Chanukah – A Focus on Education

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Greek SoldiersThe Greeks enacted a number of decrees in order to prevent the Jews from practicing Judaism and to encourage them to accept their hedonistic perspective. According to the Midrash, one unusual edict required all Jews to inscribe on the horn of an ox the words, “I renounce my relationship with the God of Israel.” The Midrash explains that this law in particular “darkened the eyes of the Jewish people”.

hornsThe Greeks outlawed keeping Shabbos. They forbade Brit Milah. They wouldn’t allow the Jews to study the Torah. Yet this requirement to write that they have no connection to the God of Israel is what finally “got to” the Jews. Why did they find this particular edict to be so unbearably harsh, so much more than the others? Surely the other decrees were far more severe and really struck at the core of Judaism more than this one. Continue reading Chanukah – A Focus on Education

Parshat Vayeishev – Unjustifying the Means

pinocchioIt is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where if we would simply fudge the truth, things would work out more conveniently. It is extremely tempting to give in to that little voice claiming that it would not be such a big deal. It is especially hard to resist this impulse when we are trying to be good citizens and help someone else out. After all, giving in to that temptation to not be totally honest can help us accomplish more good in the world. Is it really so bad to fudge the truth just a little bit? Is a little white lie really so terrible?

Towards the end of this week’s parshah, the Torah tells us of an encounter between Joseph and the wife of his master, Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, but Joseph resisted. butlerHe responded to her advances, “Potiphar gave me his full trust. He appointed me as the head steward of the entire household and has never turned down a request of mine. How, then, can I perpetuate this great evil and sin against God?”

With this statement, Joseph seemed to be giving two explanations for his refusal. The first reason was that after all the kindness Potiphar had shown him, such an act would be unfair. The second was that it would be a sin against God. Why wasn’t the first reason enough? What was the second reason adding? Continue reading Parshat Vayeishev – Unjustifying the Means

Parshat Vayishlach – Problems: Opportunities for Growth

problemsDealing with problems is an inevitable part of life. Difficulties come up on a regular basis in one’s marriage, with one’s children, at work, and basically in every situation and relationship in which one may find himself. At times it seems that as soon as we finish dealing with one crisis, another one has arisen. We may become depressed and overwhelmed, feeling that we are more often than not simply ‘putting out fires’ as opposed to making any real progress. How can we survive? More than that, how can we make sure that we are steadily moving along the path of success?

fightIn this week’s Torah portion, we read about an interesting conflict between Jacob and the guardian angel of Esau. The Torah tells us that one evening, when Jacob ventured out alone to recover some lost jars, Esau’s guardian angel took the opportunity to start a fight with him. They fought throughout the night. By the time morning came, Jacob had the angel in a hold. When the sun rose, the angel requested that Jacob let him go, explaining that every angel has an appointed time to sing shirah, praise, to God, and his time had arrived. Continue reading Parshat Vayishlach – Problems: Opportunities for Growth

Parshat Vayeitzei – Jewish Appreciation

oxford dictionaryThe Oxford Dictionary provides two definitions for the word ‘Jew’, one the verb form and one the noun form. Even in this age of political correctness, ‘Jew’ in the verb form is defined as “Bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way”. Parenthetically, one would expect that this usage of the word would have ended with the Middle Ages, or at the very least with the end of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, its presence in the Oxford Dictionary shows us that anti-Semitism is still alive and well.

However, the noun form of ‘Jew’ is defined as “A member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Where does this word come from, and why has it been the term used to refer to our people as opposed to Hebrew, Israelite or some other term?
Continue reading Parshat Vayeitzei – Jewish Appreciation

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 Toldot – Learning From Our Mistakes

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 Chayei Sarah – Sanctifying the Name of God

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.
Continue reading Parshat Vayeira – A True Tzadik

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 Noach – Taking the Reins of Leadership

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?

Continue reading Parshat Vayechi – Peace: The Ultimate Blessing

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 Parshat Tazriah – Partnering with the Creator