Feb 16 2017

Welcome to Rabbi Doctor Joel Zeff’s Divrei Torah based on the Weekly Parsha

Please enjoy the following short lessons based on the weekly parsha. If you would like to participate in learning with Rabbi  Joel Zeff in other ways, please consider visiting Rabbi Zeff’s YouTube channel, or his Tailor Made Torah website, where you can explore the world of private, one-on-one learning with Rabbi Zeff, or CBT-based therapy, conducted on-line or in person.

Dec 19 2015

Parshat Vayigash: Reviving the Spirit of Yaakov

Joseph_Overseer_of_the_Pharaohs_GranariesSurely one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah is when Yaakov receives the news that Yosef is alive and is the viceroy of Egypt. As expected, Yaakov is in a state of shocked disbelief until, “he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent to carry him, the spirit of Yaakov their father was revived.” What was it about seeing the wagons that revived him?

Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi, is well-known as the foremost exegete of the most straightforward level of meaning of the Torah, referred to in Hebrew as “peshat.” The Rashbam notes that after Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers and sends them back to Yaakov with wagons, the Torah is careful to state, “Yosef gave them wagons, as Pharaoh had commanded, and he also gave them provisions for their journey.” Pharoah himself had authorized the provision of wagons. In fact, the Torah records that very authorization, as Phaorah commands Yosef, “You are also directed to tell them, ‘Do this: Take some wagons from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.”

Apparently, the export of wagons from Egypt was strictly regulated and could only be done at Pharaoh’s behest. When Yaakov saw the wagons, it confirmed that Yosef was not only alive, but had risen to a position of incredible influence and respect, so much so that Pharoah himself would act on his behalf. This sight signaled to Yaakov that Yosef’s dreams of ascending to a position of rule had been fulfilled. This was the moment which Yaakov had pondered from the time he had about Yosef’s dreams, “his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”

Rashi, Rashbam’s “Zeida,” gives a very different interpretation, based on a Midrash, “Yosef gave his brothers a sign to relay to their father: that at the time that Yosef had parted from Yaakov, they had been studying the laws of Eglah Arufah (“The Beheaded Heifer,” Deuteronomy 21). Thus, although it was Pharaoh who had sent the wagons, the verse says, “And when he saw the wagons which Yosef had sent” — for the “wagons” (agalot) of which the verse speaks is a reference to the Eglah Arufah.”

This Midrash requires quite a bit of unpacking. The law of the Eglah Arufah, simply stated, is that if a corpse is found in an open field and it is not known who is the murderer, the elders of the nearest city have to go out and make a proclamation including the phrase, “our hands did not spill this blood.” They then bring an atonement offering, a special sacrifice, known as the Eglah Arufa, the beheaded heifer.

The Talmud wrestles with what seems to be an internal contradiction in this mitzvah. If “our hands did not spill this blood” then why is there a need for an elaborate atonement ceremony? Our Sages explain that, although it occurred outside of the jurisdiction of the city, nevertheless it was their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection. They were remiss in not “going the extra mile,” literally.

Now what is the connection to the wagons that Yosef had sent to Yaakov that so revived his spirit? The Midrash connects these wagons to the mitzvah of Eglah Arufa, through a poetic resonance of the Hebrew words for heifer and wagon: eglah (heifer) and agalah (wagon), which sound so similar. The sight of an agalah (wagon) was a coded reminder of the last topic discussed by Yaakov and Yosef, the mitzvah of the eglah (heifer).

According to the Chassidic masters, this encoded message accomplished much more than the confirmation of the identity of the sender.

The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is responsible also for what occurs outside of his domain — outside of the areas where he is fully in control. This mitzvah is a profound expression of the meaning of taking responsibility. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “This is the deeper significance of the message which Yosef sent to Yaakov. Father, he was saying, I have not forgotten the law of Eglah Arufah. I have been exiled from the sacred environment of your home, but I have not allowed my soul to travel to the spiritual no-man’s-land of Egypt without provision; I have not abandoned it to a spiritual death with the justification that ‘This is outside of my element; I have no way of dealing with this.’ After 22 years of slavery, imprisonment and political power in the most depraved society on the face of the earth, I am the same Yosef who left your home on the day that we studied the laws of Eglah Arufah. This was the message that revived the spirit of Yaakov.”

We live in a society which is quick to abdicate personal responsibility. It is someone else’s fault. Some external circumstance led to this mess. Yosef could easily have severed his ties with his family and the covenantal mandate. Yosef had endured a string of traumatic experiences and was very far, in multiple ways, from home. Yet, remarkably, Yosef takes full ownership of his behavior and never betrays the vision and values taught to him by Yaakov while he had “dwelt in the tent” of his father’s tutelage.

It is so tempting to abdicate personal responsibility. It is even fashionable. Our Sages are exhorting us to buck the trend and take full ownership of our behavior. May the great fortitude and integrity of our spiritual heroes inspire us to do the same and thereby revive the spirit of Yaakov in our lives.

Mar 20 2015

Wishing You a Kosher Pesach

animals for sacrifices

animals for sacrifices

Our Torah portion deals with the details of the sacrificial offerings. I am sure that, for many of us, it is a challenge to “relate” to the details of ritual sacrifice which is so far removed from our current reality. One could suggest that our parsha’s significance lies in the future messianic period in which the Temple ritual will be fully restored. But Jewish tradition insists that every word, every letter, even every decorative crown of the letters, has significance and meaning for us all, in every generation, independent of the existence of the Holy Temple.
The word “Midrash” comes from a root meaning “search out” or “demand.” Midrash is not a “bubbe myseh” (Yiddish term for a fairy tale your grandmother might have told you). Midrash is nothing less than the effort to demand meaning from the Torah. The methodology of reading Midrash is a discipline in and of itself and is not for now. Let’s see how the Midrash understands our Torah portion. In fact, an examination of the Midrashic literature reveals a consistent theme winding its way through this week’s Torah reading.
The Torah states, “A man (adam) who shall bring near of you an offering to God.” Midrash Tanchuma comments:
Why does God use the word “adam” for “man” (instead of the more common synonym “ish”)? To teach us that a person cannot offer to God what has not been honestly obtained by him. God is saying: “When you bring an offering to Me, be like Adam the first man, who could not have stolen from anyone, since he was alone in the world.”
The Torah continues with the details of preparing a bird-offering, “And he shall remove its crop with its feathers, and cast it beside the Altar.” Midrash Rabbah comments:
The bird flies about and swoops throughout the world, and eats indiscriminately; it eats food obtained by robbery and by violence. Said God: Since this crop is filled with the proceeds of robbery and violence, let it not be offered on the altar… On the other hand, the domestic animal is reared on the crib of its master and eats neither indiscriminately nor of that obtained by robbery or by violence; for this reason the whole of it is offered up.
What a striking similarity of theme! The Torah demands absolute integrity when it comes to financial dealings.
We are now very much in the Pesach mode. It is a time when the laws of kashrut become more intense and demand quite an effort and focus of intention. It is not surprising that the traditional greeting of this season is, “Chag kasher ve’samayach- Have a kosher and happy Pesach!” Perhaps our Torah portion, read at this time, is reminding us that, just as we make great efforts to assure we have only properly kosher food for Pesach, so too, we must be every bit as careful to assure that we have kosher money, as well- and, of course, not just on Pesach!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher ve’Samayach.

Nov 21 2014

Rabbi Zeff Interviewed on Sacramento News Radio Station

On November 18, in the wake of the horrific murders of 4 Jewish men while saying the morning prayers, and a druze police officer who was the first on the scene to help stop further bloodshed in the Jerusalem synagogue where the terrorist attack took place; Rabbi Zeff of Knesset Israel Torah Center was interviewed.

Listen to the following broadcast,  here: 

The interview was broadcast on KFBK radio in Sacramento.

Jul 16 2014

A Message from Israel

Shalom Friends and Family-

Well, never a dull moment here in the Holyland. We all thought that yesterday was the end of the current violence with the ceasefire brokered by Egypt. Apparently, all had accepted it except for the party that started the shooting. A few minutes ago was the largest rocket attack on Tel Aviv so far. Yesterday, an idealistic Jew drove to an army base to distribute food and other goodies to the soldiers, not an uncommon way to help out. His car was hit by a mortar and he was killed, leaving a widow and three young children.

We spent Shabbat at friends’ home in Efrat, a short drive from Alon Shvut. At around seven pm the air-raid siren went off. We all huddled in the stair-well of their home and then heard a loud explosion. It was so close that the whole building shook with the blast. After the all-clear, we emerged and saw that the rocket had landed on a hill about a quarter mile from us. After a few minutes, we sat down and had a wonderful seudah shlishit. The purpose of terror is to utterly disrupt our lives and morale till we surrender in emotional exhaustion.  Israel refuses to allow this to happen and people return to “normalcy,” on purpose, and quickly.

In case you want to know what my kids are doing on their “summer vacation,” please see the two attached photos. One is of Aharon, who received an emergency army reserves call-up at the beginning of the hostilities and has not been  home since. The photo is of a training  exercise in urban warfare that he did today. The other photo is Bentzi (17 years old) and Shkedia (19 years old).  They have moved to Ashkelon and are volunteering to help the citizens there as they undergo almost constant rocket fire. Notice the heart on their t-shirts.  The sponsoring organization is called “Lev Echad- One Heart.” The message is that all Israel is one heart of mutual concern,- even if it means self-endangerment. Donna and I are both worried and proud. At least this time, those who desire to harm Jews will not find us defenseless.

With hope for a brighter tomorrow-
Joel and Donna



IMG-20140715-WA0000 (1)

Shkedia and Bentzi in Ashkelon

Jul 29 2013

Fowl Play and Kosher Kindness: Parshat Re’eh

storksThis week’s parsha lists the fowl that we are not allowed to eat. In contrast to kosher animals which possess the identifying characteristics of split hooves and chewing the cud, the Torah simply lists the fowl that we are not allowed to eat. Among the forbidden species is the Chassida. Though we cannot be sure as to the precise translation, Chassida is often rendered as “stork.” More interesting is the fact that the Hebrew word Chassida happens to come from the same root as the word chessed, meaning “kindness.”
Why should this bird be called a name which could be translated as “kind?” The Talmud answers, “because it performs kindness with its fellows.” Rashi, both in his commentary on the Talmud and in his commentary on the Torah explains this as a reference to the Chassida sharing its food with its fellows.
Well this is a very impressive bird indeed! But why, then, is it not kosher? The Kotzker Rebbe points out the qualifying phrase used by the Talmud, “with its fellows.” The chassida shares its food with others of the same species, but not with other types of birds. This is a defective, non-kosher, kindness.
We humans have the tendency to be very similar to the Chassida. It is relatively easy to be kind and considerate to our friends and with those whom we feel a basic affinity. But what about those individuals who are less appealing and less attractive to us? Do we show them the same kindness?
Let’s commit ourselves, as individuals and as a community, to be extraordinarily kind, to display kosher kindness, even when it takes effort.

Jun 12 2013

Parshat Chukat: At Least Keep It Private!

Rabbi Joel Zeff: Parshat Chukat

Moses Bringing Forth Water From the Rock

This week’s Torah portion recounts the collapse of one of Moshe’s highest aspirations. Imagine having taken on the assignment of leading the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Moshe had endured the most taxing of crises, some of them in the form of the seemingly never-ending series of internal rebellions. When the Bnei Yisrael arrive in a location without any obvious supply of water they confront Moshe and Aharon in an outrageous expression of unmitigated chutzpa.

“If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink!”

God instructs Moshe to speak to a rock so that it should miraculously produce water. Moshe gathers the nation in front of the rock and declares: “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” He then strikes the rock, resulting in an eruption of a gush of water. This act of Moshe was regarded as such a grievous affront that God decrees the ultimate punishment, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”

The midrash points out that not only was this not the first time that Moshe had not responded optimally to the complaints of Bnei Yisrael, but it is not even the worst:

But had not Moshe previously said something that was worse than this? For he said (Numbers 11:22): “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them?” Faith surely was wanting there too, and to a greater degree than in the present instance. Why then did G-d not make the decree against him on that occasion?

The midrash answers with a most significant observation:

Let me illustrate. To what may this be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. Now this friend displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king, however, did not lose his temper with him. After a time he rose and displayed his arrogance in the presence of his legions, and the king passed a sentence of death upon him. So also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it.” Thus it says: “[Because you did not believe in Me] in the eyes of the children of Israel.”

There is only one thing worse than sin and that is public sin. Why? The answer lies in reminding ourselves of our job description as Jews. We are entrusted with the weighty responsibly of being God’s public relations professionals, charged with mastering and utilizing all manner of social media in order to promote God’s name. When our private behavior falls short it is a personal failure. When our public behavior is odious it is a desecration of God’s name and a betrayal of our mandate as Jews. Let us never cease to be mindful of the awesome responsibility of bearing the title “Israel.”

May 29 2013

Parshat Shlach: We are All Converts!

Rabbi Joel Zeff

The Vilna Gaon was the Mentor of Count Valentine Potocki, the Righteous Convert

The yahrtzeit of Count Valentine Potocki was recently observed. Now I am sure that very few readers will recognize this name and may wonder why we would observe the anniversary of the death of a Polish count.

Count Valentine Potocki was born into an aristocratic Polish Catholic family in the year 1700. As a young man he became interested in Judaism and contemplated conversion, a capital offense in most countries of Christian Europe of the time. Valentine travelled to Amsterdam, one of the few places allowing for conversion to Judaism, and formally embraced his new-found faith and people. Years later Count Valentine moved to the area of Vilna and was befriended by the greatest rabbinical authority of the time, Rabbi Eliyahu, known as the Vilna Gaon, who recognized the spiritual majesty of this Jew by choice.

Valentine was subsequently arrested for the “crime” of becoming a Jew. The court gave him the option of renouncing Judaism or execution. Steadfastly refusing to betray his faith and his people, Count Valentine Potocki was burned at the stake in Vilna on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, 1749. According to tradition, some of his ashes were retrieved and were ultimately interred in the same grave as the Vilna Gaon. Born as Valentine Potocki, this heroic soul died as Abraham the son Abraham and is known for posterity as the Ger Tzedek, the Righteous Convert, of Vilna.

This week’s Torah portion provides the framework for conversion, “One rule applies to the congregation and for the convert who resides with you; one rule applies, throughout your generations; just as for you, so it is for the convert, before the Lord.” At first glance this verse seems to say the same thing three times: the insistence that the convert and the born Jew be treated by the same standard.  The Talmud asserts that there are no gratuitous duplications in the Torah.  The phrase “just as for you, so it is for the convert” is explained to refer to the actual procedural requirements for conversion and could be paraphrased as, “Just as you became Jewish, so too, Jews by choice will become Jewish.” The Talmud then analyzes the great event of the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai, which we just celebrated a few weeks ago during the holiday of Shavuot. The Talmud concludes that just as we underwent circumcision, ritual immersion, and brought certain offerings, in order to become Jewish, so too, future converts will need to undergo the same. (The offerings will be brought when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt.)

According to this, we are all converts! The Children of Israel who left Egypt were not formally “Jewish” until they converted at the foot of Mount Sinai. The only difference between me and a contemporary convert is when the conversion took place; mine was 3,325 years ago while my neighbor in shul converted more recently.

In light of this we can bring a more nuanced meaning to the mitzvah, found several times in the Torah, entreating us to love the convert, “The convert who lives with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “convert” and “stranger” are the same, (ger.) The Torah explains why we are commanded to love the convert, for we were once “strangers” in Egypt. The Children of Israel experienced the sense of alienation and insecurity associated with not being a “native” and therefore should be uniquely equipped to have profound empathy for the convert in our midst.  In light of the Talmud’s explanation that we are all converts, who converted as part of the process of the Exodus from Egypt and culminating at Sinai, we can add that “for you were strangers” might also mean “for you were also converts.” We were both strangers and converts and must, therefore, treat the more recent converts with the utmost love and honor.

There is a powerful symbolism associated with the martyrdom of Count Valentine Potocki-Abraham son of Abraham, occurring on the holiday of Shavuot, the day we became Israel in the fullness sense at the foot of Sinai. This week’s Torah reading, “just as for you, so it is for the convert,” serves to remind us that those precious individuals who have chosen to join their fate with the Jewish people have been, and continue to be, among the most remarkable and inspiring members of the nation chosen to bear witness to the everlasting relevance of the message of Sinai.

May 24 2013

Parshat B’ha’alotcha: “The Disgrace of Accommodation”

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

The Book of Bamidbar, which we began reading two weeks ago, is explicitly dated as beginning with “the first day of the second month after the exodus from the land of Egypt.” It is more than surprising that this week’s portion contains the commandment to offer up the Paschal lamb, “in the second year from their exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month,” going backwards in time relative to the beginning of this book of the Torah! Indeed, this example is often cited as the proof-text that the Torah is not written in chronological order. Even though we accept this principle we still need to ask why the Torah moves events out of their chronological order. Why didn’t the Torah begin the Book of Bamidbar with this commandment of the first Paschal sacrifice in the wilderness?

Rashi, following the midrash, answers, “Why, indeed, does not the Book of Numbers open with this chapter? Because it is a disgrace for Israel. For in the forty years that the Jewish people were in the desert, this was the only Passover offering they brought.”

This explanation requires an explanation. The Torah limits the Paschal offering to “when you come into the land” and this instance is an exception to that rule. As long as they were in the wilderness they would be disbarred from offering the Passover lamb by Divine command. If so, what disgrace is there in the fact that this instance would be the only Paschal lamb in forty years? After all, God had ordained it so!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson explains that the answer lies in the very next passage in the Torah describing the genesis of the mitzva of the “Second Passover:”

A group of Jews had found themselves in a state which, according to Torah law, absolved them from the duty to bring the Passover offering. Yet they refused to reconcile themselves to this. And their impassioned plea and demand, “Why should we be deprived?” swayed G-d to establish a new institution, the “Second Passover,” to enable them, and all who will find themselves in a similar situation in future generations, “to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel.”

Therein lies the “disgrace” in those thirty-eight Passover-less years in the desert. Why did the Jewish people reconcile themselves to the Divine decree? Why did they accept this void in their relationship with God? Why did they not petition for an opportunity to serve Him in the full and optimum manner that the mitzvot of the Torah describe?

For more than nineteen-hundred years now, our Passovers have been incomplete. We eat the matzah and the bitter herbs, we drink the four cups of wine, we ask and answer the four questions, but the heart and essence of Passover, the Passover offering, is absent from our Seder table. For God has hidden His face from us, has removed the Holy Temple, the seat of His manifest presence on physical earth, from our midst.

The lesson of the “displaced” ninth chapter of Numbers is clear: God desires and expects of us that we refuse to reconcile ourselves to the decree of galut and its diminution of His manifest involvement in our lives. He desires and expects of us that we storm the gates of heaven with the plea and demand: “Why should we be deprived?!”

Our disgrace is our accommodation with a mediocre, “second-rate,” compromised existence. Let us indeed storm the gates of heaven and demand nothing but the best! And may God, our compassionate parent, “give in” to our petulant petition.

May 17 2013

Parshat Naso: The Holy Sinner?

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

We are commanded to partake of the good things God gives us.

This week’s parsha deals with, among other topics, the nazirite, who takes a vow to abstain from wine, cutting his hair, and coming into contact with the dead. Our Sages seemed to have contradictory views about the propriety of such a vow. Witness the following discussion in the Talmud. It is inspired by two verses that seem to imply two very different messages about the nazir. One verse decrees that the nazirite bring a sin offering at the completion of the term of his vow, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Yet another verse proclaims the nazirite to be holy, “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” The Sages comment:

Whoever fasts is termed a sinner… For it has been taught: … What is the Torah referring to when it says, “And make atonement for him, for that he sinned by his soul.” Against which soul did he sin? That he denied himself wine. Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “sinner,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things!
Rabbi Eleazar says: He is termed holy. For it is written (ibid., v. 5), “He shall be holy, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long.” Now, if this man who denied himself wine only is termed “holy,” how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things! (Talmud, Taanit 11a)

Perhaps the resolution between these seemingly contradictory views can be seen in a third Talmudic passage:

Simon the Just said: In the whole of my life, I never ate of the guilt-offering of a nazir, except in one instance. There was a man who came to me from the South. He had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I asked him: “Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy such beautiful hair?” He answered: “In my native town, I was my father’s shepherd, and, on going down to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection [in its waters]. My heart leaped within me and my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to compass my ruin, and so I said to it: ‘Evil one! Why do you plume yourself over on a world that is not your own? For your end is but worms and maggots. I swear that I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven!'” Then I rose and kissed him upon his head and said to him: “May there be many nazirites such as you in Israel. Of one such as yourself does the verse (Numbers 6:2) say: ‘A man or a woman who shall pronounce a special vow of a nazir, to consecrate themselves to G-d.'” (Talmud, Nazir 4b; Sifri)

Both vows are correct! Refraining from physical pleasures, like wine, can be a sin and can also make one holy! It all depends on our ability to find the right balance of involvement in physicality. We have a body and a soul that require just the perfect balance to maintain proper wholesomeness. Asceticism is a rejection of the delights that God has created for us in this potential Garden of Eden and is a sin. Yet abuse of these pleasures leads to destruction of our Godly souls, as well as our bodily health! At the moment we see that we are out of balance, we need to “err” more to the other side. If we have become overly “angelic,” then that is a sure sign we need a nice glass of wine. If we are abusing alcohol, this is the time to become more like the angels, who only pretend to eat and drink, but in reality abstain.

“The Torah of God is whole, restoring the soul”- The Torah is the ultimate self-help manual. Everything has its time and place, leading us to wholeness. May God grant us the wisdom to discern when to partake and when to abstain.