events took place, which on their own don't seem to be anything special, but when we take a step back and look at them all together, we can very clearly see the Hand of G-d working to protect the Jewish people. In today's world, it's unfortunately easy to feel disconnected from G-d, at least compared to life in the days of the prophets, so hearing the megillah is an important reminder that even though things seem random or scary, everything is part of a bigger plan. Unlike other holidays, we don't say Hallel, because Hallel is intended to praise G-d and we accomplish that through reading or hearing the megillah.

The festive meal is celebrated with meat and wine, like on Yomim Tovim (holidays). It's eaten later in the afternoon and often lasts until after nightfall, extending the holiday (which isn't considered over until one says Grace After Meals). Part of the reason we drink wine on Purim is to do a tikkun, or rectification of the Jews who went and drank wine from the stolen vessels from the Beit Hamikdash in Achashverosh's party at the beginning of the Purim story. It says in the Gemara that one should drink wine until he can't differentiate between 'blessed Mordechai' and 'cursed Haman'. For most people they need to get pretty drunk in order to not be able to tell good from evil. We'll talk more about this in our post on the story of Purim. It's also customary to eat vegetables at the seuda, as a remembrance of Esther, who only ate vegetables the whole time she lived in the King's Palace (which was most of her life) in order to keep kosher.

The obligation to give gifts to the poor is pretty clear - it allows them to also partake in the festive meal and sending food to friends once they have the funds to do so. There is a custom to give to everyone who asks without questioning them -  in an effort to stimulate divine mercy so that G-d also gives us without judging whether or not we merit it. Everyone is required to give money, even the very poor themselves.

Lastly is the mitzvah to give gifts of food, known as shaloach manot (literally sending gifts). They don't have to be fancy, in order to fulfill the mitzvah the package has to contain two different types of food. While with most mitzvot, it is preferable to do the act yourself, in this case, it's actually preferable to have them sent by a third party. This is surely a relief for people busy preparing lunch for many guests and who wouldn't otherwise have the time to first start sending out the treats themselves! 

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh