Parshat Va’eira – Striving for Greatness

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egyptian slavery2

We find ourselves at the climax of the past number of parshiyot.  Over the past few weeks, we read about God’s promise to give the Jewish people the Land of Canaan, the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers that brought the entire family to Egypt, and the ensuing slavery that the Jews endured under Pharaoh’s cruel rule.  We are holding at the turning point in the story.  The background narrative of the Jewish heroes, Moses and Aaron, has been developed.  family treeThe highpoint of the redemption is about to begin.  But wait!  The Torah interrupts the story just as the narrative is reaching its climax with seemingly mundane, unrelated details: the genealogy of Moses and Aaron.  Why interrupt the storyline at its most suspenseful moment with this unnecessary information? Continue reading Parshat Va’eira – Striving for Greatness

Parshat Shemot – Advice from a Child

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nile pyramidPharaoh’s astrologers informed him that a boy would be born who would redeem the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.  He therefore enacted a new decree that all male newborns would be drowned in the Nile River.  At this point in the story, the Torah tells us that ‘A man went from the house of Levi and married a daughter of Levi.’  This man was Amram.  The ‘daughter of Levi’ was Jochebed.

The Talmud details the interesting background to this marriage.  Amram and Jochebed were previously married.  In fact, they already had two children, Miriam and Aaron.  When Pharaoh legislated this new barbaric decree of killing every newborn male child, Amram decided that it was not worthwhile to continue having children; after all, if a boy would be born, baby boy - From G-dPharaoh’s henchmen would find and kill the baby.  He therefore divorced his wife.  As Amram was the leader of the Jewish people at the time, all the rest of the Jews followed suit and divorced their wives.  Miriam, who at the time was a mere six years old, understood the situation and recognized the obvious outcome of her father’s decision: no more Jewish children.  Disagreeing with her father, she presented him with the following three arguments as to why he should stay married:

  1. Pharaoh’s decree affected only the males, but Amram’s decision affected the girls as well.
  2. Pharaoh’s decree caused the boys to lose out on Olam Hazeh, the physical world, but by preventing their birth, Amram was causing them to also lose out on Olam Habah, the world to come.
  3. Pharaoh was a king of flesh and blood whose decree might not even last, while Amram was ensuring that the decree would endure.

Continue reading Parshat Shemot – Advice from a Child

Parshat Vayechi – Peace: The Ultimate Blessing

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Jacob Blessing Ephraim and ManassehThis 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 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 Vayigash – The Risks of Freedom

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egyptian slaveryIn another few months, we will reach the holiday of Passover, celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery.  We will spend two long seder nights amid eight complete days thanking God for liberating us from the terrible oppression that we faced in Egypt.  But wait a second – who sent us down there in the first place?  Jacob and his children emigrate from Canaan (Israel) to Egypt in this week’s parshah, and the Torah is very clear that God wanted them to go.  As a matter of fact, two generations earlier God had already informed Abraham that his children would be exiled to Egypt and that it would be there that they would develop from just a family into an entire nation.  Why did we ever have to leave Canaan?  Why couldn’t we transition into nationhood in our own land? Continue reading Parshat Vayigash – The Risks of Freedom

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