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.

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 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.

Apr 25 2013

Parshat Emor: Save the Shmuzing for the Kiddush

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

Cohanim Blessing the People in the Temple

This week’s Torah reading deals extensively with various aspects of the functioning of the institution of the Tabernacle and of what would become the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most interesting of these details is the disqualification of priests who have certain physical abnormalities. It is obvious that these “defects” are not the fault of these cohanim. Neither are those individuals relegated to an inferior class of humanity in any way. The disqualification is exclusively with regards to the full functioning as a cohen in the Holy Temple. Why?

The Torah is quite explicit with regards to the purpose of the Holy Temple and its antecedent, the Tabernacle- “make for me a Holy Temple so that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) The function of the Temple is to create a context for the in-dwelling of the Divine Presence, a sacred space in which we can feel the majesty of God’s presence in the world. There can be no doubt that aesthetics play a major role in the arousal of the sense of awe which the Torah desires we experience in the “House of God.” The physical appearance of the cohanim is one component which contributes to producing the desired aesthetic-psychological-spiritual effect.

Consistent with the above is the Torah’s demand that we engage in only the most decorous behavior in the Temple. The verse, “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” (Leviticus 19:29) is explained by the Oral Law to forbid from the Temple precincts, among other things, excessive levity, unkempt dress and hygiene, spitting, turning one’s back to the Holy of Holies, and non-mitzvah related activities.

When the prophet Ezekiel expressed despair over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem God offered comfort by responding that even in post-exilic times He will sanction the creation of sacred space, “although I have removed them far off among the nations… yet I will be for them a miniature Temple in the lands to which they have come.” (Ezekiel 11:16) The Talmud explains that this verse is referring to synagogues and study halls.

For this reason many of the same demands for uplifting aesthetics and proper decorum apply to our synagogues. Indeed, the momentous and universally accepted law code, Shulchan Aruch, devotes several chapters to these standards.

With the help of God and the blood, sweat, and not a few tears of many devoted people, many Jewish communities have built a “miniature Temple” worthy of the term. The verse “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” compels us to be ever vigilant to protect and improve the sanctity of our sanctuary.

It is obviously not enough for the furniture to fulfill the mitzvah of “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place.” We who fill this sacred place must demand of ourselves to be on the highest standards of behavior within the synagogue, if not at all times! Let us make sure that our synagogues become known as “the shul in which the worshipers worship,” and save the shmuzing for the Kiddush.

Apr 18 2013

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Beyond Lies

Tell the Truth!

Tell the Truth!

This week’s Torah portion opens our eyes to the breath-taking demands made by Judaism for uncompromising adherence to honesty. In an intriguing string of prohibitions, the Torah commands, “You shall not steal, you shall not deny, neither shall you lie, one to another.” The fact that these three items are listed together led some commentators to suggest that the stealing referred to includes what is referred to in Jewish law as “gneivat da’at,” literally, “stealing of the mind.”

Let’s examine a biblical example that uses a very similar term. The Book of Samuel relates the story of the rebellion of Absalom against his father, King David. The text describes how he would ingratiate himself to the populace by displaying feigned affection and insincere sympathy for their grievances. Absalom’s behavior is summarized in the phrase, “and Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” Similarly, “stealing the mind” (gneivat da’at) refers to any conduct which serves to mislead people, even if well-short of being an overt lie.

The great Maimonides, in his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, rules:

“A person is forbidden to act in a smooth-tongued and luring manner. He should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart. Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world. What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips. It is forbidden to deceive people… For example, one should not sell a gentile the meat of an animal which has not been ritually slaughtered as if it were ritually slaughtered meat, nor a shoe made from the hide of an animal which has died of natural causes as if it were made of the hide of a slaughtered animal (even though kosher considerations have no legal relevance to a non-Jew). One should not press his colleague to share a meal with him when he knows that his colleague will not accept the invitation, nor should he press presents upon him when he knows that his colleague will not accept them. He should not open casks (of wine) supposedly for his colleague which he must open for sale, in order to deceive him into thinking that they have been opened in his honor. The same applies with all matters of this sort. It is forbidden to utter a single word of deception or fraud. Rather, one should have only truthful speech, a proper spirit and a heart pure from all deceit and trickery.”

Our Talmudic sages add, “There are seven types of thieves, foremost among them is he who “steals the mind” of others (misleads)… He is considered as one who would even be willing to mislead the Almighty (!), for anyone who misleads others is called a thief…”

Another curious feature of our verse is that the three prohibitions listed use the plural form of the word “you,” while previous verses and subsequent verses use the singular form of “you.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Torah means to direct its remonstration not just to private citizens, but to those who represent and lead society as a collective whole, such as judges and political leaders.

All of society would be well-served to be reminded of the far-reaching demand on honesty and candor which the Torah imposes on both the simple citizen and, especially, upon leaders.




Apr 10 2013

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: The Land of the Shechinah

Our Jewish calendar is fast bringing us to both the celebration of Israel Independence Day and the Torah Portion of  Tazria-Metzora. Israel Independence Day, of course, celebrates the establishment of the modern Jewish State on May 14, 1948. The Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora deals largely with certain types of skin blemishes (tza’ra’at, in Hebrew) and the procedures to be followed in response, including the possibility of quarantine. It is hard to imagine two subjects more seemingly unrelated, but let me take you on a short Torah adventure.

First, just to set the record straight- despite the common translation of the Hebrew term for these skin blemishes as “leprosy,” the commentators emphatically explain that this is not a medical malady. The Torah describes these same blemishes as appearing on the walls of the home and on clothing, clearly not indicative of any known natural dermatological ailment! Our Sages explain that this was a super-natural phenomenon indicating the presence of some form of unethical behavior, particularly leshon ha’ra, destructive speech. These blemishes served to alert the effected parties to the need to change their ways.

In an intriguing twist, the Torah qualifies this phenomenon, “When you come to the land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession, I will place the affliction of tza’ra’at on a house in the land of your possession.” For some reason, tza’ra’at is particularly associated with the Land of Israel. The commentators explain that this phenomenon is a function of the more intense concentration of the Divine Presence, the Shechina, in the Holy Land. Sin diminishes this special concentration of the Divine Presence and it is this diminution of the Shechina which gives rise to these blemishes. The Land of Israel is characterized by a uniquely intense revelation of the Shechina so that its departure might manifest itself in tza’ra’at.

The work of Torah commentary entitled Iturei Torah explains further why this association with the Land of Israel is especially expressed by blemishes on the home. The author suggests that the blemish is finely tuned to identify the specific nature of the sin which brought it about. If an individual sins with his body, then the blemish appears on the body. If the sin was with one’s possessions, then the blemish materializes on garments. Finally, if the sin is not that of the individual, but a collective turpitude of society as a whole, then this communal defect is expressed on the house. This precision aids us to focus our efforts at moral repair. As individual Jews, we bear full responsibility for our sins as individuals, and their repair, no matter where we may live. But the full experience of Jewish society on a collective level is only possible in Israel. Only in Israel do we, as Jews, have the opportunity, and responsibility, to build a state on the ethical vision of our constitution, the Torah. For this reason, tza’ra’at on the house is particularly associated with the Land of Israel.

It surely is no coincidence that this Torah reading occurs proximate to Israel Independence Day. The message of tza’ra’at is a profound reminder of our feelings about the modern State of Israel. Israel is the Holy Land. It is not just another piece of real estate. The Divine Presence is palpable in the Land. At the same time, the Jewish State is an enormous obligation. It is not just another member state of the United Nations. It has been given to the Jewish People in trust. We have a collective mandate to build a society that will illuminate the world with Divine ethics. The message of tza’ra’at on this Israel Independence Day today is to deepen our appreciation of the Jewish State as both profound privilege and awesome responsibility.

Jan 17 2013

“Months and Meaning” Parshat Bo

Rashi, the greatest of the Biblical commentators, begins his analysis of the Torah with an astonishing question. Rashi assumes that the Torah is a book of “instruction,” which is the literal meaning of the word “Torah.” If so, the Biblical text should have begun with the verse in this week’s Torah reading, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” which is the first instruction, or mitzvah, given to the newly born Jewish nation. Rashi goes on to explain why the Torah does, in fact, begin with the narrative of Genesis. We can examine his answer another time. For today, let’s focus on why the mitzvah of “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year,” was chosen as the first commandment given to the Nation of Israel and perhaps should even have been the very first sentence of the Torah. What is this mitzvah and why is it so significant?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month in which the exodus from Egypt took place (what we now call the month of Nissan) be the reference point for the naming of all of the months, in an ordinal fashion. Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations. At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly disproportionate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable. Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month- which is the month of deliverance. Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness of God’s ongoing loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization. Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us? When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption”- redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern- Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to His promises.

Feb 2 2012

A Better Understanding of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur

Talk is Cheap- Not!
In a very short time, millions of Jews throughout the world will gather in their synagogues and listen to the soul-stirring plaintive chant of Kol Nidre. Even though Kol Nidre is technically not part of the evening service (known as “maariv” or “arvit”) of Yom Kippur it has become synonymous in popular parlance with the evening service and is certainly experienced as its emotional highlight. Yet, an examination of the words of Kol Nidre leaves one mystified. What is so inspiring about “All personal vows, oaths, and pledges… we publicly renounce…”? Not only are the words not particularly emotionally resonant, their plain meaning is far from obvious.

Kol Nidre is one of the most awesome prayers of the entire Jewish year.

The Torah addresses the issue of vows in several places: “If a man vow a vow…he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” and “When you vow a vow…you shall not delay to pay it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you and it would be a sin in you. But if you refrain from vowing, it shall be no sin in you. That which is gone out of your lips you shall keep and perform.”

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes further sharpens the sentiment: “Do not be quick with your mouth… so let your words be few…many words mark the speech of a fool. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it… It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

The Talmud goes one step further, declaring: “Even when one fulfills his vow he is called wicked.”

The message is unmistakable. Talk is not cheap. It is very dear indeed. Our word must be our bond. It is better not to make promises.

Is there any positive function of vows? Yes. The great sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva, asserted that vows can be help to self-restraint. Precisely because of the awesome gravity by which we view our verbal commitment, such an articulation can be an effective last resort when battling weak self-control.

What is Kol Nidre? The Torah provides for mechanisms for cancellation of vows but within very specific familial circumstances or in the context of a court of law. As early as the ninth century Rabbi Amram Gaon in Babylonia pointed out that Kol Nidre does not conform to those parameters required by the Torah for the cancelation of vows.
The popular notion that Kol Nidre arose as a response to the Spanish inquisition of 1492 in order to allow for those Jews forced to vow allegiance to Catholicism to renege on that commitment is clearly false, given that it predates this event by at least 500 years!

One of the most compelling explanations of Kol Nidre was offered by Rabbenu Tam, the famous grandson of Rashi. Pointing to a comparable passage in the Talmud he suggests that Kol Nidre is not canceling past vows already uttered, but proactively clarifying the intent of promises that might be made in the coming year. They should be understood as careless formulations rather than as conscious and formal articulations of a vow. It is indeed similar to the practice of saying the Hebrew words “bli neder,” meaning “without taking a vow,” when offering to do something. It is akin to saying that we will make a good faith effort, but we value our words too much to take upon ourselves promises that we may not be able to fulfill.

From where does this reverence and care about the spoken word come? It is interesting to note that the first thing we learn about God in the Torah is that He creates, and He creates through the power of speech- “let there be light.” The pinnacle of creation is the human being, made in His image. When the Torah describes the creation of the first human being it states, “and man became a living being.” The classic Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah called Targum Onkeles, translates this phrase, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Our capacity for speech is the reflection of our Divine image. It is the most fundamental creative capacity by which we give form to that which existed only in the potential and hidden realm of thought.

Speech is our most precious and powerful capacity. To cheapen speech is to betray our very humanity, our Divine image. Isn’t it abundantly true that many, if not most, of the difficult situations which we create for ourselves are a product of our injudicious misuse of the power of speech? Indeed, I can think of a no more appropriate way to begin the Day of Atonement than through the somber reflection on just how cheap talk is not.