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Laws of Pesach #2

By: Rabbi Motzen | February 26, 2013

It is forbidden to not only eat chameitz, but it is an obligation to get rid of all chameitz that is in one’s possession.

Biblically, one can relinquish ownership of chameitz that is in one’s possession and that would suffice. However, our sages were concerned that if one would have chameitz that is sitting around in one’s home they would inadvertently eat it. They therefore required one to remove all chameitz from one’s home. (We will discuss selling chameitz at a later time.)

It therefore follows that if one relinquishes ownership of the chameitz in their home they do not need to remove chameitz from locations that are very difficult to reach since there is no concern that one will inadvertently eat the chameitz there. For example, there is no obligation to move a fridge to remove chameitz from behind the fridge.

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Prayer #39

By: Rabbi Motzen | December 11, 2013

Echad – G-d is One.

The idea of G-d’s Unity is a very loaded one. On its simplest level it means that there is only one G-d. More specifically it means that everything, both good and evil, comes from G-d. That is an expression of the fact that G-d Himself is indivisible. While it is true that G-d is both compassionate and judging, they are united in absolute oneness.

On a practical level, we often times finding ourselves turning to G-d in times of distress or when we need something significant in our lives. The fact that we do not turn to Him at all times is a failure to appreciate this Oneness. Everything, good and bad, big and small, come from G-d.

The Shulchan Aruch relates that one should draw out the letter Ches of Echad and while doing so think about the fact that G-d is master of heaven and earth (There are seven heavens in Kabbilistic literature. Hence it is during the letter Ches which has a numerical value of 8 that we think of G-d’s dominion over the seven heavens and one earth.) Also, while one pronounces the Daled of Echad one should think of G-d’s mastery of the four corners of the Universe.

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Are Jews Racist? A Tribute to Nelson Mandela – Parshas Vayigash

By: Rabbi Motzen | December 9, 2013

                                        Are Jews Racist? A Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Parshas Vayigash

On Thursday, the international community lost a true hero. A man who spent his whole life fighting for one cause – racial equality. Initially a believer in civil disobedience in the spirit of Gandhi, when that didn’t work, he turned to violence, and finally continued and completed his struggle as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Nelson Mandela sought and struggled for peace and achieved it. In doing so he changed the face of the entire African continent and became a global symbol of courage and vision and the ability to balance the two.

Mr. Mandela was a noble man, not interested in revenge. After being released from his 25 year stay on Robben Island, a maximum security prison, the goal which he strove for, was as he put it, “a middle ground between white fears and black hopes.” He achieved that near impossible goal. He was loved by both the white and black community in South Africa.

Mr. Mandela was a principled man. The country that elected him as president loved him for what he was able to do; most specifically to ensure that the almost inevitable civil war never took place. And at the end of his first term the country still desperately needed his help and guidance. But unlike many African leaders hailed as heroes and freedom fighters, Mr. Mandela stepped down from office after only one term.

Mr. Mandela was an idealist. In probably one of his most famous statements, he said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

I would like to discuss that quote on two levels; as individuals and as a nation. As individuals, I really don’t have much to say. At times, and I emphasize at times because it is thankfully infrequent, but I hear statements made by people in our community that I am appalled by. I do understand that I did not grow up in Baltimore and I wasn’t even born during the riots of ’68. But if people learned to hate then we can, and must, teach ourselves to love.

What I would really like to focus on is racism on a national level. The question, an uncomfortable one, but one that must be addressed, is Judaism by definition racist? Do we not call ourselves “the chosen people” or “am segulah, the choicest of nations” – are these not terms that indicate a negative view of other nations? And did not G-d Himself give us a land to live apart from other nations; a land for the Jewish People and the Jewish People alone. Was Nelson Mandela justified in describing Yasser Arafat as “an outstanding freedom fighter” and “an icon in the proper sense of the word”?! Maybe the many similarities that are drawn between Israel and South Africa by the anti-Israel media calling Israel an apartheid state are true, not only in practice, but as an expression of the Torah ideal as well.

And yet, the famous words of Isaiah, “A light unto the nations,” the many warnings in the Torah, “love the stranger.” Is there a meeting point between these two extremes?

The tension of a particular people and a universal people begins in this week’s Parsha when Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Paraoh that they are shepherds. Why? “Ba’avur teishvu b’eretz Goshen, ki toavas Mitzrayim kol ro’ei tzon.” Yosef explains that since the Egyptians see shepherding as offensive, they will want you to live away from everyone else. The very first ghetto the Jews ever lived in was self-imposed. Clearly Yosef felt that there was value in living apart from non-Jewish society. And yet, at the very same time that Yosef was sending his family off to Goshen, Yosef himself, his wife and his children lived in the heart of Egypt. He controlled the land of Egypt; at the time the most powerful Empire. He was so fully integrated into Egyptian culture that he had an Egyptian name. So who is our model? Is it Yosef, the Universalist who supports the entire world with his economic strategies? Or is it the rest of his family, tucked away in Goshen, living far away from the hedonistic and immoral influences of the Egyptians?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks dedicated an entire book, Future Tense, to address this very important question. I’d like to share with you a summary of this book which is never a good idea. Anyone who says they will summarize an entire book in one minute is wasting your time. (With the exception of Theory of Racial Harmony, by George Wallace“)

Rabbi Sacks suggests the following resolution, and I quote: “Throughout history, nations and powers have sought to establish dominance by conversion or conquest. That does violence to the human condition as conceived by the Torah. The human condition is indeed universal – we are each in the image of G-d and we each share in the covenant of G-d. But we are all different and that’s what makes us sacrosanct. It is what makes us unique, irreplaceable, and thus possessed of inalienable dignity… Our diversity meets in G-d’s unity. The supreme truth to which the Torah gives witness is that one who is not in my image – whose creed, culture, or color, is not like mine – is nonetheless in G-d’s image. That is the principle of the dignity of difference.”

And here is the key line – “G-d took one man, then one people, and summoned it to be different to teach all humanity the dignity of difference.”

Rabbi Sacks is suggesting that the purpose of Judaism, the purpose of a nation that is different is not because G-d does not love those who are not of the Jewish faith. Rather, G-d wants us to live a different life in order to teach the world the uniqueness of mankind. The Maccabees, when they fought the Greeks weren’t just fighting for religious freedom. They were fighting an empire who attempted to Hellenize the world. And to that Judaism says no! There is no universal culture! Each culture is unique and special as is each and every individual.

And with that viewpoint we can better appreciate the value of a land that is lived in and governed by the Jewish People. And here, I am going to paraphrase the words of Rabbi Sacks: “The destiny of the Jews was to create a society that would honor the proposition that we are all created in the image and likeliness of G-d. Judaism is the code of a self-governing society. Judaism is not limited to the interior drama of the soul. Judaism is about the shared spaces of our collective lives. No one should be left in dire poverty. No one should lack access to justice. No family should be left without its share of land. And one day in seven everyone should be free.”

And so, Judaism is not racist – the meeting point between being a chosen nation and a light unto the nations is, as G-d described us as a mamleches Kohanim, the priests of the world. A priest serves and a priest loves his or her people. We are different and it is precisely through our difference that we are meant to teach others the dignity of difference. We are different than the rest of the world and within Judaism itself there are differences: The twelve tribes, the Kohein, the Levi, and the Yisrael, a man and a woman, a child and an adult. Respecting our differences, recognizing the G-dliness in others despite our differences, is the over-arching goal of Judaism. The ideal that Judaism is meant to teach the world is not universal sameness, but universal respect for the infinite differences that stand between us.

We have a group of public school kids and college students here today who are on their way to Israel on a trip being led by Rabbi Dave Finkelstein of Shoresh. Rabbi Finkelstein asked me to speak to them after services but I’d like to share with you something right now.

I want to share with you a story from the early 1990’s that took place in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the first time in over seventy years that Jews were allowed to practice Judaism in the open. At the same time, anti-Semitic attitudes also surfaced and came out into the open. There was a British rabbi who had gone to Russia to help with the reconstruction of Jewish life and was one day visited by a young lady in distress. “All my life,” she said, “I hid the fact that I was a Jew and no one commented on my Jewishness. Now I walk through the streets and my neighbors mutter Zhid. What should I do?”

The rabbi replied, “If you hadn’t told me you’re Jewish I would have never known. But with my hat and beard no one could miss the fact that I’m a Jew. And yet, in all the months that I was here, no one ever shouted Zhid to me. Why is that?”

The woman thought about it for a moment and then said. “Because they know when they yell Zhid to me it’s an insult. But if they shout Zhid at you, you take it as a compliment.”

I went to high school and college in Jewish schools. The only decisions I had to make was what kind of Kippah would I wear. All of you have much more difficult decisions to make. How Jewish will I look? Will I wear a kippah in school? How Jewish will I act? Will I eat different foods than my friends? Will I not do the same things that they do?

Those are tough decisions. Really, really tough decisions. But I want you to know, that being different; living your life by a different code, dancing to a different tune, is something to be proud of because that is precisely what G-d wants from His chosen nation.

May we, the Jewish People, the young and the old, by being ourselves, by being proud of our differences in the way we eat, the way we speak, and in the way we act, lead the world, in what Nelson Mandela described, as the “fight for a society where people will cease thinking in terms of color.” May we merit the ultimate redemption; a time of peace, a time of love and a time of mutual respect.

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Prayer #38

By: Rabbi Motzen | December 9, 2013

I have always been bothered by the opening words of Shema. The statement is by far the most loaded one in Jewish prayer and philosophy and yet, it begins with words that do not seem to carry too much meaning. Click on the following link for a very nice explanation of the opening words: http://www.ou.org/torah/article/covenant_and_conversation_shema#.UqUd3MRwqSo.

What follows is a summation of our [limited] understanding of G-d and history:

“Ad-noy” – This name connotes the One who was, is, and will be the master of all

“Elokeinu” – All-Powerful

“Ad-noy Echad” – There is no other gods and all manifestations of G-dliness are really One G-d.

The sum total of the statement is that ‘Though G-d is at this point only acknowledged by the Jewish People (“Elo-einu”), He will one day be acknowledged by all.”

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Laws of Chanukkah #9

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 27, 2013

On Saturday night, as soon as Shabbos is over one has two obligations that must be fulfilled; Havdallah and Chanukkah candles. Some suggest that one should first light Chanukkah candles and then say Havdallah because by doing so one extends [some of] the sanctity of Shabbos a little but later. (According to this approach one must say the prayer of Atah Chonantanu in Shemoneh Esrei or say “Baruch hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol” before igniting a fire.) Others argue that since Havdallah is the more common Mitzvah that is done every Saturday night at that time it takes precedence to Chanukkah candles which only happens once a year and therefore Havdallah should be made first. Most rule like this second opinion and first make Havdallah and then light the Chanukkah candles.

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Laws of Chanukkah #8

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 26, 2013

The lights of the Menorah must burn for at least a half hour after nightfall. This is especially important to keep in mind on Friday afternoon when one lights the candles before candle lighting. For example, in Baltimore this Friday, Shabbos candle lighting time is 4:26, nightfall is 5:28, so one’s candles should be able to last for a little over an hour and a half (from before 4:26 until 5:58).

Even after the candles have burned for a half hour one should not extinguish them. However, if one is in a situation where there is a concern for a possible fire etc. they are allowed to extinguish the lights after 30 minutes.

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Laws of Chanukkah #7

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 25, 2013

The appropriate time to light the Menorah is a matter of dispute. Some state that is should be lit at sunset, others argue that it should be lit at nightfall, and others suggest that a compromise be made and the candles should be lit in between, approximately 25 minutes after sunset. The prevalent custom outside of Israel is to light at nightfall.

The latest time to light the Menorah is at dawn. One may say a Bracha when lighting as long as it not yet  dawn.

If one missed a night of lighting, one can light the next night with a Bracha.

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Laws of Chanukkah #6

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 19, 2013

As mentioned earlier, a husband and wife are one unit and only one Menorah is lit for both. That being the case, if one of the spouses will be arriving at a later time in the evening, there are two options. 1) The spouse can wait up for the other and light together. 2) The spouse who is at home can light at the appropriate time, thus fulfilling the obligation of both spouses. (In such a case, the spouse who is not at home should attempt, if possible, to hear someone else make the blessings over their own lighting.)

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Judge Judaism by the Jews! Parshas Vayeishev

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 18, 2013



Sorry, no articles about my escapades in NY during the storm :)


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Laws of Chanukkah #5

By: Rabbi Motzen | November 18, 2013

If one is traveling on Chanukkah but some members of the family stay at home, one technically fulfills their obligation by having those at home light. The widespread custom is that even in such a scenario one lights wherever they are staying. However, one must light before the members of one’s home are lighting. If one lights afterward one does not say the regular blessing on lighting.

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