Parshat Toldot – Learning From Our Mistakes

lentil soupA turning point in our history was when Esau sold the rights of the firstborn to our forefather Jacob, his younger brother, in this week’s parshah. The Torah describes how Jacob was in middle of cooking lentil stew when Esau entered the home, famished. He asked Jacob for some of the lentil stew and Jacob responded that he would sell it to Esau in exchange for the rights of the firstborn. Esau immediately agreed, and the Torah tells us, “He ate and drank, got up and went. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.”

Hungry!This birthright of the firstborn was not any material benefit. Jacob gained no physical preference or advantage; on the contrary, Esau became a prominent prince, while Jacob was still suffering as a shepherd for Laban. This special birthright was, rather, strictly about the spiritual leadership of the family. Bartering such a prodigious spiritual privilege for some mere soup showed a repudiation of the birthright. Continue reading

Parshat Chayei Sarah – Sanctifying the Name of God

This week’s parshah opens up by informing us of the death of Sarah. The Midrash reveals that it is not by chance that the account of Sarah’s death was placed right after the final event of last week’s Torah portion, the Akeidat Yitzchok (the binding of Isaac). With this juxtaposition, the Torah is informing us that the cause of Sarah’s death was the shock and distress that she had experienced when she heard that her husband, Abraham, was about to slaughter her only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice.

Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, contrasts Abraham’s reaction to God’s instruction of the Akeidat Yitzchok with that of Sarah’s. The Torah tells us that on the morning of the impending sacrifice, Abraham woke up particularly early out of eagerness to fulfill the command of God, even though that command was difficult for him. Yet, Sarah died from shock when she heard the news! Surely she was also on the same high spiritual level as Abraham and should have also been excited at the prospect of being able to give up what was most dear to her for the sake of God. Why was she so distressed to the point of death? Continue reading

Parshat Vayeira – A True Tzadik

In this week’s parshah, the Torah tells us of the story of the destruction of the city of Sedom. This city was steeped in immorality and cruelty. It was illegal in Sedom to help out another person. The Talmud and Midrash describe the different methods of torture that were used by the Sedomites on those that requested help and the punishments that were meted out to those that did help. If a visitor came and asked for lodgings, the host would purposely give him a bed to sleep in that was either too short or too long. If it was too short, they would cut off the visitor’s legs. If it was too long, they would use some sort of chain and crank system to physically stretch out his legs. One that was caught helping out another person was punished by having honey smeared all over him, and then being placed by a bee hive until he was literally stung to death.

God decided that it was time for Sedom to be destroyed as a punishment for their institutionalized, wicked practices, as it had become entirely evil. He first, however, mentioned it to Abraham and gave Abraham the opportunity to plead on behalf of the citizens of Sedom. Abraham immediately began to beseech God. He argued that if there were any tzadikim, righteous people, living within Sedom it would show that the people of Sedom were not totally evil, as they still tolerated these righteous people to live amongst them.
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Parshat Noach – Taking the Reins of Leadership

In this week’s Torah portion we read about Noah and the flood. The Torah stresses that Noah was a tzaddik, a righteous person, in his generation. The implication, explains the Talmud, is that only in his own generation was Noah considered righteous. If he would have lived a few generations later he would not have been considered righteous since his piety would have been overshadowed by the piety of Abraham.

The commentators explain why this is so. G-d had entrusted Noah with a mission to convince the people of his generation to repent and avoid the calamity of the flood. Noah was instructed to work for 120 years on building the ark in order that those passing by would notice this huge structure, ask about it and be warned that destruction was imminent, with the hope that they would repent. Noah, however, failed in his mission and was unable to bring the people of his generation to repentance. Abraham, on the other hand, was successful at bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of people to recognize their Creator. Not only was he a pious person in his own right, but he brought others to piety as well. Continue reading

Parshat Vayechi – Peace: The Ultimate Blessing

This week’s Torah portion tells us of the last days of Jacob, the third of our forefathers. When it was clear that Jacob did not have much longer to live, Jacob’s son Joseph brought his own adult sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to visit their grandfather for the last time. Jacob took this visit as an opportunity to bless his grandchildren. Though the custom when giving a blessing to two people at once was to place the right hand on the head of the older person and the left hand on the head of the younger person, Jacob did the opposite. He placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger of the two brothers, and he placed his left hand on the head of Manasseh, the older brother. Joseph, thinking his father had made a mistake, tried correcting him, but Jacob told him that it was no mistake. He had seen prophetically that though great people would descend from both of these grandsons, the descendants of Ephraim would be greater. He therefore accorded Ephraim the honor generally given to the older sibling.

The Torah then records the blessing that Jacob proceeded to give Ephraim and Manasseh: “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” The blessing that Jacob was giving to his grandsons was that all future generation would bless their children that they grow up to be like Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob’s blessing has been and continues to be fulfilled. To this day, when Jewish parents give their sons a blessing, either weekly on Friday night or annually before Yom Kippur, the text of the traditional blessing is, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

Why is this so? We bless our daughters that they should follow in the footsteps of our glorious Matriarchs (“May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah”), so why did Jacob not want us to bless our sons that they follow in the path of our Patriarchs? What is unique about Ephraim and Manasseh that Jacob was essentially hoping and praying that all of his male descendants should follow in the path of these two grandchildren of his?

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Parshat Tazriah – Partnering with the Creator

In the beginning of this week’s Parshah, the Torah states that after a woman gives birth she becomes tamei, ritually impure. If she gave birth to a son, she waits for seven days, at which point she immerses in a mikvah, a ritual pool. Thirty-three days later – a total of forty days after the birth – she brings an offering in the Temple and fully regains her spiritually-pure status. If a woman gives birth to a baby girl, however, the first period lasts for fourteen days and the second period lasts for sixty-six – a total of eighty days after the birth. One might think that there is something ‘wrong’ with an infant girl that causes her mother to become ritually impure for forty days longer than a baby boy would!

I heard an explanation many years ago that that is fundamental to understanding the miracle of childbirth. Continue reading

The Communal Phoenix Siyum on Meseches Shabbos: A Celebration of Unity

Shabbos is a time of achdus, unity, in a number of different relationships.  The first and foremost of these is our relationship with Hashem.  Halachah dictates that on Shabbos one is not supposed to pray for personal requests.  Rabbi Shimshon Pincus (1944 – 2001, Ofakim, Israel) explains this law with an analogy to a fundraiser.  At times, the fundraiser will ask a potential donor for money, but on other occasions, he will simply spend time building his relationship with the potential donor.  This relationship building will ensure that the next time the fundraiser will ask for a donation, the check will be much larger.  Any good fundraiser will readily admit that the key to successful fundraising really lies in this relationship building.  On Shabbos, Rabbi Pincus explains, our goal is simply to build our Continue reading

G-d, Zaidy, and Sentimentality

As I am writing this, I am on a red-eye flight on my way to Baltimore.  The reason for this trip is to visit my dear grandfather or rather Zaidy, as we call him, Rabbi Hirsch Diskind.  He lives in Israel, but has not been well recently.  He has terrible pains regularly throughout most of his body.  The doctors in Israel discovered what appeared to be a broken vertebrae but weren’t sure.  His children for a number of reasons decided to bring him to The United States for medical treatment.  The doctors here took some more tests that were also inconclusive.  They have been hoping, however, that it may simply be an infection in the spine.  Regardless of what it is, it seems that this is the source of the pain.  This past Monday they took a biopsy and we should hopefully have a diagnosis soon.

I enjoy taking red-eye flights when traveling alone since I generally have no problem sleeping on the plane.  By taking the red-eye I waste no time during the day flying.  This time, however, I have been finding it difficult to fall asleep.  Thoughts of my grandfather and Continue reading

Parshat Va’eira – Appreciating Appreciation

I always treasure every moment I am able to spend with my revered grandfather, Rabbi Hirsch Diskind.  No matter what the situation is, he always has a unique outlook and a life lesson to teach.

I once went shopping with him, and when we were leaving the store, someone opened the door to come in.  Since the door closed slowly, there would be enough time for us to walk through the open doorway before the door closed.  As we passed by the fellow that had actually pushed the door open, my grandfather thanked him for opening it for us.  Noticing that I myself hadn’t thanked that person, my grandfather took the opportunity to discuss with me the importance of hakarat hatov – appreciating the good that is performed for you.  In order to get me thinking, he challenged me to pinpoint the Torah source for thanking Continue reading

Chanukah: A Rededication to Our Ideals

At the end of the Chanukah story, the Jews rededicated the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. What does this mean? For us, living in the 21st century, the initial reaction would be to analogize a rededication of the Beit HaMikdash to a rededication of our current places of worship. Does this mean then that the Jews at the end of the Chanukah story held a fundraising campaign to “beautify the grounds” of the Beit HaMikdash? Were they simply bringing the physical structure of the Beit HaMikdash up to date with the latest building safety codes?
The Jews were obviously not simply rededicating the physical plant. They were, rather, rededicating the spiritual plant. They refocused on the meaning of the Beit HaMikdash, Continue reading