From Esther to Netanyahu: A Lesson Stretching 2.5 Millennia

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Netanyahu Congress 2015There have been many comparisons drawn between the Purim story that we are in the midst of celebrating and the historical events that are currently playing out on the world stage.  In the Purim story, the Jewish nation was faced with an existential threat emanating from the ancient Persian Empire.  Today, the Jewish nation is once more facing an existential threat from the modern day Persian Empire, Iran, this time in the form of potential nuclear weapons.  In the Purim story, a Jewish leader, Esther, accepted upon herself to break protocol and appear before the King, unsummoned, in order to plead on behalf of her people.  Today, a Jewish leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, broke protocol and appeared in the chambers of the US Congress to plead on behalf of his people.

But there is a glaring contrast between the Purim story that happened long ago and the current events.  Benjamin Netanyahu argued that we should not really be sitting down with Iran at the negotiating table at all.  Esther, on the other hand, invited the enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, to sit down with her at the same table at a party with Achashveirosh.  Why did Esther invite Haman to the party?  What was she trying to accomplish? Continue reading From Esther to Netanyahu: A Lesson Stretching 2.5 Millennia

Parshat Terumah – The Duality of the Ark

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In reading through the verses describing the aron, the Ark, we find a running theme of duality.  The Ark was comprised of a box made from cedar wood, sandwiched between and inner and outer gold box – arktwo layers of gold.  There were two cherubs attached to the cover of the Ark.  There were two tablets placed within the Ark.  What is the meaning of this theme?

Throughout Jewish writings, the Ark clearly is symbolic of the Torah.  The lesson of the duality is that Torah observance requires joining with others.  Judaism is not meant to be practiced in isolation.  We are supposed to be part of a community. Continue reading Parshat Terumah – The Duality of the Ark

Parshat Yitro – Catalyst for Conversion

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splitting of the red seaThe very first conversion to Judaism takes place in this week’s parshah.  The Torah relates that Yitro (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moses, traveled from Midyan to join the Jewish people.  The Talmud explains that there were two events that prompted him to convert.  The first catalyst was hearing of the miraculous splitting of the Yam Suf, the Red Sea.  The second was hearing about the war with the nation of Amalek that took place at the end of last week’s parshah.

It is understandable that the account of the escape of the Jews from the pursuing Egyptians through the splitting of the Red Sea would aid in one’s decision to join the Jewish people.  Why, however, would hearing about the war with Amalek convince Yitro that he should convert to Judaism?  If the Talmud would identify the miraculous Jewish victory over Amalek that occurred at that time as the impetus, it would be understandable; however, the Talmud states clearly that it was the war itself, not the victory, which was the second catalyst. Continue reading Parshat Yitro – Catalyst for Conversion

Parshat Beshalach – Unity Regardless of Commonality

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egyptian chariotOnly five days after the Jewish people were dramatically emancipated from the cruel Egyptian slavery, Pharaoh had a sudden change of heart and regretted sending the Jews away.  Intending to force them to return and to subjugate them to slavery once more, he gathered his men and chased after the nascent nation.  Having tasted a mere five days of freedom, the Jewish people found an Egyptian army bearing down upon them and almost overtaking them.

The Torah, in describing how the unified, single-minded, and focused army was bearing down upon and overtaking the Jews, seems to use erroneous grammar.  It states that “Egypt nasayah (journeyed, singular form) after them,” as opposed to, “the Egyptians nasa’u (journeyed, plural form) after them.”  Why this apparently mistaken verbiage? Continue reading Parshat Beshalach – Unity Regardless of Commonality

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