Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Parashat Ki Tavo: Return to Origins

  Return to Origins

Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo 2020

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As Moshe began to mention potential blessings and curses to Am Yisrael, he said:

This day Hashem your God charges you to do these statutes and these laws… (Devarim 26:16)

And several sentences later, he stated:

This day you have become a people to Hashem Your God. (27:9)

The description of these events occurring on “this day” is puzzling. The missvot and berit with God were established long before these final words of Moshe! Why, then, did he describe them as happening “on this day”? Rashi explained that by referring to “this day” Moshe was instructing the people to continuously return their hearts and minds to the original moments of receiving the commandments and establishing a covenant with God.[1]


In a well-known passage, the Rabbis envisioned every experience of talmud Torah as one of “return.” R. Simlai taught that the embryo is taught the entire Torah as it crouches in its mother’s fetus. As soon as the baby sees light, however, an angel comes and slaps it on the mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah.[2] “When a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something…familiar,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained, “because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.”[3] Strikingly similar to the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection, R. Simlai taught that we return to our origin every time we study words of Torah.


This lesson of “continuous return” is perhaps latent in the game of baseball, as well. Beginning with their stance at “home,” baseball players then circle the bases with the goal of getting back to “home.”

The 20th Century poet T.S. Eliot memorably wrote about the irony of a life-long “journey to return”:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.[4]

But it was long before, in God’s words to Adam and Hava after sin, that He mapped out our life trajectory as circular in motion, ending just where it began:

By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the soil, for from there were you taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return. (Bereshit 3:19)

Moshe’s words to the people, then, represent a broader perspective regarding our life’s direction. He taught that although we spend most of our time marching forward to the beat of innovation and progress, we will inevitably return to our humble place of origin at some point. Each of us will retreat to our “true” self, coming back to the time we first received the missvot and committed ourselves to God.


R. Adin Steinsaltz z”l pointed to Daniel Pearl’s final words as evidence of our innate drive to return. Pearl, an assimilated Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002, famously said in his final moment alive: “My name is Daniel Pearl. I am an American Jew. My father is Jewish, my mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.”[5]


The current global pandemic has had me thinking more and more about our individual and collective return to beginnings.

The threat of coronavirus has spurred a mass movement out of the fast-paced, human-built cities and into the idyllic space of the primordial countryside. Young adults have returned from college campuses to live in the childhood quarters of their parents’ homes. And many men and women are now spending their daytime hours outside of the workplace inside their homes. Though I’m aware that these changes probably won’t last long after the discovery of a vaccine, I’ve nonetheless seen this time as an important “reality check” for us all. It has caused a widespread return to origins.


The lesson of “return” is particularly relevant to Jews during this period of the year. Teshuvah signifies a circular motion. “When one finds oneself on the circumference of a large circle, it sometimes seems that the starting point is becoming farther and farther removed,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “but actually it is getting closer and closer.”[6]


Our current lives have forced upon us Moshe’s lesson of a continuous return to origins. Opening our eyes to this reality will provide direction for a successful journey of teshuvah in the weeks and days ahead.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Devarim 26:16, s.v. ha-yom, and 27:9 s.v. ha-yom.

[2] Nidah 30b.

[3][3] R. Joseph B. Solovetchik, Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 81.

[4] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Orlando, FL, 1988), pg. 59.

[5] R. Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, The Soul (New Milford, CT, 2018), pg. 38.

[6] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 33.

Parashat Ki Tesse: Memory


Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tesse 2020

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As Moshe continued his final sermon to Am Yisrael, he reflected upon their battle against Amalek, which took place forty years earlier:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out of Egypt, how he fell upon you on the way and cut down all the stranglers, with you famished and exhausted, and he did not fear God (Devarim 25:17-18)

Foreseeing the future conquest of the Land of Israel, Moshe commanded:

You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens, you shall not forget. (25:19)

Interestingly, the God had already taught about the “memory” of Amalek in His command to Moshe immediately after the battle:

And God said to Moshe: “Write this down as a remembrance in a record…that I will surely wipe out the name of Amalek from under the heavens.” (Shemot 17:14)

In the initial telling, it was God who would wipe out the name of Amalek, with the “memory” of Amalek stored in writing. The command now voiced by Moshe, in contrast, placed the responsibility of “memory” and destruction upon the people, with no mention of any written text.


Let us consider, for a moment, a basic difference between “history” and “memory. The contemporary Jewish thinker Yehuda Kurtzer wrote, “History liberates while memory obligates.”[1] We study history in order to learn from the past about how to act in the future. Realizing that history often repeats itself, we use our knowledge of it to break free of previous mistakes in similar contexts. But memory is different. Consider, for example, the way that memory of trauma or suffering controls our minds and actions. And since the memory may never be erased, we turn to therapy and psychoanalysis in attempt to, at the very least, reinterpret its harmful influence. While history informs, memory commands.


History is an external force which we use to our advantage. Memory is an internal reality which takes advantage of us. I’m reminded in this context of a story that is told about R. Haim Volper, a student of the great Magid of Mezeritch, who once lodged at an inn where a young Lithuanian rabbi was staying. The Lithuanian rabbi was curious about the teachings and traditions of the Magid of Mezertitch, who was well-known as a Hasidic legend. He waited for the Volper Rebbe to fall asleep, and quickly rifled through his suitcase, hoping to find some writings from the Magid. “Can I help you?” the Volper asked, awakened by the sound of an intruder in his room. After the rabbi admitted his intentions, the Rebbe quipped, “Writings?! There are no writings! Everything the great Magid taught was etched into our hearts!”[2] History is written in the static pages of a book and preserved as an eternal lesson. Memory, however, is “etched onto the heart,” constantly guiding its bearer on the road ahead.


Following Am Yisrael’s early fight against Amalek, God commanded Moshe to record the war as history – “Write this down as a remembrance in a record.” The history would affect the people’s future perspective, providing guidance for life ahead. But it wouldn’t command any forthright action from the people. Moshe’s final words shifted that directive. They taught that the battle against Amalek was not merely a historical event; it was a memory. And memory has a life of its own. It actively lives on with its bearer, determining their future course of events and forcing their decisions. Moshe thus taught that memory of the war with Amalek demands action – “You shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek.”


Moshe’s method for instructing to remember and seek the destruction of Amalek sheds a broader light onto a life governed by Torah. It teaches that the Torah is more than just a book of history which provides perspective and direction. It is a “living memory” which determines our existence and decides our actions.

[1] Yehuda Kurtzer, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (Waltham, MA, 2012), pg. 30.

[2] See Dovid’l Weinberg, Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation (Jerusalem, IS, 2020), pg. 293.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Derashot HaRan 3 (1)


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Sunday, August 23, 2020

Drinking Coffee Before Tefilah


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Parashat Shofetim: Walking


Thoughts on Parashat Shofetim 2020

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Over the course of the several years which I spent living in Israel, I developed a passion for two activities: learning and walking. In the two years following high school and two more after marriage, I spent the vast majority of my time poring over the many biblical and rabbinic texts of our tradition. During the “in between” time, however, I would take walks. Sometimes I had a destination in mind – the thirty-minute route from home to yeshiva and back, for example. But oftentimes I didn’t. Walking was my way of “airing out.” It was my brief respite from the walls of the bet midrash; my engagement with the sacred air of Jerusalem.


The Torah hints at a particular significance to walking in many different contexts.


In Parashat Shofetim, Moshe mentions the Cohen’s future words of inspiration to the people before leaving for war:

“Hear, Yisrael, you are approaching the battle today against your enemies…Do not fear and do not quake…For Hashem your God, is the One who walks with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you. (Devarim 20:4)

He will tell the soldiers that God’s security will extend beyond “being present with you” to “walking with you.” Indeed, the first discernable involvement of God with the world took place after Adam and Hava ate from the Ess HaDa’at: “And they heard the sound of Hashem the God walking about in the garden in the evening breeze” (Bereshit 3:8).


Am Yisrael was likewise instructed to follow in God’s ways by means of a figurative “walking.” It is a verb repeated in Sefer Devarim in many contexts, most famously in “After Hashem your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) and “God will set you up for Him as a holy people…when you keep the command of Hashem your God and walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). By doing so, the nation will follow in the ways of Noah, who “walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9) and Avraham, who was instructed to “Walk in my presence and be blameless” (Bereshit 17:1). 


“Walking,” then, describes God’s presence with us in this world, which we are instructed to follow. It is, in fact, the central aspect of the covenant which God presented to us: “If you walk to my laws…I will walk in your midst” (VaYikra 26:3, 12). And it is no wonder, then, that we refer to the expansive realm of Jewish law as that of “walking,” or halakhah!


But why walking? If the underlying concept in these various situations is the state of “presence” or “action” of us with God or God with us, then the Torah could have used words that more clearly portray that meaning. Why is “walking” the chosen verb for the ideal way in which Am Yisrael and God share together in a relationship?


Reflecting back upon the unique intersection of walking with the years of significant growth in my life, I sense a certain appropriateness. As we set out on a walk, we enter into a realm of transition. It’s the stage of “in between” – which comes after the place of beginning and before that of ending. “I love to travel, but hate to arrive,” Albert Einstein once said, in appreciation of this realm.[1] Friedrich Nietzche likewise reveled in his feeling as a “wanderer on the earth – though not as a traveler to a final destination.”[2] Walking represents not a place of “being,” but one of “becoming.” It is the time which is underlain by possibility and rich in opportunity.


We could never imagine describing God as a being who is “set in stone.” Though his perfection is unmovable, His engagement with the world is constantly developing.  Much as Adam and Hava heard the vibrancy of His “footsteps” long ago, so too did our forefathers on the battlegrounds of war. And so too must we, in the relationship we will develop with Him over the course of our lives. But that relationship, of course, is reciprocal. Sitting back and awaiting His presence is futile. We can only hear His footsteps of involvement along the trails of a walk. We will only recognize God as our source of developing life when we set out to develop our life.

[1] Recalled by John Wheeler, in Albert Einstein: His Influence on Physics, Philosophy and Politics (Braunschwig/Wiesbaden, GE, 1979), pg. 202.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (Cambridge, UK, 1996), pg. 203.

Derashot HaRan 3 (2)

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Parashat Re'eh: The Real & The Ideal

The Real & The Ideal
Thoughts on Parashat Ekev 2020
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As he set forth the laws of debts and loans, Moshe paused to mention a dreamlike future of national prosperity: “Yet, there will be no poor among you,” he said, “Only if you surely heed the voice of Hashem your God, to keep to do all this command that I charge you today” (Devarim 15:4). Surprisingly, though, Moshe followed his lofty vision by addressing an alternate reality: “Should there be a poor person among you,” he began (15:7). He taught about the laws of charity and giving, and stated their importance, “For the pauper will not cease from the midst of the land” (15:11). Moshe was distinguishing between the ideal and the real. He was teaching that ideally, “There will be no poor among you.” In reality, however, “The pauper will not cease.”


In a letter to a student, Rav Kook wrote: “We must see life in two dimensions: as it is and as it should be. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are…The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey.”[1] Life “as it is” presents us with the challenge of striving for and achieving one “as it should be.” Our mission, then, is to transform the “real” into the “ideal.”


Every once in a while, I’m able to appreciate “the ideal” as a source of inspiration and direction in my own life. As a high school teacher, my classroom is best characterized as a “controlled chaos.” Although I attempt to strike the balance between unhindered self-expression and the appropriate structure a learning environment, the “chaos” of my classroom sometimes overwhelms its “control.” It is on such occasions that I trek across the school building and find a seat in the back row of my father’s classroom. I see it as my entrance into the realm of “the ideal,” where I get a glimpse at the act of teaching “as it should be.” And although I know that the full mastery on display in my father’s class is worlds apart from the reality in my own, observing “the ideal” inspires me to continue on the road to its achievement.

The Hakhamim detected a similar dichotomy in the opening section of the Torah. They noted how God is referred to as “Elokim” in the opening line – a name that denotes midat ha-din, or “strict justice.” Later in the creation story, however, He’s referred to as “Hashem Elokim” (Bereshit 2:5) – the additional name referencing midat ha-rahamim, or “mercifulness.” The Rabbis suggested that the “original plan” was to create with the quality of strict justice. Seeing that the world could not survive in that state, He joined it with the quality of mercy.[2] While the initial vision represents an ideal, the second relates to the human world of reality. And by revealing to us that ideal, God shed light on our mission. He was challenging us to couple our vision of life in this world “as it is, with a healthy perspective of life “as it should be.”


Moshe’s message regarding the poor and unfortunate presents us with a lesson that impacts every facet of our lives. “Yet, there will be no poor among you” tells us to set our eyes on the ideal in every situation that we enter. Although it might be distant from our current reality of “The pauper will not cease,” seeing the ideal marks for us a destination. And that marker will, in turn, infuse every aspect of our lives with deeper meaning and inspiration.

[1] R. Avraham Yisshak HaCohen Kook, Iggerot HaRe’iyah I:94.

[2] Commentary of Rashi to Bereshit 1:1.

Parashat Ekev: Mindfulness


Thoughts on Parashat Ekev 2020

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It is told that on one Friday night, the Hafess Hayim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan) reflected upon a well-known midrash regarding the taste of the man which fell in the desert. The Rabbis taught that the taste of the man was dependent upon each person’s individual thoughts or wishes.[1] “What would happen if you weren’t thinking anything?” the rabbi wondered aloud. After a few minutes of silence, he answered the question himself: “If you don’t think, there is no taste.”[2]


An important pasuk at the beginning of Parashat Ekev teaches that mindfulness was in fact the essential purpose of the man:


And He afflicted you and made you hunger and fed you the man…in order to make you know that not on bread alone does the human live, but on every utterance of God’s mouth does the human live. (Devarim 8:3)


Moshe explained that the man was more than just a source of nourishment. By setting the people of Am Yisrael in a context of hunger and discomfort, God forced them to recognize Him as the true source of their life. They were compelled to think about the appearance of each next meal. And the heavenly descent of the man made them mindful of its divine origin.


For the past several months I’ve commiserated with family and friends about the many annoyances of coronavirus. We’ve all complained about how the changes to social life, dining venues and travel habits have caused major distractions to our lives. Consider for a minute, though, that we’ve had it wrong all along. Maybe it was actually the life we knew before this pandemic which was more distracting! Think about it. Isn’t the current pace of our slowed-down days more conducive to focus than those of the past? And where better to notice what truly matters than in the natural confines of our homes, together with family?

Shifting our perspective, then, let’s appreciate this difficult time as a rare challenge of mindful “affliction.” It’s our modern-day reality of man.


Many of the superficialities which once dominated life are absent for the foreseeable future. The distractions which filled our hours and days have all but disappeared. So, seize this opportunity to become mindful. Use the time to focus on matters of essence. Clear your spiritual lenses to think deeply about yourself. Consider your connection to God. Reevaluate your values and reassess your mission in life.


Remembering that “If you don’t think, there is no taste,” commit yourself to discovering the true flavors of life.

[1] See Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 1:8, s.v. leshad.

[2] Cited by R. Shimon Schwab, Maayan Bet HaShoevah (Brooklyn, NY, 1994), pg. 175, and translated in Jonathan Feiner, Mindfulness: A Jewish Approach (New York, NY, 2020), pg. 114.

Shaving on Hol HaMoed

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Swaying During Tefilah


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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Derashot HaRan 1 (5)

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Is Halakhah Against the Torah? (2)

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Friday, July 31, 2020

Birkat Kohanim - Shoes On or Off?

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Derashot HaRan 1 (4)

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Is Halakhah Against the Torah? (1)

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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Derashot HaRan 1 (3)

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Derashot HaRan 1 (2)

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Derashot HaRan 1 (1)

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Tefilin: Covered or Exposed?

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.22

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Sunday, June 7, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.21 (2)

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Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wearing Tefilin All Day

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Putting on the Tefilin Shel Yad

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.21 (1)

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Berakhah on Tefilin

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Nefesh HaHayim 1.20

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Yom Yerushalayim: Diversity & Unity

Diversity & Unity
Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim 2020
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“Pray for Jerusalem’s peace; May your lovers rest tranquil!” (Tehilim 122:6) King David’s mention of peace and tranquility with regards to Jerusalem is telling. Jerusalem transcends its mere confines of place and location. It represents harmony and agreement. The Hakhamim thus refer to Jerusalem as “the city which makes all of Israel friends.”[1] It is the city of unity.

Consider, for a moment, the scene in Jerusalem on the three regalim. Throughout the days of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot, the streets and alleys of the city were filled with the many people of Am Yisrael. Men and women of all stripes and colors gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays together.

Focusing on Am Yisrael’s unity is perhaps most appropriate at this time of the year, in our preparation for Shavuot. The Hakhamim envisioned the nation’s unity as the prerequisite to receiving the Torah. Am Yisrael’s encampment “as one person, with one heart” demonstrated their readiness for the Torah.[2]

But is unity actually a virtue? Consider the Torah’s description of the time in history when humanity was completely unified:
And all the earth was one language, one set of words. (Bereshit 11:1)
It would appear, at first glance, as if things couldn’t get better than that state of unity! And yet, that time is forever remembered as a period of utter destruction. It began the episode known to us now as Migdal Bavel:
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Bereshit 11:4)
Surprisingly, the people’s unity drove them away from growth, leading them instead to an attempted rebellion against God. “With everyone given over to the one common way, there would be mass identity and mass consciousness,” Leon Kass wrote, “but no private identity or true self-consciousness; there would be shoulder-shoulder but no real face-to-face.”[3] In the absence of conflicting thoughts and opinions, without disagreements, the people couldn’t discover the error in their ways.

Think about how this reality rings true in your own life. We dread the discomfort of being confronted by a friend or peer regarding a mistaken thought or character flaw. But how could we develop without ever being challenged? Our decisions would be determined solely by our own thoughts and feelings! And there would be little or no room for change. We could never grow.

And God said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, lets us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” (Bereshit 11:6-7)
God secured the future of humanity by dividing them! “Discovering the partiality of one’s own truths and standards invites the active search for truths and standards beyond one’s making,” Leon Kass wrote, “Opposition is the key to the discovery of the distinction between error and truth…between that which is appears to be and that which truly is.”[4]

Is Jerusalem’s feature of “unity,” then, a matter to rejoice about? Perhaps, instead, it is a dangerous aspect to avoid at all costs!

I believe that the nature of Jerusalem’s particular “unity” is fundamentally different than that of Migdal Bavel.

The Rabbis taught that “Jerusalem wasn’t divided amongst the tribes.”[5] Whereas the Land of Israel was generally zoned according to the twelve shevatim, Jerusalem was left open to all. The concept of this structure seems to be an embrace of diversity – through the division of the larger country, while at once maintaining a particular unity at the center – in the undivided city of Jerusalem.

Indeed, R. Yisshak Hutner z”l pointed out that God demonstrated two divergent realities when He began humanity with a single person. On the one hand, it reflected a particular unity. Humankind’s shared ancestry means that we are all related to one another. On the other hand, however, that single starting point highlighted the spark of individuality inherent in each of us. The life of every person is significant, irrespective of their society or community.[6] Human existence, then, was born with a dichotomy which equally stresses the equal importance of unity and diversity.

Consider the structure of most successful organizations. The general direction and mission are clearly stated. Everyone must agree to work in unison toward their realization. That is Jerusalem. But the particular method or approach to reaching that end is open to different vantage points and expressions. There are, for that reason, separate departments and specific committees. That is the surrounding Land of Israel.

Jerusalem, “the city of peace and tranquility,” calls our attention to national unity. It reminds us that although our growth is owed to an embrace of diversity, we remain unified in purpose. Rising above all conflict and disagreement, the city of Jerusalem is a constant reminder that “all of Israel is friends.”

[1] Talmud Yerushalmi: Hagigah 2:6.
[2] See Commentary of Rashi to Shemot 19, s.v. va-yihan.
[3] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 235.
[4] Kass, pg. 238.
[5] Yoma 12a.
[6] R. Yisshak Hutner, Pahad Yisshak: Shavuot (Brooklyn, NY, 2002), pg. 132.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Once & Forever

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