Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

Useful, Thoughtful, Meaningful Prayers (Tzav)

 Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action. -Mahatma Gandhi

There is a not-uncommon phenomenon in Hebrew prayer, of people not understanding what they are saying. This goes so far as to the trend of some people, trying to be particularly devout, of reciting Psalms throughout the day, though they may not understand the words. Some go so far as to recite the entire Book of Psalms in one sitting or even multiple times a day, leaving time for little else in their days.

The source for the power of prayer in general and Psalms in particular is an ancient tradition. The Talmud affirms that “whoever says the Praise of David (referring to Psalm 145) every day is guaranteed the World to Come.”

However, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 7:37 (Tzav) adds a caveat to the above. The prayers are mainly effective when we understand what we’re saying. While there is some value to saying it even if we don’t fully understand, the power of the prayers is when we are able to internalize the concepts we’re saying, when we are able to delve into the meaning within our communications with God.

There is a related principle from this week’s Torah reading regarding the sacrifices. The Sages explain that even just reading about the sacrifices, especially in our day and age, while the Temple is yet to be rebuilt, is akin to actually bringing the real flesh-and-blood sacrifices. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that here too, it’s not just reading the words, but really contemplating the significance of the words, the profound messages and the divine imperative which underlines the holy texts.

A related challenge is that for those who pray on a daily basis, and recite the same text all the time, the act of praying can become monotonous. It can become a burden. People may speed through the text just to get it over with. Their mouths may be saying the words, but their hearts and minds are most likely elsewhere. The truth however, and a response to the challenge, is that the words of the prayer are rich and complex. They are filled with nuance and significance which can take a lifetime to discover. They can lead to greater insights as to our history and our tradition. That is part of Rabbeinu Bechaye’s suggestion. He guides us to delve into the interpretations of prayer. There are mystical hints. One can find the keyhole to wonders. It should lead to a growing faith in God and indeed the World to Come.

May we rediscover the meaning, usefulness, sublimity and power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,



To the members of The Westside Shul in LA for a warm welcome and a meaningful prayer service.

Man with God

Man with God 

Nothing hath separated us from God but our own will, or rather our own will is our separation from God. -William Law 

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 6:2 contrasts the heathen view of Night and Day to the Jewish view, and what that means regarding our relationship to God:

“Night, the time when things are “commingled,” when man, too, reverts to the bondage of physical forces, brings the heathen mind closer to its gods. At night the heathen believes he feel the power of the gods that hold him in bondage along with all other creatures. Conversely, he perceives the day, the time of “standing erect,” when man becomes aware of himself and resumes the struggle to subdue the physical world, as the time when man must take up anew the struggle against the gods.”

“By virtue of the Word of God, the position of Judaism is the direct antithesis to these notions. The Jew need not wait until night in order to feel the power of his God. He stands near to his God particularly when his mind is clear and when he is in the midst of his endeavors to subdue the world. He regards the lucidity of his clear mind, the energy of his free will and the results of his creative endeavors, indeed, all of his free personality that achieves its highest potential during his daily activities, as a gift from his Creator, the One sole God. By breathing into him a tiny spark from the infinite fullness of His own spirit that fills the world with His thoughts, from His own holy, unfettered will, from His own creative power that freely dominates the world which He Himself freely created, God has raised man high to Himself beyond the bonds of the physical world. God has thereby elevated man, made in God’s image, to become a free personality, ruling freely over the world in service of God and God’s purposes. Precisely by implementing this power in his daily personal life does man fulfill the will of his God; only in this manner, uplifted and encouraged by God Himself, can man render his service to God in this world.”

“The heathen mentality sees daytime as the period when mortals must do battle against the might of the gods. To the Jews day is the time for action, for achievements in the service of God and for his approval. Hence in the Sanctuary of Judaism it is not night that drags day with it into the grave of mortality, but day that raises night with it into the eternity of a life of nearness to God. Physical nature is not the intermediary between the Jew and his God; man’s personality stands high above physical nature and in direct proximity to God. For this reason it was in the wilderness, where man has nothing and no one but himself, that God came near to Israel. It was there that God established with Israel the covenant of His Law. It was there, in the wilderness, where man has nothing to offer to his God except himself, nothing but that which he bears within his own personality, that God first commanded Israel to make the offerings of its own devotion to Him.”

“An unfettered personality that subordinates its thoughts, its aspirations and its achievements to God of its own free will: such is the personality to which God’s command was addressed and which is a prerequisite for the offerings made to Him.”

May we see both Night and Day for what they truly are and endeavor to connect with God rather than foolishly strive against Him.

Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Kasher Ve’sameach,



To the men, women and children working day and night preparing for Pesach.

Inextinguishable Flame

 Great waters cannot quench the flame of love; neither can the floods drown it. – King Solomon, Song of Songs 8:7 


On the altar of the sacrifices of the Tabernacle, there was a flame that was never extinguished. We continue that tradition with what is called the “Ner Tamid”, the eternal candle (or light bulb) that is always lit in the synagogue.

The Sfat Emet in 5640 (1880) explains that the altar is similar to the human heart and that each one of us must have an internal flame that is constantly burning. Burning with a passion and desire to do what’s right in this world, with a love of God. (The words “lev” (heart), “lahav” (flame) and “hitlahavut” (passion) all have the same Hebrew root.)

When a person accepts upon himself such a lifelong commitment to good, then something magical happens. A transformation occurs. That internal fire burns brightly and is never extinguished. And though challenges, distractions and obstacles stand in his way, they will burn in the flames of his passion. They will even feed the fire of his great desire. He will be an inextinguishable flame.

May we find our passion for good and see our flame burn forever.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Rita Vinocur. An inextinguishable flame of passion in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Sinful Ignorance

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Tzav

Sinful Ignorance



Ignorance breeds monsters to fill up the vacancies of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.  -Horace Mann

“I don’t know” is an honest, often acceptable and at times even an admirable response. However, in Jewish law “I don’t know” can be criminal.

The overarching command of Jewish law is the self-referential study of the Torah; becoming acquainted with the laws, traditions and customs of what we call the Jewish faith. If you don’t know the law, you can’t know how to act, what to do, when to do it, when not to do it, and in a system that comprises 248 positive commands and 365 prohibitions, that’s a lot of laws we can make mistakes on. We should become familiar with at least the basic ones.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 6:1 explains that the Kohanim, the priests of the Temple, were diligent in the fulfillment of their roles and in studying for it. He elaborates further that when there is an error in ones learning and therefore in the performance of a command it is considered in a way a purposeful sin. The person was negligent in their study and that negligence leads directly to the unavoidable mistake.

“I don’t know” is no longer an excuse. “I didn’t study those laws” does not exempt one from divine judgement. In our day and age, there is absolutely no barrier of access to the entirety of Jewish law, instantaneously, in multiple languages, on multiple sites, apps, books and a plethora of approachable Rabbis worldwide.

We should be constantly educating ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’Sameach,



To the TLV Internationals community for hosting us this Shabbat. Looking forward to a memorable event.


Unholy Leftovers

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Netziv Leviticus: Tzav

Unholy Leftovers

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow”. -Melody Beattie

Disclaimer: I truly enjoy leftovers and look forward to eating as much as I can get of my wife’s cooking. The above title is not meant in any way as a negative reflection of her culinary abilities, as our many guests can attest to.

However, in the list of animal sacrifices that were offered at the Sanctuary/Temple there are curious guidelines as to the time span within which the meat can be eaten. For the sacrifice of thanksgiving (Toda) there is an interesting combination of a relatively short period to eat and a lot of bread that is meant to accompany the sacrifice.

The Toda sacrifice is brought when a person wishes to give thanks to God for a particularly significant event, salvation, or overt manifestation of God in ones life.

The Netziv on Leviticus 7:13 explains that the constrained time to eat plentiful food for the thanksgiving offering is deliberate. Its purpose is to force the person to publicize the sacrifice he’s offering and the cause, and to invite as many people as possible to partake in the feast of thanks thereby spreading the word far and wide as to God’s direct involvement in our lives. Hence, by prohibiting leftovers, one is obliged to invite more people than he might have otherwise.

May we always have reasons to celebrate together and thank God for the goodness and the miraculous in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim,



To all those who know how to have fun without getting drunk.

A Life for a Life

[First posted on The Times of Israel:]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Tzav

A Life for a Life

“Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity. When I give I give myself.” -Walt Whitman

How does a person show thanks? How does one repay an enormous debt of gratitude? How can “thank you” be meaningful?

Why, by bringing a sacrifice, of course.

At least that’s what they did in the old days. By slaughtering and burning an animal upon the altar one could give thanks to God for saving one from trouble. Ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 7:12) says that a sacrifice was the appropriate method of giving serious thanks. Anything less than that just didn’t show enough appreciation to God.

On Leviticus 8:23, he takes the concept of an animal sacrifice another step. The truth is we should be ready to lay our lives on the line for God (when called for). We should be able to give our life in His service. A significant demonstration, beyond mere lip-service was the offering of an animal. A life for a life. The animal being sacrificed was really a substitute for ourselves. It was taking our place on the altar. We needed to imagine, visualize and believe that it is our body being offered. By strongly identifying with the animal and understanding that it is dying instead of us, we can ennoble both its death and our lives.

That is a serious thank you. However, in our days we need to find less destructive and fatal forms of thanks. We have to find some other way to give of ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,



Thanks to the leadership of both the Kehila of Uruguay as well as the Yavne school community of Montevideo for their extraordinary hosting. Here my thanks are a mere dedication, but I look forward to the opportunity of showing more significant thanks.