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Ha'Iggeret ~ The Message

Ha'Iggeret ~ The Message

By Shira Kaplan
Nearly 35 years ago, my grandfather Dr. Bernard Kaplan started a weekly Torah newsletter - a “unique journal of original and plagiarized Jewish thought.” When I started a weekly Torah email in the fall of 2019 (called Emunah Until the Sunset), I had no idea. A few months in, my family mentioned his newsletters, called Ha'Iggeret, or the Message. It struck me as incredibly Divine that the tzadik of a grandfather I never got to meet suddenly felt so near to me. This podcast will be in his merit ~ Benyamin Aryeh ben Leah. (to get these via email, subscribe -- https://forms.gle/Xy3r8JfDBRvz2YhN7)
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Ep. 49 // V'zot HaBerakhah ... How to Remain Youthful Forever
Throughout the Torah, we hear many descriptions of Moshe (Moses), but a particularly powerful descriptor comes once he has died at the age of 120. “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” - “וּמֹשֶׁ֗ה בֶּן־מֵאָ֧ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֛ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּמֹת֑וֹ לֹא־כָהֲתָ֥ה עֵינ֖וֹ וְלֹא־נָ֥ס לֵחֹֽה” There are a lot of different interpretations of what this means. Some say this means he exuded the same light that shone from him as he descended Mount Sinai / Har Sinai for all of the days of his life. Others say this means his body did not show signs of aging even as he reached such an advanced age, and that he remained youthful even at 120. What does one do to remain youthful / have a long life? Personally, I have been anxious about aging since my 10th birthday. (Seriously, I remember crying on my final night as a 9 year old with the recognition that I will never be one digit ever again!!) And it was just my 24th birthday (I am approaching my mid-twenties and I don’t know how to feel about it), which led me to some reflection on my values in general. In his commentary on this parsha, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites the Grant Study, which longitudinally tracked the lives of 268 Harvard students since 1938. The Grant Study sought to understand what leads to human flourishing. The psychiatrist George Vaillant wrote a number of books about the findings of this study. There are 2 dimensions of successful aging that are related to Moshe. A concept called “generativity,” or investing in forms of life and work that will outlive yourself. We have a choice once we reach a comfortable state of living - be static, or give back to others now that we ourselves are stable. A concept called “keeper of the meaning,” which refers to the wisdom that comes with age. Our elders are respected for their life experiences, and valued for passing on that wisdom to the younger generations. Moshe has spent the entire book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) performing generativity. Instead of hanging out, relying on his laudable past, or rehashing his mistakes, Moshe spends his final 5 weeks teaching the next generation how to live their lives, rehashing their history as a people and refreshing their memories on how to be moral, upstanding people in a social context. What good does setting B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) up for success do for Moshe? Well, nothing. He’s planting the seeds for the next generation with the knowledge he will never see the benefits. And regarding being a “keeper of the meaning” — we cannot count the amount of times “teach this to your children” has been said in the Torah. We are all about valuing the wisdom of old and making it new by teaching it to the young. This is reminiscent of the difference between hiddush (newness) and hidhadshut (renewal). Newness for the sake of new is worthless because it’s not rooted in anything deeper or meaningful. Renewal is taking the wisdom of the old with us into the new. Moshe remained youthful till 120 because he retained hope for the future through all of his days. He never lost sight of the value of the next generation. I have always been someone who is impressed by success in any form. You’re a math genius who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT? You have me in absolute awe. You’re a supremely gifted dancer who can kick your face? I bow at your perfectly pointed toes. You’re an innovative computer engineer who knows 10 coding languages? I don’t understand you, but I respect you. But when I moved to New York, I realized there are lots of successful people everywhere. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:10
September 24, 2021
Ep. 48 // Haazinu ... Penultimate Perspective
Wow we’re in the second-to-last portion of the Torah! Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, for the entire book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) has been giving B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, his last words of wisdom. As we know, Moshe, will not be entering the Land with the People. So, like a parent about to send their child off to college, Moshe is trying to capture all the things the kid needs to know before launching them out into the world. We spend a lot of Sefer Dvarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) recapping the events of the past 40 years while also talking about the way that the Jewish people should conduct themselves once they enter the Land of Israel. In last week’s Torah portion, we read about a “song” that B’nei Yisrael should write for themselves and teach their children. This “song” represents the Torah but it also refers to an actual section of this week’s parsha - Shirat Haazinu, the Song of Haazinu (the name of the portion). The section describes how B’nei Yisrael will turn away from G-d once things start going well when they enter the Land of Israel. The text explains that this “song” should bear witness against the Jewish people - predicting that B’nei Yisrael will stray. G-d not only predicts that B’nei Yisrael will stray, but also predicts how G-d and the Jewish people will react to these events. The text says, "And I will kindle My anger against them on that day [i.e. at that time] and leave them, for I will hide My face from them, and terrible things will befall them - and they will say on that day [at that time] - it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us" So B’nei Yisrael strays, and G-d gets angry, sending bad things to them. But by saying that G-d isn’t in their midst, it sounds like B’nei Yisrael blaming G-d for the “terrible things that will befall them.” They’re saying, “Well G-d has turned from us and that’s why these bad things are happening, not because we did anything bad!” What we have here is a seeming showdown between G-d and the Jewish people. And because Moshe sees that this situation could be in the future for both parties, Moshe gives over Shirat Haazinu, preparing future generations. Moshe opens the song commanding B’nei Yisrael to listen - he then praises G-d, following the praise with the statement, “Destruction is not His; it is His children's defect you crooked and twisted generation.” Moshe is saying, “Do not blame G-d for your straying … it’s not that G-d isn’t among you, it’s your own doing!” Moshe goes on, “Is this how you repay the Lord, you disgraceful, unwise people?! Is He not your Father, your Master? He has made you and established you.” These statements directly confront B’nei Yisrael’s inevitable question - whose fault is it that bad things are happening? Theirs / ours! If B’nei Yisrael is fully blaming G-d for bad things in their midst, then they have misinterpreted the last part of “He has made you and established you.” Just because we are G-d’s people does not mean that G-d acts like a fairy godmother to our every wish, poof-ing away any trouble. The covenant that the Jewish people have with G-d is one of reciprocation, of responsibility. We have Bechira Chofshit, free will, which means we are accountable for our actions. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:56
September 14, 2021
Ep. 47 // Vayelech ... Singing with the Community
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, or the Shabbat of Return. Not, as could be easily misunderstood as Shabbat TEshuva (Shabbat of Repentance). Of course the word for Teshuva is related to shuva because they both come from לָשׁוּב / Leshuv, to return. Return and repentance are definitely related. When we repent, we are returning to the self we were before we did the deed we wanted to repent for. In this week’s parsha, Vayelech, B’nei Yisrael are doing their own kind of returning - they are about to cross the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel, finally! Eretz Yisrael is now in their future, but it’s also a part of their past. Their ancestors - Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob) all lived there once upon a time. Moving forward, then for the tribes, is returning to the place of the past. When we repent, we return to our purest, truest selves, and Shabbat Shuva is a time to tune into this self. We have this whole Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the 10 Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and Shabbat Shuva is smack in the middle of these. I picture a seesaw. On one side sits the self we began the holidays with. Perhaps this self is a bit scuffed, wearing a sour expression, but off in the distance, on the other side of the see saw, is the self we want to end Yom Kippur with - the self that is shining, gleaming, pure and is wearing a serene expression. Where we are now is the center of the seesaw. We are between the two selves, and we have the choice where we want to end. This is inspired by a teaching of the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides. He taught in Hilchot Teshuva, the Laws of Teshuva, that we should view ourselves all year as if we are half innocent and half guilty. If we commit one sin, we tip the seesaw to the guilty side. And it we just do one mitzvah, we tip the seesaw to the righteous side. (Well he didn’t say the part about the seesaw, that’s me…) Rav Kook taught that the Jewish people are a collective soul. We are all sparks from the same source, so when we sin, we are sinning on behalf of all of the people. The same, of course, goes for when we perform mitzvot. We are acting righteously on behalf of all of the people, then, too. Speaking of acting on behalf of the Klal, the whole community… In this week’s parsha, we receive the final mitzvah, the final of the 613th of the mitzvot. “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel” - “וְעַתָּ֗ה כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את וְלַמְּדָ֥הּ אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל” What is the song you ask? The “song / shira” is the Torah. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, taught that Moshe was teaching B’nei Yisrael that it isn’t enough to just take in the teachings of Moshe himself — they must make the Torah new and fresh themselves. To this day, Torah scrolls are written as in ancient times, by hand, using parchment, and written with a quill. The Torah scroll is the closest thing we have in our modern Jewish practice to a sacred relic. The word “shira” can mean song or poetry, and because it’s used 5 times in this passage, clearly is significant. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, interprets that we should read the Torah as if it is poetry, not prose. The Netziv argues that the Torah is like poetry because it’s allusive rather than explicit - leaving more unsaid than said. Secondly, it also hints at deeper meanings, expressing more than just is what is visible on the surface. Torah is imbued with deep secrets, like poetry, too. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
04:51
September 06, 2021
Ep. 46 // Nitzavim ... feat. a sweet anecdote about my Birthright tour guide
A few weeks after I graduated college in 2019, I staffed a Hillel International Birthright trip. If you have had the immense privilege to be a participant on a Birthright trip, you know there are 2 very important Israeli cogs in the machine that is an individual Birthright trip - the Israeli bus driver and the Israeli tour guide. Our tour guide, who we will call Ron, was your typical non-religious Israeli. Every time I would commandeer the bus microphone to give some Torah context for a location we were going or share some “fun” Jewish facts, he would roll his eyes good naturedly. By the end of our 10 days he had given me the title “Rabbanit.” (Which I give him credit for - whether he knew it or not, he was being pretty progressive. What we call young women in Jewish contexts — I.e. - Rabbanit vs Rebbetzin, is a whole conversation that I welcome. Write to me.) Ron was very averse to the religious aspects of Judaism. (Alert - I’m going to make a grand over-simplification about Israeli culture!!) This wasn’t surprising — there is a very deep cultural divide between religious Israelis and non-religious Israelis. Ron, like 50% of the Israeli population, served in the army and viewed such service as the citizens’ responsibility as an Israeli. Haredi Jews do not serve in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), under religious exemption, and because 53% of Haredim live below the poverty line, they receive government funding. Haredim view themselves as the last protector of the Jewish nature of the state, and that on the merit of their full-time learning does the state of Israel stand. I hope you believe that none of this info has been sharing my personal opinion — I am trying to simply give context. Basically — there is lots of tension between these two groups. Obviously there’s even more nuance within other religious groups… but we will leave it here. I didn’t think much of Ron’s aversion to Judaism. It seemed typical to me. On the last day of our trip, though he shared something really beautiful. So after his army service, like many Israelis, Ron traveled. In India specifically, he was fascinated by Buddhism and the deep, ancient connection that those he met in India felt to their ancestors. He found himself wishing that he, too, had an ancient connection to an ancient people. Interestingly enough, Jews account for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America, so there’s definitely something there between Judaism and Buddhism. Ron wanted to be connected to ancient people until he realized… he was. Ron was a Jew! A Jew whose ancestors stood at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) and heard Hashem speak the first 2 Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments), he was a Jew that had actualized the hope of thousands of years to return to the Land of Israel to be a free people. Ron had spent his whole life living in the ancient Jewish homeland, but didn’t appreciate it till leaving the nest. Ron saw us silly Americans as being more connected to our Judaism from 7,000 miles away than he was in Israel. To him, we were willing to schlep across the ocean to connect to our Judaism, and he wondered maybe he was too close to it. In this week’s parsha, Nitzavim, our brit (covenant) with G-d is renewed, the covenant of promising to uphold G-d’s mitzvot. This covenant is not only with all of Bnei Yisrael that were present, but also with those of future generations. The next section of the parsha describes how future generations may stray from the Derech HaShem, the way of G-d in life. The Torah tells us that we are curious people, that we will be drawn by other aspects of other religions. Soul scene Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:05
September 01, 2021
Ep. 45 // Ki Tavo ... First Fruits and Gratitude
There’s a really long, really unique declaration in regard to the mitzvah of “bikkurim” that is made in this week’s parsha. Bikkurim refers to the mitzvah of bringing the first of your fruits to the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah begins with the word, “Bereshit - בראשית” meaning “in the beginning.” According to the Midrash on this very first word, there are a few things in the Torah that are called “Reishit,” meaning the first of. In the beginning of this parsha, we get this word Reishit, “And you shall take of the first of the fruits of the earth… - וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֞ מֵֽרֵאשִׁ֣ית | כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה” The Midrash tells us that G-d created the whole world for the purpose of all of the “Reishit” moments, of which bikkurim is included in. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that the essence of this mitzvah is demonstrating our gratitude to G-d. OK cool, how? Up until entering the land of Israel, the Jewish people have been living a pretty miraculous life out there in the midbar, the desert. Their food is dropped in their laps, (the man / manna), they drink water that poured forth from a rock, they have this pillar of cloud that keeps them cool, their clothes never wear out… they’re living a supernatural life. It’s very easy to see that G-d is in every aspect of their day-to-day when in the desert. But when they cross the Yarden / Jordan and begin their normal, typical life, they start living a non-obviously G-d-granted life. They’re going to be making their own living - they’re plowing the land, and they’ll get their own yield. This is exactly the moment where one can forget about G-d’s involvement. In comes bikkurim — in the very moment when the first bud develops in their crop, where we could begin to believe that our success is due to our own work and not to G-d. We quite literally “nip it in the bud” by gathering the Reishit, the beginning, of our crop to be taken the Temple. Once you take the first fruits to Yerushalayim, you’re commanded to make this long declaration (as mentioned in the beginning) recapping the miracles that G-d has done for the Jewish people. In this declaration, we remember Yaakov / Jacob and his clash with Laban, his father in law. We remember being slaves in Mitzrayim / Egypt, and finally we we remember G-d’s deliverance of us to our Eretz Zavat Halav u’Dvash - a land flowing with milk and honey. We recap of all the good that G-d has done for the Jewish people to remind us that we are not out here floating on a space rock. We are very much rooted in the presence and benevolence of G-d, even when we feel as though all of our success is due to our own hand. The word for heresy is the same word as ignoring / choosing not to acknowledge - כְּפִירָה / Kfira. The word for gratitude, though, is the same as active acknowledgment - הוֹדָאָה / Hoda’ah. Being willing to acknowledge the presence of G-d is what true gratitude is. Thanking G-d is attesting, acknowledging G-d’s dominion on this earth. This is why, then you compliment religious Jews, their response is often “Thank G-d.” This is an every-day kind of Hoda’ah - recognizing that every positive (and negative) trait was specifically chosen by G-d for you. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:22
August 25, 2021
Ep. 44 // Ki Teitzei ... Honor thy Mama Bird
Ki Teitzei, this week’s parsha, has the most number of mitzvot mentioned in all of the 54 parsha installments. These mitzvot are pretty miscellaneous — paying wages on time, family inheritence, treatment of domestic animals, weights and measures, and lots of others. One mitzvah that continually perplexes us is one dealing with baby birds, mama birds, and their nests - the mitzvah of שילוח הקן / Shiluach HaKen, or sending away the nest. It’s special for a few reasons - firstly, it’s one of only 2 mitzvot in the Torah where a reward is specifically mentioned (the other is Kibud Av v’Em, honoring one’s mother and father). We are instructed that if we come upon a mother bird upon her nest of either eggs or young, we are to shoo the mother bird away before taking the eggs or the young. If we take the eggs / young after shooing the mother away, it will be “good for us” and we will have a long life - לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְהַֽאֲרַכְתָּ֖ יָמִֽים. What’s the first thing that comes to mind for this? I think the natural train of thought is, “Oh, G-d loves all creatures. It’s kind of mean to take a mother’s babies when she’s there, so the mitzvah is to NOT let her see them being taken.” But then why is eating meat ok?? If it’s “mean to animals” to kill them, we shouldn’t eat them!! Ok so the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, explains that having compassion for animals simply inculcates compassion for humanity. People should accustom themselves to act mercifully and kindly to all. And if we’re kind and empathetic to even baby birds, then even more so would we be kind to our fellow humans. Lovely idea! Also you can see the obvious parallel between Kibud Av v’Em and Shiluach Haken, because we have the respect of a parent at the center. Shiluach Haken is interesting though because the mitzvah only counts if it’s the MOTHER bird, not the father bird, while Kibud Av v’Em is both the mother and the father. Let me know your thoughts on this distinction! Ok so let’s talk more broadly about mitzvot! As we learn from a few sources, there are 613 mitzvot. According to the Midrash, there are 248 positive mitzvot (Mitzvot Aseh, a mitzvot you SHOULD do), and 365 negative mitzvot (Mitzvot Lo Taaesh, mitzvot you should NOT do). We learn that 248 corresponds to the number of bones / limbs in the human body. Every part of the body is directly related to one of those mitzvot. (EX: you should OPEN your hand to give charity - תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָֽדְךָ֖). Every part of our physical body, then, is elevated by the mitzvot corresponding. The 248 mitzvot become our spiritual “body” double. Ok so what about the 365? The Or HaChaim cites the Arizal - our soul is split into many sparks of life. Each spark represents a day we have been granted by G-d. Each day we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah. If we complete a mitzvah, the spark is actualized. If we do not do a mitzvah, that spark becomes blemished. The Or HaChaim says this helps us to understand sleep - we need sleep to be the “changing of the guard.” Replacing yesterday’s spark with tomorrow’s. And when sleep is described as 1/60th of death, this makes sense! One bit of our soul IS departing - one spark-let is leaving but if G-d wants us to live another day, we get a new one for the next day. So every day is an opportunity to connect with the Divine every day of the year - 365 times per year. Because the 365 negative mitzvot correspond to each day of our lives. Every day is an opportunity to connect to the Divine and every limb is, too. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
04:51
August 20, 2021
Ep. 43 // Shoftim ... Justice and Jupiter (intriguing, no?)
There is a famous pasuk (line) in this parsha - one that every Millenial / Gen Z, socially conscious person you know has written on their water bottles, computers, coffee cups, etc — צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, Justice, justice, you shall pursue. In context and out of context, it’s such a powerful line. The command “tirdof” meaning “you shall pursue” from the verb לִרְדוֹף, implies chasing, hunting, going after with energy. It’s not “casually saunter after justice” or “go get some justice if you feel like it.” There’s no qualifier or anything, it’s just “Go after it.” This is the point in my dvar-writing that I absolutely went down a rabbit hole in the internet. I didn’t know this, but in modern Hebrew, the planet Jupiter is called Tzedek??? What even!?!? If you went through a super enthusiastic Greek / Roman mythology phase like I did in junior high, you will know that Jupiter was the Roman equivalent / parallel to Zeus in Greek mythology. Jupiter is the biggest planet and Zeus / Jupiter are considered the “head gods” so that makes sense that the planet is named for them. But what’s the connection with tzedek? I should really do some more substantial research on this, but Zeus’s thing was being the god of Order and Justice, ahem: tzedek, righteousness. So this choice of calling the planet Jupiter, “Tzedek” after the Green / Roman god its named after, is just modern Hebrew paralleling Greek and Roman culture. This parsha is full of commands against worshipping idols or other false gods, so it’s a tad funny that a word so central to the parsha is relatively related to these aforementioned “other gods.” And once I was down the rabbit hole of roots of Hebrew words or associations with certain Hebrew words, I couldn’t stop. Thanks to an essay I found online by Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, I have learned that there are literally 10 different words the Torah uses in referring to “law” - din, tzedek, dvar, mishmeret, mitzvah, torah (lowercase, not the Torah), mishpat, chok, edut, and ot. And they can mean anything like commandment, judgment, observance, righteousness, rule, sign, statute, teaching, testimony, or word. These are not simply interchangeable synonyms, but they overlap so much in meaning! But I’m digressing - we’re focusing on tzedek. And tzedek is really hard to truly define. At its root, tzedek is the act of doing what is right, it doesn’t really refer to punishments (like “din”) or corrective actions (like “mishpat”). It encompasses the way we treat one another, the way we defend those who cannot defend themselves, the way we help those in need. Tzedek is the root of the word “tzedakah” which is often not-totally-accurately translated as “charity.” Charity comes from the Latin root “caritas” referring to the “Christian love of your fellow human beings.” Tzedakah is not giving because you feel like it, or giving because it makes you feel warm inside. Tzedakah is the duty, the moral obligation to give and to care for our fellow people. This brings to mind another part of the parsha - a bit later, we read about the procedure if a dead body is found and the cause is unknown. The elders and judges of the area should measure to which city the body was found closest to. That city that is closest to where the body was found is to send their elders to proclaim that they had nothing to do with this death, and then they sacrifice an “unworked calf” in a “rough, unworked valley.” Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:40
August 12, 2021
Ep. 42 // Re'eh ... Sound and Sight
We learn in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26A) that a person who has seen a crime committed cannot serve as a judge in the case. Why? When someone has seen a person commit a capital crime, they cannot possibly exonerate them. Judges are supposed to look for innocence, and if a person has seen another commit a crime with their own eyes, having impartiality isn’t possible. Our sages recognize that sight is a very powerful sense, and we start this week’s parsha with it. Behold, today I set before you a blessing and a curse - רְאֵ֗ה אָֽנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה The first word in this parsha, and the name of the parsha, Re’eh, means to see, coming from Lirot / לראות. But here, Re’eh is translated most commonly as “behold.” Why does “sight” imply understanding? When someone explains a concept to us, if we say “Ah, I see” we understand. We can also communicate our understanding with another sense, “Ah, I hear you.” Judaism is a religion that primarily relates to sound. Our Avot, Avraham (Abraham), Yitzchak (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob) heard the voice of G-d and didn’t see it, Moshe heard G-d at the burning bush but didn’t see G-d, B’nei Yisrael heard the voice of G-d at Har Sinai, Mount Sinai. Even at Sinai B’nei Yisrael awoke to the SOUNDS of thunder, lightning, and a great horn blast. (Yes they saw a great cloud / the mountain ablaze, but the most important thing here is the sound — the sound of the voice of G-d delivering the first 2 of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments. G-d is not an entity that can be comprehended, let alone seen. And though our ancestors did see symbols / representations of G-d, the most affecting situations are found with sound. Judaism is rare in that our “revelation” that “proves” G-d is real, happened for all the nation to hear. We all heard G-d’s voice at Har Sinai, we all had the privilege of experiencing the sound for ourselves. Much like “seeing” someone commit a crime makes you unable to say they are innocent, “hearing” the existence of G-d and the existence of our covenant with him makes us unable to deny G-d’s existence. Throughout the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, the verb Lishmoa / לשמוע can be found in some form 92 times. But weren’t we just talking about sight? Re’eh right? Yes! Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, pointed out that though the command is “See / behold before you,” the words that follow it only speak of hearing. I will now roughly paraphrase - See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. You will get the blessing if you LISTEN - תִּשְׁמְע֗וּ- and heed my laws, you will get the curse if you DON’T LISTEN - אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמְעוּ֙. So, SEE these 2 options that will happen if you don’t LISTEN! The Shema, found in 3 places in the Torah and that has now become a centerpiece in Jewish belief, also focuses on sound. Shema - of course coming from Lishmoa, to hear, proclaims the basic Jewish principle - monotheism. שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹקינוּ ה' אֶחָֽד - Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One. It’s not REEH oh Israel, or SEE O Israel, it’s HEAR O Israel. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:52
August 05, 2021
Ep. 41 // Eikev ... Happy "Small Mitzvah Appreciation" Day!
In this week’s parsha, we continue with Moshe Rabbenu’s recounting of the events of the past 40 years in the midbar, the desert 🏜🌵🐪. We begin this parsha with a conditional statement - where Moshe tells B’nei Yisrael that if they observe the mitzvot they have received from G-d, then G-d will keep the covenant, the Brit, he made with our ancestors. The parsha opens with, “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform them, - וְהָיָ֣ה | עֵ֣קֶב תִּשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֤ת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם - that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers - וְשָׁמַר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לְךָ֗ אֶת־הַבְּרִית֙ וְאֶת־הַחֶ֔סֶד אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַֽאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ The word used for “it will be” or “so it shall follow” is the word עֵ֣קֶב / Ekev, the name of the parsha. Eikev literally means “heel,” and here it can mean “on the heels of [following the mitzvot].” We can also interpret the usage of eikev to refer “walking” in the way of our ancestors, or the way that G-d would like us to conduct ourselves. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki also comments that the usage of Eikev refers to the fact that we should heed ALL commandments, even HaMitzvot HaKallot / המצות הקלות or “light / simple mitzvot”, that one might “trample with their heel” and not view as important. Mitzvah Kallah is a common way to refer to a minor / light / not-so-weighty mitzvah. We also learn, though, that we cannot know the exact importance of certain mitzvot on this earth. Shouldn’t we know which mitzvot to prioritize? I guess not. If we pursue all mitzvot equally, perhaps that’s a way to walk in the way of G-d. If we are constantly pursuing righteous things, even things that we, in human error, deem to be less important, we will live a righteous life. I guess when we think of important / heavy commandments, we think of “do not kill” or “do not steal” or “do not worship idols.” But something like “do not embarrass others” or “do not slander others” or “do not lie” falls to the side. We’re judgmental people (or at least I am…for now!) And as much as we think we weigh the “big” mitzvot more than we weigh the “little” ones when we judge, we also make judgments based on the little things (again, or at least I do….for now!) The “little” things could be the way someone speaks to an Uber driver, whether or not they pick up a piece of trash they’ve dropped, or my big one: if they make others feel valued and included in a conversation. This isn’t a hot take — everyone says that the way someone treats a person that owes them nothing is very telling. So, if we perform easy mitzvot with the same energy we perform harder mitzvot, that’s a well-rounded life. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:28
July 30, 2021
Ep. 40 // Vaetchanan ... the answer is no
How do you ask a friend, a loved one, an acquaintance, a coworker for something? Do you remind them of the deeds you’ve done for them? Do you remind them how much they love you? Do you simply ask? According to Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the way to do it is to simply ask. Those who are righteous do not expect their rewards in this world, Olam HaZe. They know their rewards await them in the world to come - Olam HaBaa. And this sort of straight-up ask is what Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, does in this week’s parsha - VaEtchanan. As we have read before, Moshe was prohibited from entering the Land of Israel with B’nei Yisrael, but that didn’t stop him from pleading, praying to G-d to be let in. Not even to live there or lead the people! He was just asking G-d to be able to enter the land, walk it, and observe the mitzvot that can only be observed there. According to the Midrash, Moshe implored G-d 515 times to enter (because the Gematria / numerical value of the word Vaetchanan - וָֽאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן, meaning “I implored” is 515 - 515 is also the numerical value of my name, Shira - which means “singing” as well as the word Tefillah / תפלה which means “prayer”. Lots of symbolism there.) G-d commands Moshe to stop praying — implying that if Moshe would have sent out his 516th prayer, he would have been allowed into the Land. Perhaps Moshe knew that this 516th prayer would have been the ticket — especially after being explicitly told NOT to continue. And yet he listens. If you wanted something and knew you were thiiiiiis close to pushing the outcome over the edge, wouldn’t you be tempted to keep wheedling? I know I would. Here we learn that prayer does not fall on deaf ears. Our prayers are always answered,  but sometimes the answer is “no.” And sometimes we understand immediately why that was the case, other times it takes years, and most likely, we will never know. But prayer isn’t just for G-d to see how righteous we are. Prayer is also a reflective experience - as well as a reflexive one, too. This is a common concept to reference, but the Hebrew verb להתפלל - LeHitpalel (to pray) is reflexive, meaning you do the praying to yourself. How can that be? Aren’t we asking G-d for something? Yes, but we also pray for the sake of ourselves. When we articulate our desires, we are able to visualize what we want. But how do we deal with the denial? Emunah, faith. Or recognition that we are simple human beans (yes, beans) that cannot comprehend the ways of the world. That isn’t a very comforting thought, but it can be if we have proper context. I am always working on this, but off the top of my head right this moment, I can think of 5 instances where I davened (prayed) and cried over some experience / job / person only to see that the outcome I desired was 100% the incorrect one. I try to remind myself of these truths when I’m frustrated with what I am perceiving as a “no.” So back to this word Vaetchanan - וָֽאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן, meaning to beg or plead — it’s rooted in the Hebrew word Chinun - חִנּוּן, which, according to Rashi, implies requesting a free gift. This reminds me of something I once heard about the concept of love. If you asked someone you love why they love you, it would be nice to hear a few reasons. “Your incomparable wit… your incredible emotional intelligence… your beautiful eyes! Etc.” But what if these reasons were to go away? Would the love go away, too? Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:59
July 22, 2021
Ep. 39 // Devarim ... the scout mindset vs the soldier mindset
Sometimes (even though our Torah is a delightfully 70-faceted text, and our commentators are also delightfully diverse) I am running low on parsha email content. In these desperate moments, I have a very specific procedure. Step 1: Open the Apple podcasts app. Step 2: Wait to be inspired. I cannot explain it other than Divine will, but every time I do this, I end up listening to exactly the right podcast to get me on the right track for writing. That happened this week. I stumbled upon a podcast that featured social-science researcher Julia Galef speaking about the two frames with which we interpret information: scout mindset vs soldier mindset. Galef describes the solider mindset as approaching situations with the sole intent of defending one’s own beliefs, shooting down any other conflicting information and seeing alternative approaches as the “enemy.” The soldier mindset tends to be based on emotions like defensiveness and tribalism. The scout mindset, alternately, is driven by the desire to find the truth — to see what is real, no matter who or where it comes from. The scout mindset is based in curiosity, with a love of learning and solving puzzles. Scouts are grounded in their self worth, not basing it on how right or wrong they are about any particular topic. If you can pick it up from the descriptors, we should all strive to be scouts. As Galef says in her own words, “[The Scout Mindset is] my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.” That scout person is someone I’d like to be around! Now why in the world am I bringing up soldiers and scouts? Great question — in this week’s parsha, we begin the book of Devarim, of Deuteronomy. Devarim takes place over the final 5 weeks of Moshe Rabbenu’s life. He’s recapping the events of the Torah from Avraham onward, with an important emphasis of a particularly eventful event that happened pretty recently in our narrative (but 38 years ago in the Torah timeline) — in parshat Shelach where we have the event of Chet HaMeraglim, the Sin of the Spies. As a recap, as B’nei Yisrael approaches the land of Israel, some leaders become nervous about this new home of theirs. They ask Moshe if they can send some spies in to scout out the land and confirm that it’s an ארץ טובה - an Eretz Tova, a Good Land. In the first telling of the story, Moshe and G-d allow the spies to go into the land, but send them with specific instructions. One instruction sums up the rest - Moshe asks them to confirm if it’s a good or a bad land - using the words טוב and רע / Tov and Ra (Good vs Bad). This word, “tov” for “good” is very powerful. To truly understand a biblical word, we can explore its other usages. Get Julia Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't here. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:51
July 14, 2021
Ep. 38 // Mattot-Masei ... the good old days
We are entering the final 2 parshiyot of Bamidbar (Numbers) with our double portion of Mattot-Masei!!! Crazy!!! If you’ve been paying attention, the word we commonly use to refer to the 12 tribes of Israel is “shevet” (plural shvatim). Like Shevet Levi, Shevet Menashe, etc. But in the first of this week’s 2 parshiyot, the word used to refer to the tribes is “mateh” (plural Mattot - the name of the parsha). The parsha begins with Moshe speaking to the heads of the tribes (Rashei HaMattot) about the laws of making oaths or vows - nedarim. Let’s look a bit deeper into the significance of these two words. Shevet or שֵׁבֶט can refer to tribe, yes, but can also also mean “branch,” as in the branch of a tree. Mateh, or מַטֶּה, can refer to tribe, yes, but it also can mean “stick,” or what an offshoot of a tree becomes when it dries out. What’s the difference between a green offshoot (shevet) and a brown stick (mateh)? Well they’re both from the same source. There is a nice idea that every soul that has ever and will ever exist was present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. That everyone who exists now is lit within by one of the 600,000 souls that heard G-d at Matan Torah. This inner spark is what we call the “Pintele Yid” or the essential point of Judaism. (When I first heard this, the image that came to mind a tiny Jew that, for some reason, looked like the Lucky Charms leprechaun, living within all of us). Ok so we all have this inner spark, lit by the source fire - G-d. So a mateh and a shevet originated with the One Tree, but a shevet (branch) retains its vitality and flexibiliy while a mateh (stick) becomes dried out and brittle. Though a branch can be swayed by the wind, a stick stands strong through its trials. The branch (shevet) still retains some of the lifeblood of the tree within it, and therefore represents a person who retains connection with G-d and recognizes G-d’s involvement in their lives. The stick (mateh), though, has been uprooted. The stick represents all of us in the diaspora, gallus / gallut — removed from G-d to an extent. Both the branch and the stick have their points of strength, and both represent two different kinds of religious lives. A malleable branch will do just fine if in temperate weather, just as even the most tenuously connected Jew feels connection to G-d when in a place like Israel. And a stick, though in a Jewish desert such as [insert your city here] has learned to withstand the influences of those around us out of a sink-or-swim reality. It’s no coincidence that we usually read Mattot during the saddest time of year for Jews - the Three Weeks (Bein HaMetzarim, between the straits). This is a period bookended by two fast days where we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Our exile from Israel began with the destruction of the Temples, so we associate gallut / the diaspora with this time. We enter the most intense mourning this coming week with the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av this coming Saturday - the Nine Days. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed LINKS Andy's sad as heck line Final scene of the Office Shira's Senior Spring Montage Memory Video
08:03
July 08, 2021
Ep. 37 // Pinchas ... the tortoise AND the hare were right + I hate LinkedIn
In last week’s parsha we read of Bilaam, the non-Jewish sorcerer’s, attempt to curse the Jewish people. If you remember, he wasn’t successful initially. Bilaam fails and is only able to bless B’nei Yisrael and then suddenly his 15 minutes of narrative are done… or are they?? According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a), Bilaam then goes to the king of Moav, Balak, and conspires to truly take down the Jewish people. Bilaam counsels Balak to entice Jewish men to commit some sexual immorality with the women of Moav and Midian. Immediately after the saga of Bilaam and his 3 blessings, we read that B’nei Yisrael settles in a city called Shittim, east of the Jordan river in Moav. They become engaged in what the Torah calls Liznot / לִזנוֹת or “straying” with the women of Midian and Moav, who have been encouraged by Bilaam and Balak to help with the downfall of B’nei Yisrael. According to the Midrash, the Midianite and Moabite women also entice the Jewish men to commit avodah zara (idolatry) as well as gilui arayot (sexual impropriety) and things go a bit crazy. So crazy in fact, that one pair of consorting cavorters actually conduct some of their …. acts… in front of the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, and the leaders of B’nei Yisrael. Moshe and the other leaders freeze. They know the right thing to do (i.e. - stop them), but in the heat of the crazy moment, it eludes them. In one of the more violent and descriptive events of our Torah, Pinchas (Phineas), grandson of Aharon, is the sole actor and impales the pair (Zimri of the tribe of Shimon and Kozbi, a Midiniate woman) when he sees them. And then the parsha ends, kind of suddenly. At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Pinchas, Hashem bestows our previously aforementioned zealot a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace, for his righteous acts. Hmm… a covenant of peace for impaling two people? Interesting… And then, G-d also welcomes Pinchas into the priesthood, the kahuna. “But Shira! Wasn’t Pinchas a descendant of Aharon??? And aren’t all descendants of Aharon kohanim (priests)???” “Yes! You have been listening!” Pinchas WAS a Levi (from the tribe of Levi) but he wasn’t a kohen. The legacy of priesthood was only given to Aharon’s sons and the sons that THOSE sons begot after being ordained. Pinchas was already born! So he wasn’t included in the descendants until now! One question — why does someone who’s most famous act is impaling 2 people get a covenant of peace?? Well, there are different interpretations of what “shalom” - peace, really mean. Shalom is related to the Hebrew word “shalem” meaning whole or complete. To straight up quote from Wikipedia, “The meaning of completeness, central to the term shalom, can also be confirmed in related terms found in other Semitic languages. The Assyrian term salamu means to be complete, unharmed, paid/atoned. Sulmu, another Assyrian term, means welfare. A closer relation to the idea of shalom as concept and action is seen in the Arabic root salaam, meaning to be safe, secure and forgiven, among other things.” Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:31
July 01, 2021
Ep. 36 // Balak ... the Neverending Story + Bilaam
To recap the end of last week’s parsha, Chukat —as B’nei Yisrael makes their way toward actually entering the Land of Israel, they have to pass through some “enemy” territory. They come across the land of the Amorites, east of the Jordan river. (So in modern-day Jordan). B’nei Yisrael sends emissaries to speak to the Amorite kings, asking for permission to simply pass through their lands, not even stopping to drink water from their wells or take produce from their fields. The Amorim refused, and so B’nei Yisrael battles the Amorim and succeed, settling their cities. The nearby country of Moab / Moav hear of this conquest and become nervous. Balak, the king of Moav, enlists a non-Jewish sorcerer / prophet named Bilaam for help. The king wants Bilaam, a powerful prophet, to curse B’nei Yisrael so they don’t overtake Moav. Dignitaries of the king of Moav go to Bilaam and convey the message. G-d communicated with Bilaam through dreams, so Bilaam says, “Let me sleep on it and I’ll circle back.” G-d comes to him in the dream and says, “No! Don’t curse B’nei Yisrael” So Bilaam tells the dignitaries he cannot do it. So even more important dignitaries come, and Bilaam again sleeps on it. G-d answers in a puzzling way this time. G-d says something like, “Look, if people came to get you, go with them. But you’re only going to be able to say what I will allow you to say.” So Bilaam arises the next morning and starts toward B’nei Yisrael on his donkey. G-d is still angry that Bilaam insists on going, so G-d sends an angel to stop him. Like Dr. Sam Beckett’s true identity in Quantum Leap, the Malach Hashem, the angel of G-d, can only be seen by animals (and I guess kids too?), so Bilaam is blissfully unaware. The donkey sees the angel, who is there to kill / stop Bilaam, so she (yes it’s a she-donkey) turns away from the road. Bilaam has no idea what’s going on, so he’s enraged and strikes the donkey. The donkey keeps on. But the angel is still in the way! So the donkey runs into a fence. Bilaam, again strikes it. The donkey continues. And again, tries to save Bilaam because the angel is now blocking a narrow path so that they cannot get by. Bilaam is striking his relentlessly when G-d suddenly opens the mouth of the donkey who says something like, “Why are you such a jerk!!! Have I not been a loyal mode of transportation for you??” Then G-d opens Bilaam’s eyes so that he could see what was actually impeding his way. The angel backs up the donkey saying, “I was in the way and would have killed you if the donkey wouldn’t have turned away these three times!!!” Bilaam is chastened (maybe? the commentary says he just said what he needed to to get the angel off his back, but who knows) and the story continues. Bilaam goes to B’nei Yisrael, but as G-d promised, Bilaam is only able to speak blessings upon the people. So, he blesses them 3 times and goes on his way. That’s how the story is resolved, but the part that sticks out to me every time we get to this parsha is the genuine cluelessness of Bilaam when he’s being kept from his own death. How many times have you missed a flight, a bus, lost a job opportunity, been turned down for a date, been left out of a social outing, or any number of other disappointing things? All the time!!! These kinds of let downs happen ALL. THE. TIME. And maybe it means nothing and the world is just an amalgam of random occurrences… OR these were all merciful redirections. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:53
June 25, 2021
Ep. 35 // Chukat ... humanizing Aaron, Miriam, and Bo Burnham
Between the events of last week’s parsha and this middle section of this week’s parsha, about 38 years have passed. As we learning in Parshat Shelach a few weeks ago, the population of B’nei Yisrael that left Mitzrayim (Egypt) did not merit to enter the Land of Israel. That group sent the Meraglim (spies) into Eretz Yisrael and then believed them when their reports were less than favorable. So we know we wandered in the desert for 40 years, and about a year had passed since they were freed from Egypt at the time of Chet HaMeraglim (Sin of the Spies), so if a year had passed (before we were told we’d wander for 40 years total), and then 38 more passed, we’re at about 39 years out of 40 years. Meaning … one more year to go! And we still have the rest of Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy) to get through!! The Torah is Divine, but we never said it was an evenly distributed chronological document! We begin the parsha with the details of the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer. The Para Aduma is always referred to as the classic example of a “chok” or a non-intuitive law. I have brought this distinction up before, but we can never do enough hazara (review)! So there are choks/chukim and then there are mishpats/mishpatim. The Talmud distinguishes that mishpatim are intuitive in the way that, had the Torah never been codified, we would have gathered logically. Laws against stealing, murder, and other non-ambiguous actions. Chukim, however, aren’t so naturally intuited. Sometimes we mistranslate a chok as a law that has no explanation, but this isn’t true either. A chok has an explanation, but it isn’t one we can understand or know. Or as the Rambam, Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon explains — the rationale of chukim are hidden from us while the rationale of mishpatim is more obvious. So, the Para Aduma is always used as a prime example because it’s very specific and has to do with ritual impurity. The laws of Para Aduma are given, and then 38 years pass in the span of a single space button. 38 years after Chet HaMeraglim, the Sin of the Spies, B’nei Yisrael has settled in the area called Kadesh. And as we read, “There, Miriam dies and is buried there” - וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם The very next line is, “And there was no water for the people” - וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָֽעֵדָ֑ה The Talmud teaches that this quick pairing of Miriam’s death and then the loss of water means that it was in Miriam’s merit that B’nei Yisrael had water at all. I tend to associate Miriam with water — she watches over Moshe when he’s placed in the Nile, she leads B’nei Yisrael in song after Kriyat Yam Suf (the Splitting of the Sea), and then the well, too. So right after Miriam dies, the well disappears. The people come to Moshe and Aharon upset, scared at the prospect of dying of thirst. B’nei Yisrael does come to Moshe and Aharon with complaints often — when they were thirsty right after leaving Mitzrayim, when the mahn (manna) was bland earlier in this sefer of Bamidbar, and now again without their water now that Miriam has passed away. How is it possible that our lives parallel the parshiyot? For the past few weeks we haven’t had water in my apartment because of an issue with our fridge. This is a TINY issue, a TINY one and thank G-d we have a fridge!! Thank G-d I have time to think about whether or not I have enough water!!!! You get my point. Just want to cover my bases. I am MISERABLE if I don’t drink enough water. #HydrateOrDie-drate Whatever, I just really can relate to the desperation and frustration that B’nei Yisrael feels when Miriam passes away and the well disappears. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:56
June 17, 2021
Ep. 34 // Korach ... Life is but a test ?
This week’s parsha is Korach, named for the antagonist of our narrative of the moment. Who is Korach? Korach is Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam’s cousin. In short, Korach feels he was looked over for a spiritual promotion of kinds - the promotion of being chosen as the head of one of the Levi families. And so he incites a rebellion and (spoiler alert) is swallowed up by the Earth. A rather dramatic ending! Maybe this next part will be annoying, but I feel like it’s always good to have context for who these people are to each other. So let’s do some (greatly abbreviated) genealogy. Avraham > Yitzchak (Isaac) > Yaakov (Jacob) > Levi > Kehat > Amram and Itzhar Amram is the father of Moshe / Aharon / Miriam, and Korach is the son of Itzhar. Do you remember a few weeks ago we talked about the different families within the tribe of Levi? There was B’nei Gershoni, B’nei Kehati, and B’nei Merari, who each had different responsibilities. These families were named for their patriarchs - Gershon, Kehat, and Merari. If you glance back at my little list of our genealogy, Kehat was Moshe and Korach’s grandfather. As kids of Amram, Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam were the children of the oldest son of Kehat. As the kid of Itzhar, Korach is the oldest son of the second-eldest son of Kehat. So what exactly had Korach been overlooked for? Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam were special - they were the Kohen Gadol (High Priest, Aharon), the general leader (Moshe), a righteous prophetess (Miriam). Moshe / Aharon / Miriam and Korach have a younger cousin, Elitzaphan. Elitzaphan was given the leadership of Bnei Kehat. Korach wanted that position, and if we’re going by hierarchy of genealogy, Korach was the next in line, not Elitzaphan. So, he’s (rightfully) mad. But you only would know that Korach is mad about the specific appointment of Elitzaphan if you read the Midrash and other commentary on this parsha. If you just read the text, it seems like Korach is generally mad at Moshe and Aharon in general. Korach and his fellow mutineers say that Moshe and Aharon have given themselves too much power. They say, why do you guys get to be the ones in charge when we’re ALL special and ALL are holy? For the entire congregation is holy - כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדשִׁ֔ים Based on this previous statement, you’d think Korach just has a grievance with there being any kind of leadership, believing we should be a nation that is 100% democratic. Except that ISN’T his real grievance. His anger is personal, and yet he corrals 250 accomplished men to accompany his complaint. He manipulates 250 men of good repute into rebelling against their righteous leaders, all for the sake of his wounded pride. The scariest people are those who can make you feel emotions without you realizing they’re the ones putting those thoughts in your head. If we believe the Torah was written in chronological order, last week’s parsha was a low moment. When the Meraglim (spies) came back and scared all of B’nei Yisrael into being afraid of entering Eretz Yisrael, the people lost a bit of their faith in the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Korach saw that there was a vulnerable moment and he took advantage of it. So he’s a manipulating user with serious pride. Not to mention — not only was Korach already a special member of B’nei Yisrael, as someone of Shevet Levi (the Tribe of Levi), he was also a member of B’nei Kehati — the most elite, spiritually heightened group within the already special group of the Tribe of Levi! And he’s mentioned as being smart, cunning, and wealthy! This guy has everything in the world, and yet he still isn’t satisfied. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:55
June 11, 2021
Ep. 33 // Shelach ... Miriam + Meraglim
Lashon haRa, literally meaning “the evil tongue,” refers to gossip. But the literal translation does get to the root of it… speech full stop holds immense power. And this extends to words we write as well (or include in Instagram infographics). Do yo know where I’m going with this? During the most recent conflict in Israel, while our brothers and sisters in the east were hiding in their bomb shelters, we were sitting in America arguing with acquaintances in the Facebook comment section. Social media became a *figurative* battle ground. Celebrities with millions of followers were sharing genuine lies — calling Israel an apartheid state, a colonizer, and an ethnic cleanser… even so if you now scroll Twitter, there are thousands of people with anti-Israel Twitter display names and even more anti-Israel Tweets. The most harmful lies are ones that contain some semblance of truth, or at least wears the costume of truth. More on that later. We learn a bit about that kind of evil speech in this week’s parsha, Shelach. This comes right after an event that happened in las week’s parsha, Behaalotecha, where Miriam is afflicted with the spiritual malady, tzaraat, which appears when one commits a certain transgression, including (you guessed it) - Lashon HaRa. Miriam’s punishment (which we’ll get to) seems harsh (and I still feel like it is), but the Midrash gives us some context. Miriam noticed that Tzipporah, Moshe’s (Moses) wife, wasn’t living with him. In order to speak with G-d, one had to be ritually pure. Because Moshe was always “on call” to speak with G-d, he had to remain spiritually pure always, meaning he kinda neglected his wife. Miriam expresses sympathy for Tzipporah and goes to Aharon (Aaron) to discuss the matter. She also thinks it’s not good precedent to set, that the leader of the Jewish people doesn’t spend quality time with his wife. Miriam and Aharon are also prophets, and yet they live with their spouses! So Miriam brings this issue to Aharon, seemingly with very pure intentions. It’s not like she goes out and announces this concern to all the people… alas Hashem becomes very angry, viewing this speech as speech against Moshe. Yes Miriam and Aharon are prophets like Moshe, but they are not to the high level of prophecy that Moshe is, who is constantly speaking to G-d and must be constantly pure. So Miriam is struck with tzaraat and then has to quarantine outside the camp for 7 days. Seems harsh for such a great tzadekus like Miriam… Miriam who is said to have told her parents to have another child because she prophesized that Moshe would be the one to redeem the Jewish people, Miriam who ensured that Moshe could lead the people by making sure he found a home after being placed in the Nile, Miriam on whose great faith and merit we had water in the desert… you get the point. But I read an interpretation that her rebuke was harsh because of how great she, in fact, was. I don’t know… I think she meant well, but I suppose the message is that offhand speech, even when it seems innocent can be dangerous. Or perhaps making any judgement about a life that is not our own is something that shouldn’t happen? I am going to continue thinking about this. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:46
June 04, 2021
Ep. 32 // Behaalotecha ... SOS (not feat. Rihanna or the Jonas Brothers)
This week’s parsha has quite a few interesting storylines. The parsha opens with the commandment of Aharon (Aaron), as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to light the Menorah in the Mishkan (Temple) every day. The parsha’s name is taken from the command - Behaalotecha means “When you light” or literally, “when you cause to ascend.” Upward movement is very symbolic in Judaism. For example, no matter where geographically you’re coming from, when you go to Israel you are making aliyah, or ascending. And no matter where you go geographically when you leave Israel, you are making yeridah, or descending. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, clarifies that “causing light to ascend” means you kindle the light until the flame is able to remain alight by itself. Obviously this command does refer to the literal lighting of the Menorah, but the symbolic idea of raising someone or something up until capable to hold themself / itself up is really nice! It also definitely tracks with what we know about Aharon HaKohen, Aaron the Priest. In Pirkey Avot, we learn a famous quote — that a person should be like the followers or students of Aharon, “…loving peace, pursuing peace. Loving all mankind and bringing them closer to Torah” - “…אוֹהֵב שָׁלוֹם וְרוֹדֵף שָׁלוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וּמְקָרְבָן לַתּוֹרָה” The Torah is often likened to the source fire that lights the sparks within us all, so we can connect Aharon’s lighting of the Menorah to his interactions with all of mankind. We should all hope to encourage or brighten anyone we interact with, but also keep in mind to give them the tools to keep themselves encouraged once they’re on their own. In this quote from Pirkey Avot, Aharon is described as loving mankind, and *then* bringing them closer to Torah. Maybe you have to love someone to want to share Torah with them? Or maybe unconditional love must precede any sort of agenda (no matter the purity of that agenda)? And the first part of that sentence, about Aharon loving and pursuing peace — you don’t desire and pursue peace in a vacuum. What would push a person to pursue peace and spread Torah? Loving peace, and loving mankind. It’s also interesting to note that Aharon brings the people close to the Torah, not the Torah to the people. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson taught that just because you can’t teach the entire Torah overnight, it doesn’t mean you should water down concepts. When we still had the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, the Menorah would be lit every day. But like any candle that is burned, it makes a mess. So every day, a Kohen (priest) had to clean out and prepare the Menorah, but the actual kindling of the light could be done by anyone. While Aharon was alive, he would light it, but after his death, anyone could light the Menorah. How does this parallel with “lighting” our fellow humans? Ordinary people like you and me can share words (or podcasts!) of Torah with anyone. Just as an ordinary person could light the Menorah if it was prepared by a Kohen, ordinary people can also encourage the growth of others if prepared and secure in our own knowledge (or if under the guidance of someone who is!) It’s a common expression to say that someone’s face, “lights up” when they’re happy or talking about something that gives them joy. If English isn’t your native language, you may wonder why someone’s face “lighting up” is good. Does it mean suddenly their eyes are suddenly emanating light? Or that you see a physical brightness? No, it’s a figure of speech! But I think you can imagine what kind of a reaction I’m referring to.  Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:23
May 27, 2021
Ep. 31 // Nasso ... mid-sized fishes in mid-sized ponds
In last week’s parsha, we discussed a census taken of the Jewish people. As we discussed, it wasn’t a census of *everyone.* It was a census of men ages 20-50 from every tribe except the tribe of Levi, the Levites. (Yes, one group of the Levites are explained in last week’s parsha, but the final 2 groups are detailed here, in Nasso!) So this week we ARE counting the Leviim / Levites! Some of the Leviim, from the tribe of Levi, who are direct descendants of Aharon, Aaron, are known as Kohanim, priests. But all of the Leviim have the distinct honor of serving some way in the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, or being general teachers of Torah for the Jewish people. But why are they being counted separately? Because they’re more special than you, that’s why!!! Well we have a few different explanations — that with their special privileges they deserve to be counted separately (as aforementioned), that Hashem knew Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) would make some mistakes that kept them from entering the Land later, but wanted to make sure the Leviim were not included in the excluded group (because they didn’t participate in the Golden Calf / Chet HaEgel debacle), and also that the Leviim have their specific tasks of caring for the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) so they wouldn’t need to be counted in a census that’s for the purpose of assessing how many soldiers we had. Like making a good stir fry, you can’t just throw everything in the pan and hope for the best! You have to fry everything separately and THEN combine. (To be honest, that’s a tip I JUST leaned … I still haven’t made a satisfactory, restaurant-grade stir fry but that doesn’t stop me from trying) So, like a stir fry, everyone was fried … I mean COUNTED separately. And yes there are the 12 Tribes, Shvatim within the entire Bnei Yisrael, but even within the Leviim / Levites there are our 3 further groups. Within the Leviim, we have Bnei Gershoni (the Gershonites), Bnei Merari (Merarites), and Bnei Kehati (Kehatites). What’s the difference you ask? Here we go! Bnei Kehati had the most “lofty” service. They were tasked with transporting the Ark of the Covenant, the Aron HaBrit, which, as a reminder was this crazy golden covered wooden chest that contained the 2 tablets of the 10 Commandments, the Aseret HaDibrot, within it. They also were tasked with carrying the sacred vessels present in the sanctuary — the Menorah (for light), the Table (for the showbread), and the Incense Altar (for incense offerings). Even just the Ark must have been super heavy, with tons of gold, etc. But the work of Bnei Kehati wasn’t back-breaking labor — it was more spiritual. Our sages note in the Talmud that the Ark wasn’t a heavy object, but that the “Ark would carry its bearers.” The Ark existed in both our physical world, and in the spiritual world, which I guess means it only weighed half of what it actually did? Unclear, but that’s my hypothesis. We also learn that the Leviim had the responsibility to serve as teachers, conveying Jewish teachings to the whole Jewish people. So when we learn that Bnei Kehati transmitted the Ark physically, they also transmitted its essence, too, through sharing Jewish teachings. Now Bnei Merari - they actually were back-breaking laborers. They carried the boards and basic parts of the physical structure of the Tabernacle. If Bnei Kehati were the lofty group, Bnei Merari was the more tangible, accessible group. Between these 2 is Bnei Gershoni. If the spiritual stuff is covered by Bnei Kehati, and the manual stuff is with Bnei Merari, then what does Bnei Gershoni do? Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
10:54
May 20, 2021
Ep. 30 // Bamidbar (Numbers) ... re: the Land of Israel
It’s crazy, but this week we begin reading from the 4th book of the Torah, Bamidbar (or Numbers). Bereshit (Genesis) tells the story of the beginning of the world and of the Jewish people. Shemot (Exodus) tells the story of the exit from Egypt, but the entrance in to a brit (covenant) with G-d. Vayikra (Leviticus) tells us *how* to be in that covenant, with laws and guidance. Bamidbar (Numbers) charts the journey for Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) to nearly entering Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. We make some mistakes, and end up spending a bit more time in the desert than we planned (hence the name, BaMidbar meaning “in the desert”). And Devarim (Deuteronomy) … well we’re not there yet. Don’t want to spoil anything ;P So now we begin our journey through Bamidbar, Numbers. The English name is Numbers because Moshe (Moses) is commanded to take a census at the beginning and the end of this sefer (book of the Torah). It’s not like Moshe realized he needed an accurate census count so he could reapportion the House of Representatives… (which is one of the main reasons we have a census in the US). And G-d definitely knows how many people there are, so why take a census? A census in general sees to it that all are counted equally. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, comments that G-d continually counts the Jewish people out of fondness for us. Other commentary in the Midrash teaches that each person was like a precious pearl to G-d, all equally valuable and worthy like the feeling one has toward their children. Aw well that’s lovely! Everyone being equal!! Our modern Western minds loooooove that!! Except that it wasn’t everyone counted equally… it was just men over the age of 20. Ok practically we’re counting people who can be part of a fighting force, which women and children were excluded from in those times. But I can’t help but feel not-seen by this. I have been feeling un-seen in relation to other things, too. For example, the rampant false information that has been spread on social media in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week. In that, I have felt very un-seen. Our modern western world is terrified of being considered not-progressive, and so they hop on the bandwagon of condemning a complex geopolitical situation they have no stake in. It’s as if the very WHIFF of being considered un-woke is enough to push everyone to the other side of the conflict. Though the majority of the progressive / left-leaning world has turned on Israel in the wake of this craziness, as is to be expected when you have no stake in the game… interestingly enough, Jews (on the whole) have remained steadfast. A Pew report came out this week https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/ and had some interesting findings — 71% of Jews (total) identify or lean Democrat / to the left, so it’s not like everyone suddenly ticks a different box. In regard to Judaism, progressive Jews, when reading parshiyot like the current one, can become uncomfortable. But at the WHIFF of female oppression do we denounce our Judaism? I feel like the answer is no. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
10:00
May 14, 2021
Ep. 29 // Behar-Bechukotai ... Avoidance & Sons, LLC
One day, when walking to the elevator in my sophomore dorm in college, I realized I had a bad habit that I needed to break. As I approached the elevator, a fellow student who was also waiting, saw me, and as if breaking out a sword for battle, they yanked out their iPhone and began “checking a text.” It was the epitome of avoidance. And I was so … repulsed by this action. Even more than being repulsed at my fellow student, I was repulsed at MYSELF because I realized that *I* did it too! Pulling our phones at any lull is like having “I can’t be alone with my thoughts!!!” or “My insecurities prevent me from being comfortable standing in silence with a stranger!!!” written on our foreheads. So I forced myself to stop doing it, honestly just with the cringey image of that one guy, that one time, in my head. The superiority you will feel as you watch the plebes around you scroll will positively reinforce this behavior. (Don’t come for me. I’m simply here to provide the tools, not presenting myself as the finished product thank you very much…) Avoidance. That’s what I got from this week’s double parsha — closing off Vayikra, the book of Leviticus with the last 2 parshas: Behar and Bechukotai. Bechukotai is a pretty memorable parsha because it contains what we call the Tochecha, meaning “rebuke” or “reprove.” This section details the consequences for Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) not following the way of G-d. This section is distressing to hear, so much so that when it’s read aloud in synagogues, it’s a custom to read it in a lower voice (of course still audibly). But if we look a little deeper into the word “Tochecha” we get more than just “rebuke.” In the Talmud (Bereshit Rabbi 54:3) we read that “rebuke leads to love” - הַתּוֹכַחַת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי אַהֲבָה… “…rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” So rebuke is an integral part of a deep, meaningful relationships. But being criticized doesn’t feel good! How can that lead to love? I sometimes find myself down New York Times article rabbit holes. (You know… the one where you were just going in to read a theatre review, but then there’s a “You may also be interested in this…” suggestion and suddenly you’re in the real estate section. Ok well I found myself in such a hole recently, and was reading an opinion piece about the fallacy of most controlled-environment diet / exercise experiments. There isn’t much money to be made from people living healthy lives, and therefore research about diet and exercise is wildly underfunded. (There’s much more money in the weight loss industry of diets / exercise plans / protein shakes!) Life-long health is something that needs to be studied longitudinally, not in short spurts. The author gave a great example — studying an intensive exercise program. If you have volunteers doing long runs, aerobic exercises, and sports, you may see that 6 days in, they’re tired, weak, and sore. So I guess exercise is bad for you!??? No, obviously. If you studied these people over 6 months, though, they would adjust to the regimen and the conclusion would be the opposite. Article 1 mentioned Article 2 mentioned Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:55
May 06, 2021
Ep. 28 // Emor ... actions > thoughts? or vice versa?
Parshiyot are named for the first significant word used. Our first sentence is, “And Hashem spoke to Moses, ‘Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, saying to them, ‘Don’t defile yourself for any [dead] person of your kin / people.’” - וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו This refers to the rule that a Kohen (priest) cannot come into contact with a dead body because they will become ritually impure and cannot perform their duties. I’m going to start talking about a commonly spoken aspect of this parsha and then veer into something a little more original, I promise! So there’s a bit of redundancy here, just with different ways of communicating the word, “say.” Why is the text, “Speak to the Kohanim…saying to them…”? If you’ve written any important email ever, you know that there’s a world of nuances you have to navigate. “Speak” / “Emor” is aggressive, while “saying” / “amarta is a little more gentle. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, comments that the first, harsher command is for the “big” kohanim, and the second, gentler command is for the “small” kohanim. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson taught that there is a parallel of “big” vs “small” within us too. What is “big” within us is our power of intellect and emotional intelligence, while the “small” aspect is our ability to act. Our intellect, our thoughts, then, are important in determining and instructing our actions. But this feels counter to what we learn, specifically in Pirkey Avot, (the Ethics of the Fathers, a part of the Mishnah) Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa taught, “…anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom is enduring, but anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom is not enduring.” So only those who act on their wisdom endure? But didn’t we just learn that actions are the “small” “narrow-minded” aspect to us? Even further, just a little later in Pirkey Avot, we hear from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who taught, “Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he compared? To a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down, etc. But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom, what is he like? Like a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many; since even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they do not move it from its place.” To translate, we don’t want to be a top-heavy tree. We want to be a bottom-heavy tree, supported by our deeds. I really tried to trim that one down but you really need all parts of it to get it… lol This feels counterintuitive!!! But our answer (maybe) is given just before that beautiful piece of imagery. We get a famous line — “If there is no flour [bread / sustenance], there is no Torah. And if there is no Torah, there is no flour.” אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח Flour representing the physical, tangible needs we have, and Torah (duh) representing our intangible wisdom. We cannot have one without the other, which communicates to me the value of moderation, of balance. Sometimes our actions represent an impulsive side to us, but sometimes all the wisdom in the world can’t make up for actions. Ugh I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about this situation in this podcast but I can’t not!!! Ok so I got a desk for my room in my apartment. (I’m writing this from that desk… the best investment…) I wanted one that had certain qualities that would make it the most efficient for when I work from home / do anything of substance. Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:02
April 30, 2021
Ep. 27 // Acharei Mot-Kedoshim ... theory of mind
This past week, I have had 2 positive customer service experiences. No one likes having to call customer service, and I imagine no one LIKES being the person that GETS called when customers need service. When people are calling to speak to customer service, there’s a 99% chance they’re already irritated before they even speak to a customer service agent. This past summer I had a job that wasn’t customer service, but ended up feeling like it. I was the first line of defense for my organization and therefore got a lot of the brunt of people’s frustration. I think I’ve always had empathy for customer service agents, but after that it was x1000000. So when I had 2 excellent agents assisting me, you bet I (1) filled out surveys commending my assister and (2) sent a - way too detailed and long - note to the customer service emails lauding said assister. Why did I do that? Because I was procrastinating writing this? NO!!! (maybe) Because I know that being the first line of defense is hard and if every other person that day was rude to them, at least they received some chizuk (encouragement) for a job well done! I am really not patting myself on the back because I don’t exhibit this kind of empathy in all areas of my life (though I do work on that), but this idea of having context for others’ lives is something that pops up a lot in the second parsha of this week’s double portion. In my humble opinion, the #1 character trait that objectively “good” people share is theory of mind. Theory of mind meaning possessing the understanding that other people's thoughts and feelings may be different from your own. You can call this lack-of-self-centeredness, you can call this empathy — whatever it is, at its core, this trait is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But does good = holy? If we give words moral value, I guess something that’s good is holy and vice versa. But why do I bring up holiness? Because our second parsha is all about holiness — Parshat Kedoshim. Kedoshim opens with: “And G-d spoke to Moshe saying, 'Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.'" “You shall be holy because I the L-rd your G-d, am holy” — קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹקיכֶֽם Well that’s a big ask!!! How does one “be” holy??? This word for “to be” - תִּהְי֑וּ refers to a state of being… just existing in holiness?? Well lucky for us, the rest of the parsha essentially answers our question. We have 51 mitzvot essentially straight listed. (This is not the highest number of mitzvot per parsha, but it IS the most mitzvot DENSE parsha. As in mitzvot per pasuk - line.) Our first mitzvah that makes us think about others is the first one we’re given - revere your mother and your father. That one is simple - your parents ALWAYS had a harder day than you did. It’s a scientific fact. Then later, we’re given tons of mitzvot back to back that are specific instructions of how to give to the poor. Leave the edges of your field for the poor, leave the veggies / fruits that you dropped while harvesting, leave part of your vineyard for the poor, leave fallen grapes SPECIFICALLY for the poor. Giving to the poor is totally theory of mind! That’s saying, “Hmm… If I didn’t have money to buy food, wouldn’t it be great if this field / vineyard I’m walking past would have some perfectly good food for me to glean?” Cont’d… For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:09
April 23, 2021
Ep. 26 // Tazria-Metzora ... answer: DAILY DOUBLE
There’s a cartoon that goes like this: Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Teacher) is on his way down Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) with the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments). A hippie-looking man with long hair, the funky tinted shades, and sandals comes up to him and says, “Moses, could you redefine those commandments of yours so as to make them more meaningful to the youth of today?” The Ten Commandments have JUST. BEEN. GIVEN!!! And yet our communal passion for novelty already considers them old. When Jewish educators are told to make Jewish teachings more “relatable” they are being asked to bring the teachings “down.” What about bringing ourselves up? I was thinking about that cartoon while learning about this parsha. This particular parsha (or parshiyot because we have a double portion) is one of those that is very specific and, on the surface, not totally accessible today. Operative words: “on the surface.” Thanks so some very smart, insightful people who write very smart, insightful things on the parsha, I have learned some deep stuff and I’m delighted to share that stuff with you! Like I said before, this week we have one of our special double portions! (Does anyone else hear “Daily Double” pew pew pew pew from Jeopardy?) The parshas are: Tazria and Metzora — both have to do largely with the laws of ritual purity and impurity. More specifically with a skin condition called “tzaraat” which appears when people commit certain interpersonal sins, such as lashon hara, gossip (lit. the evil tongue). When someone is “diagnosed” with tzaraat, they are considered ritually impure or tameh / טמֵא‎. After a quarantine period, if the infection hasn’t spread, they are deemed tahor / טהור. But “pure” and “impure” really don’t do the translation justice. (Which is a super annoying, gate-keeper-y thing to say, but I mean it in regard to how we perceive them in English.) Pure is morally good, right? And impure is morally bad, then. But these words shouldn’t have a moral value — they’re supposed to be neutral words that describe something objectively. This relates to one of the reasons people got tzaraat (the skin condition): lashon hara (or gossip). Lots of things that we may not really consider gossip, actually are. For example, sharing something that is objectively true is still considered lashon hara if not shared for a meaningful reason. This is why it’s still gossip. Because if something is shared “objectively,” unfortunately, as much as we try not to interpret things in a subjective way, we still do take it that way. So these words “pure” and “impure” leave a subjective taste of either good or bad. Which is not good! To break it down further, purity is holiness, vitality, life, potential. While impurity is the opposite: a reduction of holiness, death, absence of potential. Simple as that. A “lack” versus a “have.” The most simple example is a dead body. Dead bodies are an example of the reduction of holiness, reduction of life, reduction of vitality, and therefore they are impure. Actions such as gossip (lashon hara) are also a reduction of holiness, and therefore: impure (tameh). But plenty of people speak lashon hara today! So why don’t we have it today? Entire communities would be walking around with white spots if we were still afflicted by this! Tzaraat is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “leprosy.” But this is incorrect because leprosy still exists, unfortunately. And leprosy can only exist on the body, while tzaraat can infect clothing and even houses. Tzaraat has nothing to do with bodily health, but rather spiritual health. (cont'd) For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:25
April 15, 2021
Ep. 25 // Shemini ... an excuse to watch SNL and the Office clips
This coming Shabbat is my cousin Gus’s bar mitzvah! I have been tutoring him for the past 9 months or so. I have been reading and re-reading this parsha trying to extract the most accessible and most interesting aspects for him to focus on with his d’var Torah. There are so many things to talk about this week… the smiting of Nadav and Avihu, the kohen (priest) sons of Aharon (Aaron)… the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), or the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). So in my search for the Top Hits of Parshat Shemini, I found this really cool gem about treating our fellow humans kindly. Something Gus and I talked a lot about is that religious practice means very little if you can’t practice being kind, too. Even though Gus is talking about something else in his d’var, I will share *that* idea with you! After weeks of reading about the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the parsha, we are now in the culmination of its building! Again, the significance of the Mishkan is the fulfillment of G-d’s commandment earlier in parsha Terumah - “And build for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them” - וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם This isn’t busy work, or time to refine our artisanal skills — G-d wants to dwell among US, not just among the Mishkan in one place. And as of course we know, G-d doesn’t exist in one place alone, but AMONG us. So the Mishkan is finally complete, and B’nei Yisrael has an opportunity to have the Chet HaEgel (the Sin of the Golden Calf) forgiven. How? We read in the opening of this parsha that, in the sacrificial inauguration of the Mishkan, Aharon (Aaron) is told, “Take for yourself a bull calf as a sin offering, and a he-goat / ram as a burnt offering,” to give as an inaugural sacrifice. Why these specific animals? If we do some quick text analysis, at first glance, the bull can be connected to the golden calf — the sacrifice serves the purpose of closing that event off on a high note. Ok great, but why a ram / he-goat, too? According to the Midrash, the he-goat is absolving something totally separate. What goat comes to mind? The goat used in the faking of Yosef’s (Joseph) death! As a refresher, back in Shemot (Exodus), Yosef (one of Yaakov’s, Jacob, 12 sons) is the star of his family. Long story short, his brothers plot to kill him and end up selling him as a slave. But in order to throw their father Yaakov off the trail, they put ram / goat blood on Yosef’s coat and say Yosef had been devoured by a wild beast. The ram sacrifice, then, puts a pin the rift between the brothers. Of course Yosef forgave his brothers many years later when they came to him in Egypt, but this ram sacrifice alongside the calf sacrifice communicates a lesson. Chet HaEgel, the Sin of the Golden Calf was an affront a sin unto G-d. Yosef’s brothers’ treatment of him was an interpersonal wrongdoing — person to person. Of course absolving ourselves of a sin unto G-d is important, but this offering being immediately followed by the goat sacrifice elevates our interpersonal relations too. So as the people are getting to break in their new Mishkan, the lesson they are taught is: How can we dwell in the presence of G-d if we don’t respect the Creations of G-d — our fellow humans? We simply can’t! They go together! SNL clip: https://youtu.be/3LSByqoSpsI The Office clip: https://youtu.be/8o5Cu4X2TeU For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:20
April 08, 2021
Ep. 24 // Pesach (Passover) + Tzav ... meaningful continuity
As I’ve mentioned before, I teach a 4th grade Religious School class for a Reform Temple on the Upper West Side. Since I started, I’ve realized that I view all of Jewish life through the lens of, “How can I make my 4th graders care about this?” I feel an absolutely desperate desire to make the students in my class feel any sort of strong feelings about their Judaism. Before I started this, when I was experiencing Jewish holidays, I just needed to make sure *I* connected to it, but now it’s a different level. I also understand this is how *any* educator feels about their students — “How do I transmit this effectively?” This idea connects both to this week’s parsha and to the holiday of Pesach (Passover) that starts this Saturday. So this week’s parsha is Tzav, where we learn more about the korbanot (sacrifices) in the Mishkan in the desert. Something mentioned earlier in the parsha is the command that the fire on the altar should be kept burning always, an Esh Tamid - אש תמיד (eternal fire). Not to be confused, of course, with the Ner Tamid - נר תמיד (eternal light), the light that is to kept burning in front of the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark in the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple). The fact that there are 2 different eternal flames that must be differentiated emphasizes the point I’m making — why can’t we can’t stop talking about continuity? Something I listened to in the beginning of writing my weekly emails was a podcast produced by Tablet magazine, called Parsha in Progress. It ran until this past year every-other-week, hosted by a secular Jewish writer named Abigail Pogrebin and the president of the Open Orthodox yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Rabbi Dov Linzer. The whole premise is “two different Jews talking about the same Torah,” which is a truly fantastic premise. The Parsha in Progress episode about this week’s parsha, Tzav, from last year (2020 / 5780), focuses on the idea of the Esh Tamid in the context of sacrifices. Abigail mentions that the message she takes from the Esh Tamid is that Jewish continuity is a huge deal. That our existence, like the Esh Tamid, is something that should be cared for and kept alight. While he agrees that the sentiment is important, Rabbi Linzer doesn’t agree that it should be so central. He explains that continuity for continuity’s sake doesn’t do anything for him. Continuity because Judaism is a beautiful, meaningful way to live your life is something else. The message of their short conversation is: continuity for continuity’s sake isn’t enough. Pesach (Passover) begins this coming Saturday night. Pesach is when we celebrate our Exodus from Egypt, or Yetziat Mitzrayim, after over 200 years of slavery. The central events in our modern-day Pesach are the 2 seders (ordered meals) that take place on the first 2 nights of the holiday (or only 1 seder on 1 night if you live in Israel). For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:31
March 26, 2021
Ep. 23 // Vayikra (Leviticus) ... aliens + secrets + sacrifices = this week's parsha
In the beginning of creation, G-d separated the waters — יהִ֣י מַבְדִּ֔יל בֵּ֥ין מַ֖יִם לָמָֽיִם, let there be separations between water and water. Water and water meaning the lower waters of the earth from the higher waters of the heavens. In the foundational text of Kabbalah (mystical Judaism) called the Zohar, we get a story which details the lower waters’ devastation at what they perceived as rejection from G-d. The lower waters knew that the lower, earthly realm was a place of impurity and the mundane, and that being distant from their Divine Source wasn’t good. The mystics teach that G-d comforted the waters, explaining that they would be separated, but that they would once again get to connect with G-d as an integral part of the korbanot, sacrifices, that B’nei Yisrael would bring to the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). We are entering the third book of the Torah — Vayikra or Leviticus! And as we read in this week’s parsha, sacrifices are a large part of the spiritual life of B’nei Yisrael in the desert. We learn that salt is to be added to every single sacrifice  . This salt is said to represent the sea salt of the lower waters. This is what G-d was referring to when comforting the lower waters, in the act of sacrifices, we unite the physical (salt, lower waters) with the Divine (G-d). We no longer can offer sacrifices. We don’t have the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. But we still can sacrifice the figurative “animal” within ourselves. Every time we elevate ourselves with prayer, with mitzvot (commandments), with acts of kindness, we are bringing ourselves closer to the Divine “sacrificing” our animal-ness. But this elevation, like actual sacrifices, has to have a little “salt” sprinkled on. What is the salt for us? The salt represents the salt water like mentioned, but it’s also the tears of the lower waters that, like us, yearn to be close to the Divine. All of our “offerings,” which are the expressions of wanting a relationship with G-d (prayer, good deeds, mitzvot, kindness, etc) must be “sprinkled” with a little salt — representing the Divine spark in all of us and in all of Creation that longs to be close to our Divine Source, G-d. I’m good at keeping secrets, but I am not good at wondering if I’m being KEPT from a secret. I don’t mean secret birthday presents, I mean secrets such as what the heck goes on in Area 51 (a US Air Force facility that, though it’s probably just a normal compound where people are always writing on translucent dry erase boards, has become the center of lots of conspiracy theories about aliens.) I gotta know — are there aliens? I’m not alone in this — when we’re told we can’t know something, it only makes us want to know it more. Enter sacrifices. Sacrifices don’t sit well with the modern mind. Lots of things, really, about Judaism cannot be fully explained, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation, and it definitely doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand! 20th century Torah scholar Nechama Lebowitz wrote a piece that compares the famously opposite views of Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, and Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban. The Rambam viewed sacrifices as G-d’s way of replacing the idolatrous sacrifices we made in Egypt and in the years before. He explains that human nature doesn’t change instantly, and that the perfectly reasonable explanation is that sacrifices are an idolatry deterrent. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:27
March 19, 2021
Ep. 22 // Vayakhel-Pekudei ... if you know Aleph, teach Aleph
We have a double parsha this week! We have 54 parshiyot (or selections) in the Torah, but only about 50-51 weeks in a non-leap Hebrew year, as well as some other extenuating circumstances where we miss a Shabbat of Torah reading because it’s a holiday. So in order to fit all these 54 parshiyot in the Hebrew year, we double up at least 2 Shabbats! This week is one of them! Our first parsha opens with the laws of keeping Shabbat and then we go right into hearing about the contributions that B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) were instructed to make toward the Mishkan. In previous parshiyot we learned about the very precise pieces and ingredients for the Mishkan, but of course, even though G-d probably could have dropped the Mishkan from the sky, that’s not what happened, the Mishkan still had to be built. So Moshe (Moses) relays that everyone who is of generous, willing, giving of heart (נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב) should give. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, an Italian Torah commentator, explains that this means no one should give grudgingly or be forced to give. The Or HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, North African Torah commentator, clarifies that there was an intangible “donation” that G-d gave, the תרומת השם, the G-dly Contribution, that held all the tangible pieces of the Mishkan together — like Divine superglue. So when the tangible pieces were donated, they must be given by people who were able to elevate their contribution to be worthy of meshing with the Divine Mortar (if you will). So we have people of generous, giving hearts who are the only ones allowed to donate and then we also have other characterized hearts, wise hearts. When referring to the skilled men and women who would build the Mishkan or create the various materials, the Torah uses the phrase “Wise of heart”- “חֲכַם־לֵ֖ב” Lovely idea, right? Generous hearts and wise hearts! But what does that really mean? And why does that have anything to do with ability in building? And there’s a big difference between people who are “wise hearted” and wise in regard to specialized skills. Maybe in their years of slavery in Egypt, B’nei Yisrael picked up a few tips on building, but what are the chances they became the kinds of artisans required for building the Mishkan? There are a few interpretations. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Eastern European rabbi, wrote that wise-hearted didn’t just mean scholars, but that anyone (even people without specialized skills) who were G-d or Heaven-fearing, could participate. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides, a Spanish Torah commentator) interprets that the people who were wise of heart discovered they had the beginnings of naturally endowed skills, but were “raised up” or elevated through this service. This of course reminded me of the final scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy runs to Glinda, the Good Witch of the North and asks for her help in getting back to Kansas. But of course Glinda says her famous line, “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas!” All she has to do is click her heels three times and she’s home. To paraphrase — it was always inside you! You just had to be in a situation that brought the ability out!! For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed To watch Three Days of Rain till March 21: https://www.playbill.com/article/patricia-clarkson-john-slattery-bradley-whitford-reunite-for-three-days-of-rain-march-11
08:12
March 12, 2021
Ep. 21 // Ki Tisa ... tough love and reality TV
I have accidentally watched the TV show “Botched” too many times. “Botched” is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a show about plastic surgeons who try to reverse botched previous plastic surgeries. The people on this show are… wild to say the least. This show can teach us a lot, but the #1 lesson I have learned from it is: If you won’t, someone else will. I mean of course, that if you want to look like a human-version of comic book Superman and the first plastic surgeon you ask refuses, never fear, eventually you’ll find someone who will agree to make you the Clark Kent of your dreams. This show came to mind as I was reading this week’s parsha, Ki Tisa. B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) are waiting at the bottom of Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) as Moshe ascends to get the 10 Commandments (Aseret HaDibrot). Moshe is gone for a while, and B’nei Yisrael gets anxious. They go to Aharon (Aaron) the second-in-command and propose a solution — if Moshe is gone and we no longer have a leader, let’s make an idol! Firstly, Aharon is a lovely, peaceful guy, but I have to imagine he’s a bit stung that if B’nei Yisrael essentially says, “If we can’t have Moshe, then the next best thing is a golden calf!!!!” Rude… whatever. What Aharon does next has puzzled many of us since first learning this Torah narrative. He says, “Ok, well go gather the earrings of your wives, daughters, and sons and bring them to me.” Why in the world did Aharon entertain the idea of building a god for B’nei Yisrael? The Chizkuni, a 13th century French Torah commentator, presents Aharon’s options: Suggest someone else to be the leader, but then have a fight to the death when Moshe actually did get back and potentially have a deadly civil war on his hands Say no and then B’nei Yisrael would just find someone else to do their bidding and have their false god even faster Suggest that HE, Aharon, take over for Moshe, but then have the awkward thing of ceding power back to Moshe when he did return So, we see that the earrings ploy was Aharon’s attempt at buying some time. Maybe the wives, sons, and daughters wouldn’t be so eager to hand over their golden hoops, he thought. Maybe the women would not want an inanimate object to take the place of Moshe… but alas, the gold came rolling in. Aharon knew the lesson that I personally learned from the TV show “Botched” — if you won’t do it, someone else will (and in an even worse way!) There is a similar theory as to why we have laws governing slavery in the Torah. If slavery is this horrible, dehumanizing thing that should have never existed, why does the Torah dignify it with laws and regulations? Humans can be great, but humans also like to elevate themselves above other humans. The theory is if there were no laws about slavery in the Torah, then slavery would have happened anyway, but just without anything regulating it. It’s an interesting idea. So Aharon is thinking, “They’re going to do it ANYWAY, so it might as well be on my watch.” He also knows that straight-up denying them isn’t an option, but he also can’t straight-up acquiesce. He recognizes something that the plastic surgeons who deny the Clark-Kent-wannabe might not — turning someone away doesn’t stop them. But if they care about the well-being of this type of patient, they should give them the chance to change their minds without making them feel out of control. The truth is, no one can make decisions for us, no one can convince us 100% of anything. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:38
March 05, 2021
Ep. 20 // Tetzaveh and Purim ... Candy Crush + Queen Esther
Tonight, the holiday of Purim begins. Purim is the holiday we read Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), hearing the story year after year of the Jewish people’s near-annihilation but eventual triumph. If this was Netflix preview description this is how I’d summarize Megillat Esther: After Stealth-Jewess Esther becomes queen, she hears of a plot to kill all Jews. Esther is faced with a choice: reveal her true self and save her people, or die trying… Dramatic, right? I’d watch that limited series. Like most kids, I grew up loving Purim. I loved the idea of the beautiful and righteous Esther HaMalka, Queen Esther, defeating Haman with said beauty and righteousness. I loved the Shushan (the city where the story takes place) that I formulated in my mind. (In retrospect, I now realize that the “Shushan” I created in my mind was definitely just a Jewish version of the made-up city of Agrabah from Aladdin… I digress). We grow up idolizing Esther, viewing her as the model for a strong Jewish woman, a woman who ensured the continuation of the Jewish people, a model diaspora Jew (a Jew not living in Israel). Okay, inter-faith or non-Jewish readers, please stick with me. As I got older, I wondered why an inter-married Jew who hid her Jewishness was our model. If we want diaspora Jews to feel proud, to feel a sense of responsibility to others, shouldn’t we pick a new story? This question came up recently in my 4th grade Hebrew School class. We were learning the Purim story, talking about Esther and how she had to hide her Jewishness, and so I asked my students if they ever felt they needed to hide their Jewishness. Keep in mind this is at a Reform synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There are over 60,000 Jews between 60th and 100th St on the UWS. Some said, “No, I’m proud to live in a place with lots of Jews and I never feel scared to be Jewish.” Others said, “Well even if I’m not acting Jewish, I’m still Jewish.” Always the inclusive, progressive teacher, I quickly said, “Yes of course! There are lots of ways of being Jewish!” I wasn’t super proud of the way I handled that situation in class, I felt like I could have clarified or made a more definitive statement… so I consulted with a few friends who helped me realize a better answer lies in the Purim story itself. Esther isn’t the only hero. A very important character is Esther’s cousin, Mordechai. The whole reason Haman wanted to annihilate the Jews was because Mordechai, as a practicing Jew, refused to bow down to Haman. It was below Haman’s stature to strike back at just one Jew, so he decided to strike back at ALL Jews. Mordechai and Esther are foils, exact opposites. Mordechai is a proud, unapologetic Jew. Does this mean Esther is an ashamed, apologetic Jew? No! Whatever Esther’s Jewish “practice” was, she still filled an irreplaceable role in the events of this story. Every type of person serves their purpose, and this is the message I choose to emphasize. Of course it would be nice if every person observed their religion in the same way you do, (because of course — you the person reading this, of whatever faith you are — the way you observe is the right way, right???) Kidding. Obviously that’s not how the world rolls. And we can hope and pray for them to practice the way we do!!! But until then, this the message I am taking from the Purim story. We are irreplaceable cogs in the human story. Irreplaceable and all equally imperative. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:24
February 25, 2021
Ep. 19 // Terumah ... existence is in the details
The existence of our planet Earth in the universe is very improbable. Lots of hypothetical studies have been made and lots of numbers have been thrown around. Some have said that the likelihood of a planet such as Earth is 1 in a million millions chance (1 followed by 12 zeroes), others say it’s a 1 in 700 quintillion chance (7 followed by 20 zeroes). There are an estimated 700 quintillion planets in the universe but only 1 Earth. There were 700 quintillion chances to get the numbers right, but only once did (forgive me) the stars align. Had gravity been any stronger, any weaker, we may not exist. Had we been any closer or any farther from the sun we may not exist. Had the amount of carbon dioxide been any higher or lower, we may not exist. You get it — there are lots of conditions that had to be juuuuust right for us to be here. In the context of gravity, in the context of CO2 content in the atmosphere, in the context of our distance from the sun, the details matter. An extra decimal, an added zero and we start fading away slowly like Marty McFly if he hadn’t gotten to the dance in time (did I do that cultural reference right?) Details matter, too, in this week’s parsha. B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) are instructed to build the Mikdash or the Mishkan, a sanctuary for G-d to dwell in while B’nei Yisrael was in the desert. “And let them make for me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them - וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם” The Torah goes on to detail exactly now the Mishkan should be constructed, from the exact cubits of the Ark inside that will carry the luchot (the tablets, you know, from the Ten Commandments / Aseret HaDibrot?), specific design elements such as the fact that the menorah (lamp) for the Mikdash should be hammered out of a single piece of gold, not soldered from many pieces. And then for the tent covering of the Mishkan itself, with the specified colors of purple, blue, crimson, and embroidered with the likenesses keruvim (cherubim, delightful angel creatures). There are SO many psukim, lines, in this parsha detailing how the Mishkan should be built. In a succinct, carefully worded text such as the Torah, these details are not extraneous. What is the message of the Mishkan? G-d wants us to be detail-oriented? G-d is a very strict interior designer? Not to lessen the importance of this, but kind of? The Mishkan’s “point” is to be a reminder of Creation. Our Torah commentators compare the descriptions of G-d’s Creation to the descriptions of our building of the Mishkan. That our creation of the Mishkan is a microcosm of G-d’s Creation of the world. My humble take is that G-d created the world, and the Mishkan (or any Sanctuary / place of holiness) is a reminder we are on Earth to create, too. We had a hand in the specifics of the Mishkan in the same way G-d had a “hand” in the specifics of our improbable universe. We have laws and ordinances and practices that help us to accomplish our creation, parallel to the laws and ordinances and instructions in building the Mishkan. The tiny details do not bog us down, they remind us that there’s a bigger picture. That we are *not* G-d, we are human beings. Human beings with sparks of holiness, created by the Most Holy, here to make the world more holy. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:52
February 19, 2021
Ep. 18 // Mishpatim ... empathy for all = no more poison-drinking!
This week’s parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, marks a change in the flow of the Torah thus far. In the entire preceding parshiyot, we’ve only gotten about 40 mitzvot or commandments, but in Mishpatim ALONE we get 53. We get a wide range of mitzvot from this parsha — the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), laws of stealing, commandment of prayer, and others. But a main theme is the idea of dealing with other people generally, as well as in relation to their money or belongings. But when we refer to stealing, we don’t just mean money or belongings. This refers to stealing someone’s sleep (slamming doors when your family is sleeping, talking on the phone when your roommate is napping), stealing someone’s time (arriving at a Zoom meeting late, or leaving someone on hold for too long), and even stealing fresh air from others (blocking the window or door in a stuffy room). An interesting commandment we are given is, “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan - כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃” The Baal HaTurim points out this usage of the word כל, kol meaning “all.” Every single widow and every single orphan should be treated with kindness, even if they are well-to-do. The Baal HaTurim explains that this usage of “kol” teaches that even if someone seems “comfortable” after a loss, no kind of hurt can be compensated for simply by earthly possessions. When I read this, my thoughts were, “…well it sure is easier to mourn in a nice, warm house than a not-nice, cold house…” Which probably isn’t the right response? I don’t know. There’s a movement to “make Instagram casual again” and this refers to the fact that Instagram has become this glossy, posed film reel of the seemingly-perfect lives of others. This is DEFINITELY different, but we have this idea in our minds that if something *looks* beautiful, it is. That if someone *is* beautiful, their life is too. That even if someone has experienced loss, “well at least they still have the vacation home in Aspen!” This goes for celebrities too. We hear all the time how celebrities will speak from the height of fame, the height of wealth and privilege, saying how even these material things can never fill the void of hurt, sadness, loneliness, and meaningful relationships. I’m going on about this because the key to caring for *every* widow and orphan is empathy and basic respect. To go back to our rules about stealing — our belongings, our time, our space, our sleep, these are things (both tangible and intangible) that make us human. They are the base of our earthly existence, and respecting that time, space, and sleep is the basis of what we owe one another. This is why I think these laws about interpersonal relationships have to appear now — seemingly abruptly inserted between last week’s experience at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), only to return to the Har Sinai experience at the end of the parsha. Of course there are lots of other mitzvot that we are responsible for in regard to G-d, but how can our commandments related to G-d mean anything if we don’t have respect for the creatures of G-d’s earth? I’ve been getting these daily emails from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, all relating to interpersonal relationships. The first day’s idea asked, “Do you know someone who's mean or difficult?” Well duh. (Who just popped into your mind? That’s the person we’re going to focus on.) I was excited to read this. I don’t like feeling negatively about people! Like the saying goes, “holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:18
February 11, 2021
Ep. 17 // Yitro ... delegation and trustworthiness (...and Glee club!)
We receive the 10 Commandments, Aseret HaDibrot, in this week’s parsha! Of course this is a big, holy moment, but I want to discuss a less-talked-about idea that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l shared in his commentary on this parsha a few years ago. In addition to receiving the 10 Commandments this week, Moshe (Moses) also receives some advice from his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro). When Yitro hears of the great miracles B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) have experienced at the Splitting of the Red Sea, Kriyat Yam Suf, he comes to Moshe, where he sees Moshe sitting in “judgement” of B’nei Yisrael day in and day out, but doing this all alone. (What is Moshe judging them for? Some commentators say this was actually the day after Yom Kippur and that this parsha is out of chronological order, and others disagree. We won’t get into that. Point here is: Moshe is sitting and judging lots of people. Like me on a Saturday in the park!! Ah I crack myself up.) Yitro says that what Moshe is doing, which is not delegating judgement to a system of judges is Lo Tov, לא טוב not good. Rabbi Sacks pointed out that t  he only other time the phrase לא טוב is used is after G-d creates Adam and then subsequently creates Chava (Eve) — לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ - it is not good for man to be alone. So it’s not good for man to live / be alone, and it’s not good for man to lead alone. So back to Yitro. Yitro says Moshe will wear himself out, as well as the the people, by not delegating his judging to a proper judicial system. Well obviously it would help Moshe not be so exhausted, but how does this help the people? They’re just waiting there for their verdict, right? Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, has an interesting perspective. In his commentary on this parsha, he quotes the Talmud, “Surely where there is strict justice, there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice! What then is the justice that coexists with peace? We must say: mediation.” The Netziv connects this idea to Moshe and the people. Moshe was a prophet of immense power. Two people would walk into his presence with a conflict and he would know instantly who was at fault. Moshe was a strict guy, he wasn’t one for mediation or compromise. Which means that, while there was justice, there wasn’t much peace in his wake. Sometimes we think the thing that is 100% just is the thing that is 100% right to do, but from this idea we learn that this is not always the case. Feelings and emotions of those around us are also very important. While Moshe couldn’t very well lie about knowing which party was at fault, he could delegate his judging powers to non-prophetic people. Not only would he be elevating his appointed judges, he would also be allowing peaceful reconciliations to take place. Mediations or compromises leave both parties happy and validated, versus strict justice that leaves one party rejected and the other triumphant. Compromise isn’t the solution to everything in life of course, but in conflict, sometimes it is. Maybe this is not the same thing, but Rachel Berry (played by recently outed-as-problematic actress, Lea Michele) from the 2010s Fox TV show Glee (about a high school show choir club) has popped into my head. If you didn’t watch Glee, we can definitely still be friends, but you must know, in order for us to move forward, that I had a Glee binder throughout high school that I used un-ironically and honestly pretty proudly. So it’s you who may want to remove affiliations 🥴 For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:57
February 04, 2021
Ep. 16 // Beshalach ... Shabbat Shira!!!
This week’s parsha is Beshalach, and the Shabbat we read this parsha is known as “Shabbat Shira,” or the Shabbat of Song. (As you may have realized, my name is Shira, and this is Shabbat Shira! “Shabbat of Song” referring to Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea during Kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds or the Red Sea. I studied music in college, and continue to be a fan / maker of music… you get it) I totally tend to speak in extremes, but (for many reasons besides the fact that this is Shabbat Shira and I happen to be Shira too) this actually is my #1 favorite parsha to learn about. If you woke me up at 4 AM and said, “Give a dvar Torah right now,” I would go to this. After 10 wild and crazy plagues, B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) are finally free to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt), but as we have come to expect, G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart once more, and he changes his mind. Just as they feel finally free, B’nei Yisrael find themselves trapped between the Sea of Reeds, Yam Suf, and Pharaoh and his approaching army. When B’nei Yisrael sees their predicament, they are rightfully frightened. Moshe (Moses) tries to comfort them, saying they should have no fear — G-d will deliver you. But then G-d comes back with, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell B’nei Yisrael to go forward. And then hold your staff out so that B’nei Yisrael may march onto dry ground” Do you catch that order? “Tell B’nei Yisrael to go forward and THEN you can split the sea.” G-d had said many times that B’nei Yisrael will be delivered, that Egypt will be dealt with harshly, and so G-d expects a little bit of faith from them. We know how the rest of the story goes, the sea splits and B’nei Yisrael is free. Don’t you just want to shake them and say, “Goodness! Just wade into the water!!” My mom always says that if you’re having a hard time deciding on something, it’s because you don’t have enough information. B’nei Yisrael just saw 10 miraculous, harsh plagues that left them unscathed. But they have also just experienced 210 years of slavery in Egypt. When do the miracles become enough to restore faith? And are we expected to make such a huge leap of faith when we’ve been suffering for so long? We learn in the Talmud and Midrash that one person did have the faith to jump in the water first — Nachshon. Nachshon’s emunah, his belief and faith in G-d encouraged the rest of B’nei Yisrael to also make the leap. Then the sea split. We learn though, that the sea didn’t split until the water had reached Nachshon’s nose / eyes. What incredible faith… To hold out until the last possible second, and still remain steadfast. This reminds me of the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac in Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis. Avraham (Abraham) wasn’t some cold-blooded, heartless person who was willing to kill his son. He was a person who knew the power of context. Why would G-d have him kill his son who he waited and prayed and longed for for so many years? Why would G-d promise Avraham generations as numerous as stars in the sky? So back to this story — why would G-d send the 10 plagues, finally free B’nei Yisrael, get them THIS FAR only to have them be destroyed? It makes no sense that this would have been the end of B’nei Yisrael. But do we think rationally when faced with a terrifying situation? Not really! For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. "When You Believe" - London Cast of Prince of Egypt https://youtu.be/wTWbZAqRJDc?t=15 opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:55
January 29, 2021
Ep. 15 // Bo ... Khan Academy + Ed Sheeran = #growthmindset
The first mitzvah, or commandment, we are given as a whole people is the commandment to recognize Rosh Chodesh (literally meaning the head of the month — rosh is head, chodesh is month), or recognizing the new moon. A thousand years after this first commandment was given, during the Chanukah story, Rosh Chodesh was one of the practices banned in addition to keeping Shabbat (the Sabbath) and performing Brit Milah (circumcision). But why? That Rosh Chodesh is on the same level of two practices that are so sacred — Brit Milah and Shabbat — makes clear its significance. Ok so why do both G-d and the villains of the Chanukah story (the Seleucids, the Syrian-Greeks) care so much about us knowing when we’ve started a new month? On the basic level, taking away Rosh Chodesh takes away our ability to keep time and having a calendar. Not having a calendar means we don’t have any of our chagim, our holidays and festivals. So without Rosh Chodesh, we also lose the ability to observe a whole lot of other mitzvot (commandments). But on a deeper level, Rosh Chodesh represents renewal. The word for month, Chodesh, is connected to the word for renewal, repair, newness — chadesh. Just as the moon wanes and dissolves into a sliver only to build itself back up to fullness, so do we. Just as the moon is in a constant state of movement, moving through stages, so are we. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that if we were to base our time on something fixed and immovable, we would get the idea that we, too are fixed and immovable. The Torah teaches us that we are, in fact, NOT. But making changes are hard so I’ll give a small example. According to psychologists, it takes 21 days to break a habit. The Hebrew months are 29.5 days, so there’s no direct parallel here, but it’s close enough. Is there a small habit you’d like to work on? Nail biting, singing in public, leaving your dishes in the sink to “soak,” procrastinating your work, telling people you want to get coffee with them even if you don’t really want to…. there are lots of things we as humans do that are subjectively deemed “bad.” But a reminder: no habit that you can be thinking of has any inherent moral value. You’re not bad if you sing in Walgreens, you’re just annoying. Kidding. With Rosh Chodesh, we don’t celebrate the victorious moment (such as winning the fight between you and your subjectively “bad” habit). We celebrate the beginning of the lunar cycle — the resh-shaped (ר) sliver of the moon, not the gorgeous glowy orb that is a full moon (around the 15th of the month). We celebrate the quiet beginnings, the objectively non-exciting part of the cycle. Did you ever use Khan Academy in school? Khan Academy single handedly helped me to pass every math or stats class I ever took. The story of Khan Academy is cool — it was started by Sal Kahn (who I just found out is from Metairie, Louisiana????), an endlessly patient super genius who made tons and tons of amazing instructional educational videos online. I used to get Sal’s newsletter (I call him Sal because I really feel like we’re friends after all the #quality time we’ve spent together), and one of his pieces, called “Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart” has stuck with me to this day. Here’s an excerpt... For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. Khan Academy article mentioned Ed Sheeran being a bad singer in his childhood Ed Sheeran being an amazing singer in his new release "Afterglow" opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
07:08
January 22, 2021
Ep. 14 // Va'era ... catch your breath, pal
At the end of last week’s parsha, Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron) take on the responsibility of being B’nei Yisrael’s (Children of Israel) spokespeople. G-d tells them to go to the people and explain what’s going to happen (G-d’s intention to redeem them, etc) and also to do some miracles or “signs” to really seal the deal. G-d also tells them that when they go to Pharaoh demanding that B’nei Yisrael should be freed, G-d will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and not let them free. I think we gloss over the fact that Moshe and Aharon know their first demand to Pharaoh is a lost cause. They go in doing their best (obvi) but know it’s not the end. Ok back to that soon. So Moshe and Aharon go to B’nei Yisrael, and B’nei Yisrael is convinced! They’re relieved and happy and believe that G-d will redeem them. And then of course, Moshe and Aharon go to Pharaoh, demand, and fail. But Pharaoh not only refuses, but also makes the work even more difficult on the people. B’nei Yisrael is very mad at Moshe and Aharon now, which isn’t surprising. They don’t know what Moshe and Aharon know — that things are going to be tough for a while but it will all be worth it. But what is surprising is that Moshe is also mad — he goes to G-d very upset that his first go didn’t pan out. Moshe says, “Ever since I came to Pharaoh, he’s just made things worse! And you’ve still not delivered your people.“ Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, or Baal ha’Turim is also surprised by this, explaining that Moshe knew this first try wasn’t it, but he didn’t think his intervention would make things WORSE… he thought things would at least get a little better. But they didn’t. G-d responds immediately, saying, “You will see what I will do to Pharaoh. He’s going to drive the people out.” Moshe is questioning G-d of course, but mostly he’s questioning Pharaoh. He can’t see a world where Pharaoh does anything that helps B’nei Yisrael. G-d tells Moshe immediately that he will see change soon, but G-d does it in an interesting way. G-d doesn’t say, “I am so great, it’ll be fine.” G-d’s response is way more validating and way more personal. More like, “I hear your concern, Moshe, and though of course I am pulling the strings, you will see Pharaoh set my people free.” And this is more of a miracle than the people magically appearing in Israel. To see someone so horribly vile, someone who hates both G-d and B’nei Yisrael so much be the agent of G-d is miraculous. In this week’s parsha, Va’era, we see 7 of the 10 plagues of Egypt, the Makkot Mitzrayim. Up until the 6th plague, Pharaoh hardens his heart to the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, and dead livestock. But at the 6th plague, boils, we have new language, now it’s Hashem that hardens Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh needs Hashem to harden his heart, doesn’t that mean that he would let B’nei Yisrael go? Well, yes. So why go on with more plagues if 5 would have convinced Pharaoh? Is it to punish the Egyptians, to punish Pharaoh? No. It’s to convince B’nei Yisrael. At the beginning of this parsha, B’nei Yisrael doesn’t believe what Moshe tells them after the first time Pharaoh rejects the idea at the end of last parsha. The Torah tells us they didn’t listen due to their short breath — קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ. Ok, so give them a minute, right? This Kotzer Ruach, this short breath, refers to B’nei Yisrael’s crazy daily lives. They are working extremely hard, so hard in fact that they “don’t have time” to think about spirituality or G-d. Our commentary tells us that Pharaoh did this on purpose, working them super hard so they wouldn’t have the spiritual or mental strength to not be beaten down. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
05:55
January 15, 2021
Ep. 13 // Shemot ... flaw-ful isn't an Israeli street food :P
Mazel tov! We’ve reached the second book of the Torah, Sefer Shemot / the Book of Exodus! As well as the opening number of the excellent Dreamworks film, Prince of Egypt. We are entering Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus!  A new Pharaoh has arisen (or just new edicts have begun… there’s differing opinions) who is threatened by the fact that B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) have thrived in Egypt. So Pharaoh demands that all Ivri (Hebrew) baby boys be flung into the Nile. Enter Yocheved, daughter of Levi, granddaughter of Yaakov (Jacob), who gives birth to a particularly “good / ט֣וֹב” Hebrew baby boy. She hides him as long as she can, but eventually has to make a decision. Some commentators say she put her baby in the Nile momentarily and was planning to come back, some say she was sending her baby off for what she hoped was a better life, and others say she was finding the classic Jewish mother loophole — flipping the script and following through with Pharaoh’s command to put all Hebrew baby boys in the Nile. No matter what her intention was, her baby floats down the Nile to be discovered Divinely by the daughter of Pharaoh, who takes him in and names him Moshe (Moses) — “for I drew him out of the water” כִּ֥י מִן־הַמַּ֖יִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ There is also a piece of commentary that connects Moshe’s being saved or drawn out of a harsh place to his eventual role as the “savior” of B’nei Yisrael, too. So Moshe grows up in the palace and eventually finds out he’s Jewish. He goes out (maybe for the first time?) and sees an Egyptian task master beating a fellow Ivri. We are told that Moshe looked this way and that way, but saw no one, so he struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. When I first read this, I assumed Moshe was looking this way and that way to see if there was anyone who would see him commit this crime. But no! He was looking around to see if anyone else was going to intervene. Maybe I’m just dim, but when I first read commentary confirming this, it really surprised me. It wasn’t that Moshe was worried about getting caught (I mean maybe he was a little), it was that he wanted to discern if now is really the time to step up. There may have been a huge crowd around him, but if no one was willing to intervene, there may as well have been no one. Even now I’m reflecting and thinking about the times that I personally have “stepped up” and done something I was proud of. Thinking about it, I’m realizing these situations happened when either 1) no one else was around or 2) no one around was choosing to do the thing I knew was right. Nothing makes me more angry than inactive bystanders. Of course we’re social creatures, we want to be accepted and approved of by our fellow humans. But sometimes being forced to act because no one else will, can be revealing. There is no such thing as evil, there is only lack of good. Meaning, there can only be evil when we fail to be good. This reminds me of a movie my dad put on last week, called the Electric Horseman, starring a mustachioed Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Robert Redford is a washed up, hungover former rodeo star / cowboy (I was going to say “spoiler alert” but this came out in 1979 so if you haven’t seen it yet…. IDK man) who’s now sold out as the face of a breakfast cereal brand. He’s about to make a big PR appearance with a $12 million racing horse, named Rising Star, when he discovers that the horse is drugged up and injured. Robert Redford then steals away into the night on the horse, planning to free him into the wild. Why does he do it? He sees pain, he sees a lack of good, and steps in. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. opening theme: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
06:10
January 08, 2021
Ep. 12 // Vayechi ... may G-d bless the growth
Have you ever stumbled upon an old Sticky Note that says something absolutely nonsensical? If the note made no sense, why did we write it in the first place? Well, firstly it wasn’t nonsensical then. Secondly, a one-time flight confirmation number, daily schedule, or grocery list are totally relevant for a singular moment. But what about the information you write down that *is* a little more long term? Maybe a ~deep~ quote you thought of, or a good icebreaker activity— that has a little more lasting power, right? Obviously our momentary Sticky Note ideas are obsolete after their singular time has passed. But our unique insights should have a bit more of a shelf life! But what about beyond this? How does anything truly last? How can *we* last? As we learn in this week’s parsha, that which lasts is that which is rooted in G-dliness. A CT scan manual would be worthless in 1901 if CTs only came about in the 70s, a toddler's sock won't fly for your 10-year-old, and a 2011 iPhone charger with the wrong insert is unhelpful for your iPhone 12. These hollow, physical things have no lasting power. But the Torah? We're thousands of years later and you're sitting here reading an email about the parsha. We learn from every word choice, every letter, every space in lines in the Torah and so of course we also  learn from this parsha's first word -- ויחי // Vayechi, "and he lived." This parsha focuses almost exclusively on the death of Yaakov (Jacob), but it begins saying how long he grew to live — 147 years. And for all of these years, Yaakov Avinu (Jacob) was alive. This was because he was wholly connected to G‑dliness, living for the sake of G-d. When on his deathbed, does Yaakov tie up his own loose ends or speak of his own greatness? Aside from commanding his burial place, Yaakov spends his last hours giving blessings to his children and grandchildren. And even ensuring that he is buried in Maarat HaMachpelah (the Cave of Machpelah) is an act that binds his direct descendants to their ancestors: Avraham (Abraham), Sarah, Yitzchak (Isaac), Rivkah (Rebecca), and Leah, who are all buried there. Our sages say that the word “death” is not used to describe Yaakov’s “expiration,” meaning he is still living today. But weren’t Yitzchak and Avraham also very righteous? Even though their deaths are specifically mentioned, what is different about Yaakov? Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet) points out that both Avraham and Yitzchak had wayward sons. Avraham had Yishmael (Ishmael) and Yitzchak had Esav (Esau), both who strayed. Yaakov however had 12 sons, all who became the shevatim (tribes) and carried on Yaakov’s legacy. This is one of the reasons why we are called B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel, aka Jacob). Yaakov is also the most prolific (children-wise) of our avot (forefathers), which helps with the efficiency of his legacy. So if Yaakov spent his life living for the sake of G-d, this means he lived for the sake of the future. This is a future he didn’t get to see, but one that ensured the continuation of his people and the ideals that he believed in. On Shabbat, parents bless their daughters that they should be like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah — the Imahot (foremothers). It would make sense that parents would bless their sons to be like the Avot (forefathers) , but they don’t. Parents bless their sons that they should be like Yosef’s (Joseph) sons Ephraim and Menashe (Manasseh). For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here.
05:34
December 31, 2020
Ep. 11 // Vayigash ... survival of the most self-involved?
This week’s parsha begins to wrap up Yosef’s (Joseph’s) isolation in Egypt. As we read in last week’s parsha, Miketz, in the second year of the famine (that Yosef so deftly interpreted from Pharaoh’s dream), Yosef’s brothers leave Israel to get grain from Egypt. When they come before Yosef, his brothers don’t recognize him, which is credible. He’s now 39 and the last time they saw him was when he was 17, and he’s dressed and groomed like an Egyptian. But Yosef recognizes them and decides to put them through a little test. Yosef demands that the brothers leave and come back, but this time with their youngest brother — Yosef’s full brother, the son of Yaakov (Jacob) and Yosef’s mother Rachel (Rachel), Benyamin (Benjamin). He wants to see if the brothers have changed since their awful treatment of Yosef so many years ago, and so before letting them go, Yosef hides a silver goblet in Benyamin’s bag. Yosef takes Benyamin to be his prisoner, but immediately Yehuda (Judah) jumps to Benyamin’s defense, which is where our parsha this week, Vayigash, picks up. Yehuda demands that he be taken instead, claiming thatYaakov won’t survive losing Benyamin, because he has already lost his other beloved son (Yosef). Yehuda’s plea is so moving and genuine, that Yosef breaks down and reveals his identity to his brothers. It’s a moving moment, one that is unique because the Torah doesn’t often describe emotional expressions in such detail. Even when Yosef reveals who he is, the brothers are still shocked and even embarrassed, terrified that now Yosef will take revenge on them for their actions when he was 17. Yosef says something extremely powerful, proving that he doesn’t blame his brothers for their treatment of him. He says — “You did not send me here… G-d did” לֹֽא־אַתֶּ֞ם שְׁלַחְתֶּ֤ם אֹתִי֙ הֵ֔נָּה כִּ֖י הָֽאֱלֹקים Yosef expresses an incredible sentiment that only someone in his situation can truly understand. We are truly just G-dly agents on this earth. Of course we have free will, or bechira (בחירה), but what will be will be … מה שיהיה, יהיה. It’s a complicated topic that I don’t think I will ever truly grasp! Yosef’s brothers finally accept that he has forgiven them, and Pharaoh insists that they all move to Egypt. This news of Yosef’s brothers is specifically mentioned as being pleasing or good in the eyes of (וַיִּיטַב֙ בְּעֵינֵ֣י, vayitav b’enei) Pharaoh and his servants. Why would Pharaoh and his servants be happy that Yosef’s brothers came from Israel? And on a broader level, what makes anyone happy? We are happy about a lot of things. We’re happy when good things happen to the people we love, or to people who deserve good things, and of course to us, right? I’m sure you’ve read those pop psychology articles about how sharing good news with others leads to second-hand positivity which has been recorded as leading to better communication, healthier relationships and working environments, and even better sleep! A study at the University of Rochester saw that when undergraduate students shared certain happy events with others and were greeted with enthusiasm, they were in a better mood and rated that event as being more special or more fulfilling than if met with indifference. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here.
07:10
December 25, 2020
Ep. 10 // Miketz ... tips on spiritual frugality
This week we have the continuation of Joseph (Yosef’s) story in Egypt. Pharaoh has had 2 dreams that none of his advisors can explain. Yosef has built up a nice reputation in prison as a great dream interpreter, and by being a star networker, ends up being consulted for this particular instance. As you may remember, Pharoah’s first dream is him standing by the Nile. He sees 7 well-fed, healthy cows hanging out. Then he sees 7 malnourished, thin cows coming up after them, which then stand with the healthy cows. Then the 7 malnourished cows eat the well-fed ones. The next dream shows 7 healthy ears of grain growing in the field. Then come 7 unhealthy, beaten ears of grain that grow up to the healthy ones, devouring them. Yosef interprets this as meaning that Egypt will have 7 years of plenty, followed by 7 years of famine.According to the Midrash, Pharaoh’s interpreters told him he would have 7 children but then bury them all, or that he was going to defeat 7 nations, but none of those explanations satisfied him. Why? What no one addresses is why all 14 cows are standing together at one point — before the skinny cows ate the fat cows, they were existing on the banks of the Nile together. Pharaoh’s interpreters were perplexed by this. How can you have bad and good at the same time? Yosef answers this question after he interprets by not only decoding the dream, but ALSO giving his advice on how to solve it, too! He suggests that they store food for 7 years, so that when the famine comes, they will be ok. Just as the skinny cows stood next to the fat cows, the store houses of food will stand alongside the famine — good and bad at the same time. This idea of saving the good so that even in the bad, things are ok reminds me of something I heard recently on a podcast with the actor Matthew McConaughey. You may recognize him from every early 2000s romantic comedy ever, but he’s now a newly minted New York Times Bestselling author! He just released a memoir / life approach book called Greenlights, which is essentially a combination of his own musings and journals he has kept since he was 14 years old. Matthew McConaughey is kind of a mythological creature — an incredibly successful but seemingly totally laid back and chilled out guy. How can you be so chilled out AND successful seems to be the biggest question we all have. Matthew McConaughey’s answer is that he is in fact NOT such a roll-out-of-bed-and-go kind of person. He’s really a fascinating guy to listen to… all about self betterment and doing everything with precision and thoughtfulness. But something he talked about that I liked was in regard to his keeping journals. He says that people tend to write in journals when they’re sad or not feeling like they’re in a good place. He noticed that he was doing the same thing and decided that didn’t make sense. Why write down what you’re doing that doesn’t make you happy? So he started writing in his journal when things were good. So that when he looked back, he could start emulating that person who was doing so well, the person going through what he calls “Greenlights” in life. Times where no one is stopping you and you’re sailing by. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here.
04:54
December 17, 2020
Ep. 9 // Vayeshev + Chanukah Part 1
We are closing up the starring role of Yaakov Avinu (Jacob), and now shifting to his second youngest son — Yosef (Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame of course!!!) When Yosef is introduced, he is the youngest brother of all of Yaakov’s wives’ children. Yosef is said to have spent his time with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah (Yaakov’s 2 handmaidens, not quite at the level of full wives like Rachel and Leah). Why mention who he hangs out with? Wouldn’t a “Yosef was friends with his brothers” do the trick? There are 3 most common explanations that greatly differ, but the one I like best is from Rashi. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, explains that Yosef spent more time with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah because the sons of Leah (again, Yaakov’s other “main wife” besides Rachel) spurned these sons of “lesser” wives, and so Yosef went out of his way to befriend them. Ugh this interpretation warms my soul. Have you ever watched a show or movie where a pariah-type, outcast character is introduced? Someone who is clearly being put up to provide some sort of foil for the beautiful, charming main character? Most of the time, the beautiful and charming main character doesn’t do what I want them to when they see the outcast being bullied or mistreated. I want them to stand up for the outcast!! Use their high status to raise the lower. It so rarely happens, but when the beautiful and charming main character DOES treat the outcast well at their own risk, firstly I am so happy, but secondly, their beauty and charm is multiplied by tons. At least to me! Yosef is SUCH a beautiful and charming main character and I really love this mental image of him being friends with Bilhah and Zilpah’s sons. Yaakov really loves Yosef, like almost too much. Yaakov likes Yosef best for a number of reasons — Yosef is a child in Yaakov’s old age, and Yosef is his only son so far from his favorite wife Rachel. So Yaakov makes Yosef a fine tunic (כתונת פסים / ketonet passim). This is of course is the Technicolor Dreamcoat from the musical retelling of Yosef’s story (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber). Yosef’s brothers aren’t too crazy about him, though. He tells on them when they’re acting up, he gets a fancy coat, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and on top of all that, he also shares his prophetic dreams. These dreams, though eventually proven, aren’t very complimentary for the future of his siblings. One day, when Yosef is sent to check on his brothers, they decide to do away with him once and for all. They throw him in a pit but then change their minds when they see a caravan of Yishmaelim (Ishmaelites), tradesmen heading toward Egypt (Mitzrayim) and decide to sell him as a slave. The Torah specifically mentions that the tradesmen were carrying spices, balms, and lotus. Why? Doesn’t seem like the most relevant usage of words, and as we discuss, the Torah never uses even an extraneous letter. Rashi comments this is the reward of the righteous. Usually tradesmen in these areas would only carry tar or bad-smelling oils, but because Yosef was a tzadik, it was arranged that the caravan taking Yosef would have only beautiful smells. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here. And to watch Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat :)
08:02
December 11, 2020
Ep. 8 // Vayishlach ... how to have everything
Idea 1 This week’s parsha continues the story of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob. After spending 20 years out of Israel in Charan (modern day Turkey) Yaakov decides it’s time to return home. He still hasn’t seen his older brother Esav (Esau) since Yaakov stole Esav’s birthright so many years ago. So Yaakov sends malachim (messengers / angels) ahead of him, they tell him that Esav is coming toward him with 400 men. Yaakov freaks out (rightfully so) and does 3 things in this order: prepares his camp for war prays to G-d sends a gift to Esav This is what I will call a “work-pray-work” sandwich. First Yaakov separates his people into two camps so that if one should be captured, the other can go free), prays to G-d (deliver me plz!!! הַצִּילֵ֥נִי נָ֛א!), and finally he sends a grand gift of goats, camels, cows, and donkeys. Ok defining 2 terms for us — “hishtadlus / hishtadlut” meaning human effort “bitachon” meaning trust, security, or faith in G-d So while I’m calling it a work-pray-work sandwich, we can also call this an effort-trust-effort sandwich (hishtadlus-bitachon-hishtadlus). Yaakov puts in his hishtadlus, his effort, by separating his camps, t  hen prays, exhibiting bitachon or trusting in G-d to do what is meant to be done, and then does some more hishtadlus with the gifts he sends. Of course some say that prayer IS hishtadlus (effort), but for the sake of this comparison, we won’t go there. (In Pirkey Avot we actually learn that the world stands on 3 things — Torah, avodah [literally “work” or “service” but understood to mean prayer] and gemilut chasadim [acts of kindness] עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֶד: עַל הַתּוֹרָה, וְעַל הַעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים) So take that for what you will — but the main point is: we can believe in the effectiveness of prayer at the same time we believe in the effectiveness of human effort. You need both, and Yaakov teaches us this here. Idea 2 On the way to meet Esav, Yaakov and his family cross a river. After they all cross, Yaakov goes back to retrieve some items they left, and therefore ends up spending the night across the river alone. We are then told that Yaakov wrestled with a man / ish (איש) until dawn. Though Yaakov “wins” this struggle, he still ends up injured by the ish. Yaakov doesn’t let the ish go without giving him a blessing though. The Ish renames Yaakov, “Yisrael” because he struggled with G-d — כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹקים and prevailed (Sar)iti El(okim) — Yisrael? You hear it? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) comments that this name change represents a change in Yaakov. Yaakov can be connected etymologically to a few words, some meaning follower, deceiver, trickery etc. — all names that imply secrets, lack of openness. While previously Yaakov got his blessings through deceit, now he will receive them through openness, as Yisrael. This name reflects facing struggles head-on, being noble and worthy. Yaakov / Yisrael then asks the ish for his name, to which the ish responds: “Why do you want to know my name?” Rashi comments that the angel / ish meant that angels have no fixed name, shem kavua (שם קבוע) — their names change according to the service they are commanded. For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here.
07:20
December 04, 2020
Ep. 7 // Vayetze ... what's the deal with Jacob's Ladder?
This week's parsha picks back up with Yaakov (Jacob) who has fled Beer Sheva after tricking his father Yitzchak (Isaac) into giving him the first-born blessing instead of his brother Esav (Esau). Yaakov is going to Charan, where his mother Rivkah's (Rebecca) brother Lavan (Laban) lives. On the way to Charan, Yaakov stops to sleep for the night and has his famous "Jacob's Ladder" dream. In this dream, Yaakov sees angels of G-d (malachei Elokim) ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven. G-d comes to him and promises Yaakov that the land he sleeps on will be given to his descendants who will be "as the dust of the earth" - כעפר הארץ. Jacob's Ladder was always a mystery to me. There wasn't enough context for me to see it as anything beyond inspiration for the Jewish art hanging in your Bubbie's living room. Like everything in Torah, the most interesting ideas are a little deeper than surface-level content. I will be sharing an idea by Rabbi YY Jacobson. The Midrash teaches that the ladder in Yaakov's dream was a ladder with four steps, which embody the 4 worlds of Kabbalah. The Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, or mystical Judaism, teaches that Jacob's Ladder was a metaphor for the experience of prayer. Prayer is the ladder through which we as humans climb from our earth-bound existence to the higher, more G-dly plane of our souls. In Kabbalah, there are 4 levels to the world -- the first level is the World of Asiya (Action), the second is the World of Yetzirah (Formation), the third is the World of Beriyah (Creation), and the final highest world is the World of Atzilut (Divine Emanation). How is this related to the dream? Well, the ladder is rooted in the ground (World of Asiya - Action), and climbing it are 2 types of angels: descending angels (World of Yetzirah - Formation) and ascending angels (World of Beriyah - Creation). When G-d comes to Yaakov, G-d is representing the highest world (World of Atzilut - Divine Emanation) So how is this metaphysical, complex idea related to anything in our lives? It's not a one-and-done kind of thing, it takes a lifetime to apply this teaching to ourselves. But what better moment to begin than this one? For full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or join my email list here.
05:57
November 25, 2020
Ep. 6 // Toldot ... nature versus nurture
This week’s parsha opens with the marriage of Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebekah). When she is re-introduced, Rivkah is specifically noted as “Rivkah the daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean.” Why is this complicated intro needed? We already know who Rivkah’s family members are! And if she’s being introduced like this, why not Yitzchak too? Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, comments that this seemingly superfluous addition is to specifically emphasize Rivkah’s merit. She was born to an idolatrous, immoral man (Betuel / Bethuel) and is the sister of another idolatrous, immoral man (Lavan / Laban) and yet still turned out a righteous, kind woman. Later, Rashi comments, though, that while Rivkah is to be lauded, Yitzchak’s righteousness is even more impressive. Why? He was the son of Avraham and Sarah! Our absolute models of righteous couple! Rashi explains that because he had to forge his own path of goodness instead of just being like his father and mother, Yitzchak had an even harder task. There are lots of studies over many years about parenting’s effect on adult functioning. And an endless research question — is it nature or nurture that determines our lives? Our upbringing or our biology? Both nature and nurture give so little agency to children, though. And it feels like a rather fatalistic thought — that what really matters in our development happens before we are legal adults. In reading about this parsha, it’s the root question -- do we have control over who we end up being? We learn, as mentioned before, that Rivkah was righteous in spite of her upbringing. And then we meet Yitzchak and Rivkah’s twin sons, Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau), born after many years of barrenness. Our sages explain that while she was pregnant with them, Yaakov and Esav fought within her. When she would walk past a place of holiness, Yaakov would move around, and then when she would walk past a place of idolatry, then Esav would move. If Yaakov and Esav were created by two holy, righteous people (Yitzchak and Rivkah), why should they both not be equally holy and righteous? How can we fathom that Esav was drawn to wickedness? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides) explains that there are 2 forms of spiritual service: the individual who desires to do only good, and the one who desires to do evil, but conquers his evil inclination. Yaakov was wholly righteous while Esav was tasked with overcoming evil. For full text, email me (shirajkaplan@gmail.com) or join my mailing list!
08:02
November 20, 2020
Ep. 5 // Chayei Sarah, tribute to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt"l
As you may have heard, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt"l passed away this past Shabbat. In addition to being the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom for over 20 years, Rabbi Sacks was an incredibly prolific writer and gifted teacher of the entire Jewish community, if not the world. If someone knew of one great rabbi of this generation, they knew of Rabbi Sacks. He had an incredible ability to communicate Jewish ideas in a way that could reach every human, regardless of their religious affiliation. Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, had a close relationship with former Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair, and was probably the most often-cited rabbi in any dvar Torah (sermon) ever given anywhere. In addition to being a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Sacks possessed immense secular academic knowledge. He managed to weave this knowledge effortlessly into his works. Rabbi Sacks was an absolute giant and his passing is a devastation for us all. Rabbi Sacks is famous for saying, “A good leader makes followers. A great leader makes leaders.” Through his teaching, he absolutely made leaders. Rabbi Sacks empowered a whole generation of people to share Torah with their families, schools, and communities. And personally, he empowered me! I learned that a dvar Torah could be engaging and relevant from Rabbi Sacks. I learned that adding secular context to Jewish learning doesn't diminish the Torah being taught -- instead Torah will always elevate anything it is connected to. Every person who has been (and still is!) a student of Rabbi Sacks can tell a story about how he has impacted their Judaism, their learning, and their lives. It’s an incredible feat that he has been able to reach such a span of people. I recently learned that Rabbi Sacks managed to prepared a full year of divrei Torah recordings and material in advance of his passing. This really moved me. Rabbi Sacks' awe-inspiring canon of work will continue to inspire and motivate people far beyond his passing. Last year, Rabbi Sacks wrote a stunning commentary on this week's parsha, Chayei Sarah. I will speak about some of the ideas he mentioned, but I am also attaching this link here and encourage you to listen to these ideas straight from him!— https://rabbisacks.org/to-have-a-why-chayei-sarah-5780/ In this week's parsha, Sarah Imeinu (Sarah our Mother) passes away. The parsha opens with this: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.” וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה: In a famous comment, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) notes the repetition of the word “years,” saying that this redundancy indicates that every single year of Sarah’s life was equally good. How can that be possible? Sarah had a trying life, full of uncertainty and volatility. In his commentary, Rabbi Sacks explained that Avraham and Sarah encapsulate the famous remark by Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why in life can bear almost any how.” Every year of Sarah’s life was good because every year was a step in the direction of her Divine calling, of her Divine mission. For full text, email me (shirajkaplan@gmail.com) or join my mailing list! Listen to Rabbi Sacks' commentary for last year's Chayei Sarah.
05:43
November 13, 2020
Ep. 4 // Vayera ... be[you]tiful
We continue with the story of Avraham Avinu this week in Parshat Vayera. Three days after his brit milah (circumcision), Avraham is visited by 3 men who are actually angels. One of these angels tells Avraham that he and his wife Sarah will finally have a child of their own — in a year, when they are at the ages of 90 (Sarah) and 100 (Avraham). When Sarah hears this news, she laughs — וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה, surprised that a pregnancy is possible even when Avraham is so old, “וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן”​ ~ but my husband is old.​ When Hashem retells this situation to Avraham, notice the difference. Hashem says that Sarah laughed, saying that SHE is old, “and *I* am old” ~ וַֽאֲנִ֥י זָקַֽנְתִּי, not what she originally said “וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן”, referring to Avraham’s old age. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) points this out, explaining that G-d rephrased Sarah’s concerns to preserve the harmony between Avraham and Sarah. G-d didn’t want Avraham to feel like their barrenness was his fault. What do we learn from this? To lie? No, not really. We learn that 100% authenticity isn’t 100% the right choice 100% of the time. On his podcast WorkLife, psychologist Adam Grant tackles a lot of subjects. In April, he made an episode on a topic I ​like a l​ot — authenticity. He explains that our culture used to be all about only bringing your best self to work, but now, with the trend of Silicon Valley companies encouraging self-expression, we’re changing. Studies show that feeling like you can be your​ true self​ at work increases productivity and leads to less frequent burn-out. But there’s also evidence that the more you focus on yourself at work, the less effective you are. ​So where are we going wrong with our authenticity? Adam Grant gives 3 tips. The first level of authenticity is emotional vulnerability. People like to see this, it humanizes you, but not always. Emotional vulnerability only works if you’ve already “proven your competence.” If you haven’t impressed your audience yet, vulnerability can only hinder you. In a study of lawyers interviewing for jobs, only those who were already in the top 10% of candidates did better when they showed their “true selves.” On this topic, Adam gives tip 1: Authenticity without bounds is careless. He discusses another case​ where ​a gossip website writer had to learn how to curb her bluntness​, selectively choosing when to be 100% herself. This​ leads us to tip 2: Authenticity without empathy is selfish. And then,​ using​ the case of a CIA employee whose “heretical” ​but forward-thinking ​views​ weren't being ​taken seriously, leads to tip 3: Authenticity without status and trust is risky. By editing what Sarah said about her pregnancy, G-d was modeling authenticity with bounds AND authenticity with empathy. More on tip 3 later. Next, the malachim who had been at Avraham’s tent rose to go to the cities of Sodom v’Amorah (Sodom and Gomorrah). G-d tells Avraham that the cities have sinned greatly and that G-d will destroy them. These cities were known as places devoid of kindness, hospitality, and goodness — filled with every kind of corruption known to us. And yet Avraham says to G-d, “And you’d even destroy righteous of this city with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? You wouldn’t save the city on their merit? For full text, email me (shirajkaplan@gmail.com) or join my mailing list! 
09:01
November 05, 2020
Ep. 3 // Lech Lecha ... do you want G-d to like you?
Our first parsha, Bereshit (Genesis) was introducing Adam and Chava (Adam and Eve), our second parsha Noach was about Noach (Noah), and now Lech Lecha is the story of Avraham (Abraham, Abram) and Sarah (Sarai). As Noach was 10 generations after Adam and Chava, Avraham is also 10 generations after Noach. At the end of last week’s parsha, Noach, we are introduced to Terach (Terah), the father of Avram (Abraham). Terach is listed in the descendents of Shem, Noach’s righteous son (the other sons were Ham and Yafet/Japeth).  At the beginning of this parsha, G-d comes to Avraham (at this point named Abram) and says “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you” ~ לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּThe word lech ~ לֶךְ, means the command “go.” So why the repetition of lech lecha ~ לֶךְ־לְךָ֛? This second word, (oft-discussed and very commonly referred to) lecha literally means “to yourself” or “for yourself.” Our rabbis comment that G-d is telling Avram to go for himself, as in it is for your own good that you should leave the place you are most comfortable, in order to be the great leader I know you will be. The translation of “to yourself” reveals another inspirational idea: when we are in discomfort or in a challenging situation, we learn more about ourselves. (I also giggle at the idea that G-d is like, "Avraham, you're 75 years old. You gotta move out of your dad's basement.") Then G-d says, “…and I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” ~ וַֽאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַֽאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶֽהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽהThis idea of a blessing is so vague, though, and what does it mean to *be* a blessing? Italian rabbi, Rav Ovadiah Sforno, or the Sforno, comments that a true blessing by G-d is when G-d rejoices in our deeds and actions. The idea of being blessed by G-d gives me the warm fuzzies. But how do we know what is a rejoice-able action or deed? It's hard to extricate deeds / actions from their motivations. I always talk about investigating our beliefs, but we can also investigate our actions. I ask myself a lot "Why are you doing _____?" or "Why are you saying _____?" And sometimes (most of the time) I can't make myself know or I truly don't know. But investigation of action is a muscle... just gotta keep pumping. Have you heard of the book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone? It's written by Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist. She talks about her clients and their issues, but also goes through her own struggles and her decision to find her own psychotherapist to see. This book honestly gave me so many tools to investigate the root of everything I do, think, and feel. So I can't give you tips on how to lech lecha (go to yourself) to find the roots of any hang-ups you may have, but this book might be able to! Haran (where Avraham comes from when first pilgrimaging to Israel) is on the other side of the Euphrates River to Israel, and so this is one of the reasons that Avraham is referred to as Avram haIvri, or Abram the Hebrew. Ivri (עברי) coming from ever (עבר) meaning "the other side." But Avraham-the-guy-from-the-other-side-of-the-river isn't a great name. The deeper idea is that Avraham was on the other side of the moral divide of the world. Our sages teach that righteous people must be ready for isolation. No one likes the "moral police," and not agreeing with people is hard. It's natural to want to be liked, but it's a slippery slope to bending our moral values to what is popular. For the full text, email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com or sign up here.
06:36
October 30, 2020
Ep. 2 // Noach (Noah) ... was he really all that righteous?
The Torah doesn’t tarry ... second parsha (portion) of the year and we jump right into what I think is the most recall-able Biblical “story” – the story of Noach (Noah) and the teiva (the ark). Run up to anyone on the street and ask them how many days it rained on Noah’s Ark. Ask them what kind of olive-branch-carrying bird is important in the story, or what multicolored weather phenomenon has a starring moment at the end. I think a lot of people could answer all those questions! Noah’s Ark might just be the most accurately recalled event in regard to Torah / Bible readers. When we first meet Noach in this parsha, he is introduced as a righteous man, perfect within his generation -- נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו, and we are told that Noach walked with G-d ~ אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ. What is an Ish Tzadik (אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק, righteous man)? And also, why add the qualifier "in his generation ~ בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו"? Just like a parent loves their children without end, a righteous person loves good deeds without end. A parent doesn't love their children out of duty, they love them, because they love them. And like a parent doesn’t dismiss an unremarkable child as unimportant, a righteous person doesn’t dismiss a small mitzvah (commandment / deed) as insignificant. Rav Moshe Feinstein (20th century rabbi known as the Gadol HaDor, the greatest in his generation) taught that a person should work hard to perfect their deeds, just as they spare no effort to help their children. And why was the qualifier "in his generation ~ בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו" added to Noach's descriptor? Famously there are different interpretations. The first interpretation is that the people in the time of Noach were so awful that for him to still be righteous was a great feat. Another is that he was only good in comparison to those same awful people. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, essential 12th century Torah commentator) taught that if Noach were to exist in the generation of Avraham (Abraham), he would be insignificant. On Rashi's train of thought, I have to ask a question -- why did no one else join Noach and his family? Noach builds his Ark, but isn't able to bring anyone to make teshuva, or to repent. He's building this Costco warehouse-sized boat over 120 years, and we have to assume that none of his neighbors ever stopped and asked him what he was doing? And if someone did stop and ask Noach why he was building this huge boat, did Noach not explain that the world had deteriorated so terribly that G-d was planning to destroy it? I don't know that anyone of Noach's time would necessarily even believe that explanation. But if we think of Noach in this not-so-perfect way, we see that he's a great example of a perfectly good man who is just not a leader. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put Noach in context -- Adam and Chava (Eve) failed the test of personal responsibility, Cain failed the test of moral responsibility ("Am I my brother's keeper? ~ הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי?"), and Noach fails the test of collective responsibility. Chasidic thought teaches that Noach was a "tzaddik im/in peltz" -- a righteous man in a fur coat. Meaning, there are 2 ways to be warm: wear a coat or make a fire. Which one do you think Noach was picking by getting on the teiva, the ark with just his family? It's nice and well to be snug and warm in your own goodness, but a fire can be enjoyed by everyone around you. Think about this -- which choice do you make in your own life? Is collective responsibility something you value? For full text, join my mailing list! :) Email me at shirajkaplan@gmail.com to ask any questions, request sponsoring an episode in someone's merit / for someone's healing, or just to say hi! Music: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
08:36
October 22, 2020
Ep. 1 // Bereshit (Genesis) ... why are we unable to see beyond the physical?
What is the Torah? Is the Torah a history book? Is it a book of laws? It is a book of ethics? The Torah is the manifesto (if you will) of humankind’s mission in the universe. According to the Ramban, if the Torah was a book of laws, it would have begun in Shemot (Exodus) with the first mitzvah that the Jewish people as a whole were given: thecommandment to recognize the new moon of the month. But we know the Torah doesn’t begin in Shemot (Exodus), it begins with Bereshit (Genesis), with the pasuk (line): “In the beginning of G-d’s creating of the heavens and the earth…” ~ “בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹקים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃” We read about the creation of light, of land and heaven, of land and sea, of vegetation and animals, and finally of humankind. We read that Adam was created to work the soil of Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). G-d told Adam: “You can eat everything except the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (עץ הדעת טוב ורע).” Then G-d saw that Adam needed a friend — “it is not good for man to be alone” ~ “לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ”, and so Chava (Eve) was formed. (She technically already existed, as Adam was really HaAdam, a two-sided human of both sexes. So Chava was just one side of HaAdam that was made separate. Also, voila — the concept of soul mates / other halves / partners being really one flesh (בשר אחד)! All humans are simply searching for the other half of our HaAdam as we did in Creation!) Then the serpent (nachash, נחש) tempts Chava into eating from the Etz HaDaat (the Tree of Knowledge), which she does, and then shares the fruit with Adam. This is the “Original Sin” that we are forever attempting to rectify. If we are now rectifying the “Original Sin” of eating of Etz HaDaat, what was humankind’s mission before that sin? The mission was (and is) to bring G-dliness into the world. To elevate the physical with the spiritual. This is a mission only humans can fulfill. Unlike angels (malachim) which are strictly spiritual beings, and unlike animals which are strictly physical beings, humankind is unique. We are physical beings with G-dly souls. The Midrash says that Adam was created from both the upper realms and the lower realms, just like us. Creation isn’t just a story about light and darkness, of oceans and deserts, and it’s not about the creation of humankind either. Creation is the birth of Am Yisrael, the people that inherited the commandment of Creation that Adam and Chava (Adam and Eve) were given. The commandment to elevate the physical, to bring G-dliness into the world. (I learned this next idea over a year ago from Mrs. Raquel Kirszenbaum of Neve Yerushalayim, but it has really stuck with me) But what’s the big deal about the Etz HaDaat? What knowledge did Adam and Chava suddenly have? Their eyes were opened to make them realize they were naked. Ok fine, but weren’t their eyes already open? Yes, but now Adam and Chava had a more basic level of sight: sight of the physical form. Before eating from the Etz HaDaat, when they would look at each other, or at any other living thing, instead of seeing their physical outside, Adam and Chava saw their souls, their true essences. The curse of the Tree of Knowledge was the knowledge of physicality. They weren’t embarrassed about being naked because the last thing on their minds was their physical body. What truly mattered was a being’s essence. And crazily enough, blindness to anything but the surface is an affliction we suffer from now. So think about what would be different in our world if we still had the ability to transcend the physical. And on a lower level, how do you rectify the Original Sin in your daily life? Do you try to look beyond the surface of others? Do you struggle to understand peoples’ true intentions? Reflect! (for full text contact me-- shirajkaplan@gmail.com)
05:25
October 15, 2020
Ha'Iggeret ~ Trailer
Nearly 35 years ago, my grandfather Dr. Bernard Kaplan, of blessed memory, started a weekly Torah newsletter - a “unique journal of original and plagiarized Jewish thought,” is what he called it. When I started my weekly Torah email in October 2019, I had no idea about this. A few months into writing my own weekly Torah emails, some family members mentioned his newsletters, called Ha'Iggeret, or the Message. It struck me as incredibly Divine that the grandfather I never got to meet, one who had been turned into somewhat of a mythical hero-tzadik by family legend, suddenly felt so near to me. I decided that if I could complete my year-long round of my original email Emunah until the Sunset, then I would re-name my email HaIggeret in his memory, moving forward Thank G-d both sets of my grandparents passed down intense love of Judaism to their children, including my mother and father. I am very grateful that my parents, Meyer and Shelley Kaplan instilled that same love and pride and sense of responsibility for the Jewish people in my siblings and me. In this podcast I will share Torah ideas on the weekly parsha (portion) as well as the chagim (holidays), and other Jewish concepts. I hope to relate the timelessness of Torah with real life as well as our current world moment. This podcast will be in my grandfather’s merit ~ Benyamin Aryeh ben Meir. Thank you so much for listening! I hope you will join me on my continued Jewish journey! Music: reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed
01:31
October 14, 2020