Friday, December 4, 2015

Parshas Vayeisheiv 5776, December 2015; Patterns

Why and how did Yaakov favor his son Yosaif, and what were the repercussions of the favoritism of Yosaif over his 10 older brothers?

Yosaif was the son of Yaakov's favorite wife Rochel (Rashi); he had the greatness to deserve the avoda like his brother Reuvain, the royal nobility of his brother Yehuda, was as fit for prophecy as Levi, and had the wisdom of Yissachar (l'fi chazal); and there were many parallels between Yosaif's life and Yaakov's own, including the prophetic dreams emanating directly from G-d (Midrash Tanchuma, Beraishis Rabbah).

For these reasons, Yaakov learned Torah privately with Yosaif including giving him secret teachings he didn't share with his other sons (Tanchuma); he gave him a special garment; and he excepted him from physical or manual labor (Tiferet Zion).

And what happened from all of this? Hatred, betrayal, and ultimately servitude and exile.
May we be redeemed for our love of Torah!
What do we see here except an exact parallel to the history of the Jewish people! G-d favors B'nai Yisroel; we are the sons and daughters of the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs; we have been given the avoda and tefilla, nobility, prophecy, and wisdom. G-d gave us the Torah to learn its secrets; special garments and halachos and minhagim about what we wear and how we comport ourselves; and gave us time to learn Torah and a love of doing so even when we must labor.

We have suffered hatred, betrayal, and exile.

But just as Yosaif was redeemed and elevated to sit at Pharoah's side, so B'nai Yisroel will soon be lifted to G-d's own throne-side. On these dark days of winter (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), with sad and frightening news all around us, we can only pray for Moshiach to arrive soon in our own days to redeem us as Yosaif himself was raised up.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Parshas Vayaitzay 5776, November 2015; Inclusion

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Yaakov flees from his brother Aisav, but Aisav (according to Midrash Tanchuma) or his son Elifaz (according to most sources) pursued him, stole all the goods he carried and even his mount and clothing, and left him naked and completely destitute.

He encounters Rochel and through her, her sister Leah, whom we are told (Bereishis Rabbah) had weak eyes and poor eyesight due to her years of prayer and crying to G-d to save her from marrying the even Aisav. Further, in next week's parsha (jumping ahead just a bit) we read how Yaakov encountered the protective angel of Edom, the nation of Aisav, fought with the angel, and was injured permanently in the leg.

We know that gifts given to G-d as karbanos in any form must be perfect. Yet we learn here that the father of the entire nation and the first wife and mother of fully half that nation each had specific disabilities. What can this tell us?
Those with invisible, intellectual and/or developmental disabilities
can be included in the community. It's dependent and incumbent
on the community and its constituent members to be inclusive.
It teaches us that humans are not the same as things, and that every single human of any ability is precious in G-d's eyes as any other. If anything, they are especially precious given this precedent. It is incumbent on all of the nation of Israel therefore to ensure that those with any form of disability should feel as honored as the mother or father of our entire nation. Surely theirs are the most special neshamos and they are the most like Yaakov and Leah we will find in our lifetimes.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Parshas Chayei Sarah

Dedicated to Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia
For L’iluy Nishmas


The name of our Parsha this week is, Parshas Chayei, the life of Sarah and yet it begins with her death. The light from the candles of Sarah’s tent went out, but not forever. They would glow once again when Rivkah comes and marries Yitzchak. Thus, her life is the focus for this week’s D’var Torah.

Rivkah Immeinu [our mother] teaches what it means to be a frum Jewish woman in a world that is not. Thus, this week I am writing for women and hope that men too can appreciate the beauty of the King’s daughters.  Although there are many excellent sources from which to learn about what it means to be Tzinius/modest, my references are from a small book entitled,

Beautiful Within: Modesty In Conduct and Dress As Taught By The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,
[Sichos in English, 1995].

This book is about two particular mitzvot, Tzinius and Kisui HaRosh [head covering] but I see them reflected in the life of Rivkah in a manner that is very much alive for us today.

THE GEMARA AND ZOHAR elaborate in many places that strengthening one’s conduct of tzinius is an infallible way to be blessed with good health, sustenance, and much nachas---true nachas---from children and grandchildren [p.11]

The Torah teaches us that even when the Jews were captives in Egypt, they kept their distinctive modest dress and this led to Hashem’s blessing then and it still does today. Although every frum community may have slightly different standards for length of sleeve, neckline and skirt or dress hem, modesty is the unifying theme with the clear understanding that we are not to be conformed by the world’s standard’s, but as the Rebbe teaches, we are to elevate the world to holiness; which is indeed our standard. [p. 13-17]

But what if the world, or more specifically other women simply do not care? My thought is that the strength of true inner beauty always shines outward.  It encourages and inspires others to want the same dignity. Ladies, we are daughters of the King, let us present ourselves as royalty, not to hold ourselves above anyone else, but to give confidence to others to be their best. Notice, I’m not talking about style; style is a personal choice, rather I’m talking about creating an atmosphere that rejoices in purity and strengthens us to pull Moshiach into our very desperate world. But is being Tziniusdik just about clothing?

The entire beauty/glory of the king’s daughter is within [Ps. 45:12]. From this we learn that modesty is about our thoughts, the way we speak, act, and dress. And this is where we meet up with Rivkah at coming toward Eliezer with a water pitcher on her shoulder [24:17f].As most of us are familiar with this parsha, I will be touching on the points that our germane to our conversation.  Immediately we see that Rivkah’s life is about serving others, Eliezer is a stranger accompanied by camels and men and yet this young girl pours out all of her water for him to quench his thirst and then runs to get more for the animals and the others who are with him.  This is what Tzinius looks like.  Yes, there will be great reward for her fine character Rivkah will be adorned with gold, but she is not a magpie following after every shiny object, rather it is both the reason for Eliezer’s journey and her own precious neshamah/soul that compels her to leave her mother and home. Truly, it is her decision whether she stays or goes, but the blessing for her choice is monumental:

“Our sister, may you be [the one] to produce tens of millions,
and may your descendants take possession of the towns
of those who hate them.” [24:60]

I know that we are of Rivkah’s lineage and therefore share in this blessing, but I am still in awe that it actually does apply to us as well. My sisters, may this reality permeate our lives in tangible ways. As we move on to the mitzvah of Kisui HaRosh, we see that by taking on this mitzvah of covering our hair that it draws down blessing from above.

I am not concerned with the “debate” over sheitel [wig] vs. wrapping with scarves, only with hair covering and the blessing that ensues. 
From the book, Beautiful Within, the Rebbe quoting several sources wrote,
Her children will enjoy increased stature over other children; moreover, her husband shall be blessed with all blessings, blessings of above and blessings of below, with wealth, with children and grandchildren, etc.” [p. 20]

I know many Jewish women who do not cover their hair as well as non-Jewish women who do. I can only speak from my own experience as a Ba’al Teshuvah who has taken on this mitzvah. The blessings really have come into my mishpocha/family life just as the quote above speaks. No, we aren’t gazillionaire’s but there have been shidduchs, grandchildren, Yiddishe nachas, and simcha that far outweigh our struggles. Boruch Hashem. For those of who are frum, it is my sincere hope that this mitzvah is something we proudly share with others that they too will experience the revealed goodness that we have seen. Now, let us turn back to Rivkah Immeinu.

Yitzchak went out towards evening to pray in the field. He looked up and saw camels approaching. Rivkah looked up and saw Yitzchak, and she leaned down from the top of her camel…so she took her veil and covered herself. [24:63-65]

Just as we saw Rivkah’s innate middos/character to serve others when she met Eliezer, here we see humility and modesty before the man who would become her husband. And to this day, the following lines fill me with joy and profound hope,

Yitzchak brought her into the tent, [and she was like] Sarah his mother. He married Rivkah, and she became his wife and he loved her, and Yitzchak was comforted after [the death of] his mother. [24:67]

May we all embrace the Tziniusdik life style of Rivkah Immeinu and be the ones to bring comfort as well as be the conduit of find blessings for our families, Eretz Yisroel, our nation, and the world.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Chayei Sarah 5776, November 2015; Facing adversity

In a well known commentary, Rashi explains why the beginning of the parsha enumerates the years of Sarah Imeinu's life separately by digit, stating that all her years were equally good. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky asks, by what standards were they equally good? During her life, among the experiences enumerated by the Torah, Sarah has suffered infertility for decades, been kidnapped from her husband twice, left her home and family behind, opened her home to all who asked to visit, dealt with Hagar with whom she had a negative relationship at least part of the time, and ultimately saw in a vision her beloved son bound to an alter about to be sacrificed. Her behavior may always have been above reproach, but how were her years all intrinsically good and moreover equally so?
Even helping in the yard can be joyful and good when you
are at an age when you can appreciate the good in everything easily.

He quotes R' Dovid Hofstadter that good means spiritually successful; that Sarah may have had more tests from HaKadosh Baruch H- and passed them all due to her inherent goodness. Also, living through a negative experience but triumphing over it may better the one who experiences it. It leads ultimately to the perfection of the soul.

The good Rashi discusses here then is not just that which is given to us, for we know that everything G-d does is for the best; but also our own responses and behavioral learning have the opportunity to improve over and over, becoming more and more spiritually perfect. No matter what trials befall us--and we certainly can agree that even if Sarah's experiences had to be good because they came from G-d, they none the less were stressful, troublesome, with a strong potential to be appreciated as negative--they may be negative, they may be difficult, they may be painful. Our responses can fairly be negative, angry, sad. Yet simultaneously we always have the opportunity to turn each moment into a positive in some way in our soul and our heart.

Friday, October 30, 2015

What Was The Last Big Thing G-d Asked You To Do?

What Was The Last Big Thing G-D Asked You To Do?
Parshas Vayeira

Parshas Vayeira, which means, “He appeared,” opens on a very hot day near Hebron; so blisteringly hot that Rashi describes it as Hashem having taken the sun out of its sheath in order that there would not be any travelers walking by for Avraham to care for as he healed from his circumcision. [Chayenu: Cf. Rashi Tehillim 19:5]

Moreover, we learn from Rashi that because Avraham could not fulfill this aspect of his Divine Service, he was upset; in his mind, his pain was not an impediment to his desire to be a paramount of hospitality. His mission to share with the world the truth of monotheism, that there is only One G-D, gave him such joy that not being able to do so left him feeling discontent. Right here we should ask doesn’t Hashem know what’s best for Avraham and by extension, what is best for us when it comes to all aspects of life? I have no doubt that each and every one of us is going to say, “yes.” But it is Hashem’s response to Avraham’s sadness that I want us to consider: it’s true that no humans wander by because it is as we New Englanders say, “still a scorcher,” but three angels, three spirit beings come near to Avraham’s tent and his and Sarah’s desire to serve others is made possible. What might we learn from this? No doubt each of us takes something personal away from this event, for me, I am encouraged to remember that the purpose for which Hashem brought our Neshama/soul to earth is always under His watchful eye and as we stay the course, He gives us both physical and spiritual chizik/strength, and joy to carry on.

Parshas Vayeira continues on with the story of Lot, the destruction of Sedom and Amorah, the seduction of Lot by his daughters and Avraham and Sarah’s travel into Gerar where their encounter with Avimelech occurs. All of this a treasure trove ready for you to glean but I want to continue with this week’s theme, of the biggest thing Hashem has ever asked you to do. When we look at the life of Avraham we see many “big” things asked of him: leave your father’s house and go somewhere that you don’t really know, then when he’s 99 years old to circumcise himself, and finally when his son Yitzchak, his son of covenant is 37, he hears this, “Please take your son, your only, the one whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah. Take him up there as a burnt offering…” [22:2] This is the last of the ten tests that Avraham faced. What test are you facing?

The common understanding of this scene is that Hashem asked Avraham to sacrifice his son. Indeed the father and son climb the mountain with Yitzchak carrying the wood and Avraham carrying the fire and a knife. Next, we see that the son allows himself to be bound on the altar, [he had to be willing, after all he is a 37 year old man] and then the uplifted hand of the father holding the knife, “so as to slaughter his son.” [25:10] Before we rejoice because of the heavenly intervention, I just have to ask, “What did Hashem ask Avraham to do?” This is a vital question because the text only says to’ “Take him up there as a burnt offering.” Does G-D ask Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak? Rashi and many other commentators tell us no, only to bring him as a burnt offering. So, what does this mean for us? There is an excellent article on concerning the Laws of the Burnt Offering/Karbanot Olah by Moshe Bogomilsky that is worth the read.

There are many aspects to the Laws of the Karbanot Olah, but for today let’s consider that no part of the burnt offering was given to the Kohanim; the entire offering was burnt on the altar. No one but Hashem received this offering and this is the reality shared between Avraham, Yitzchak, and Hashem. The reward it brought was the doubling and redoubling of the blessing. Today there is no Temple to which we bring our offerings; prayer has become our offering accepted by Hashem at His request. When our tests are bigger than we think we can handle, it seems to me that it is the time to make sure that we dig deeply in to the words of Torah, seek advice from our leaders in case there is something that we are misunderstanding and remember that our prayers are the burnt offerings that we lay upon the altar trusting that Hashem hears each and every word.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Parshas Lech Lecha 5776, October 2015, Avodas Hash-m

Many people focus on Avraham Avinu in this week's parsha thoughts, though last year I discussed how central Sarah Imeinu actually is. Tangentially, we referred to Shem ben Noach's role in the parsha, and it is him whom I want to discuss this year.
Reach out to others. Just realize you must do it for G-d's honor,
not for your own.

While Avraham and Sarah were known to be leading others towards fear of G-d and Noahide laws, it must be remembered that Shem, the son of Noach, was at that time already leading what is referred to as a yeshiva, a home of higher Torah study at this time before the giving of the Torah itself. While the forefathers and mothers are known to have observed the laws of the Torah due to their prophetic vision and inner sensitivity to G-d's laws, this obviously cannot have been the basis of Shem's students' learning. While Shem himself was a tzaddik, his students were simply those who had learned to appreciate the ways go G-d from Avraham and felt they needed further instruction. They were not Jews and there was no suggestion that they would inherit the Torah themselves; they were simply those who were most inspired and possibly most intellectual among those who learned from Avraham.

Shem, in fact, aside from acting as the greatest in-depth teacher of G-d's law in the land, also had inherited the kehuna, the rights of the priestly first born, as the oldest son of Noach. He and his brothers and their wives were the only humans (after the death of their father and mother) who knew exactly what life had been like in the time before the great flood--a time when children were conceived and born within one day, infants were born with the ability to walk and speak, humans had enormous strength, no suffering was known, crops were sown only every 40 years for continuous harvesting, and the climate worldwide was mild (Midrash HaGadol, Midrash Bereishis). No suffering of any kind was known. It was under those conditions that mankind fell away from appreciation of G-d's gifts and took them all for granted. Shem could explain directly how things had changed and how man must appreciate what he does have and the gifts G-d does give, even if they are not as extensive as those before the flood.

Yet Shem lost the rights to the priesthood to Avraham and his descendants (eventually to the Kohanim of the tribe of Levi).  Despite his extensive knowledge, his great appreciation for the gifts bestowed by G-d, and his ability to transmit appreciation of Torah values to his students, he failed to show honor to G-d in front of Avraham. When he and Avram greater each other, each sure the other would be angry (Avram had slain Shem's unrighteous son Kedarlaomer in war; Avram was sure Shem would want revenge for his family while Shem was sure Avram bore a grudge that Shem would have such an unworthy son who had threatened Avram's life). Rather than curse Avram, Shem blessed Avram and G-d, but in that order, placing Avram and his honor first (Midrash Nidarim Lev). For this mistake committed by one who had always held G-d's teachings and primacy in his heart, Shem lost the rights to the priesthood.

So we must always have G-d foremost in our hearts and in our speech as well. Our own honor, that of others around us, are nothing compared to G-d's. We must take care though not to justify our own actions as being sanctified by dedication to G-d's honor though. Only through very extensive and deep Torah study can we come to know what G-d truly wants of each of us. It's simple to take the first steps though; simply follow the laws as you learn them, and primarily those of self-conduct. Behave towards others as though the first words from your mouth will always be a blessing of G-d and of the other person's actions, as Shem should have done and Avram did.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parshas Noach: Contrasts in Light and Darkness

Contrasts in Light and Darkness

The unpacking of any parsha requires thorough language study as well as commentaries, research into Talmud, Midrash and for many of us, Chassidus. As much as that path will bring both a depth and breadth of understanding and erudition, most of us just don’t study at that level.  If we are not a Talmid Chacham/Torah scholar, how can we hope to deepen our knowledge and love for the “Instruction” of our G-d? Since we read the Torah anew each year, I always hope to find something that I haven’t seen before or make a connection with the text in a new way. This year our journey with Parshas Noach begins with his name, which means rest and tranquility.  Since personal names, names of angels as well as place names are of great significance in the Torah, how do we juxtapose tranquility and rest with the destruction leveled on the earth by the flood? I think that the answer to this question is found toward the conclusion of the parsha and comes in the form of a choice.

“Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations”(6:9) Here in the beginning of our parsha, it would make more sense if Noach’s name had been a word such as Tzaddik or any other appellation that means righteous or righteousness because that is in-line with what Hashem says about him. But rest and tranquility are a complete opposite of the world around him. Noach’s story is full of juxtapositions and choices including those made by his family members and in particular his sons, Shem, Cham and Yefes.

We are only one parsha away from the beginning of the Torah. In Parshas Bereshith darkness and light are created and separated, Gan Eden is created and when Adam and Chava will fall, good and evil are exposed. That theme continues in Parshas Noach and so the Torah tells a similar story, but in a new place and new way; more layers added to the concept of choice.

Amidst the deep darkness and perversion that the world had known since the Fall, there shone a singular light, his name was Noach and Hashem spoke to him, telling him to build something called an ark. Noach must have wondered about this building project called, ARK, but he obediently built one; after all, he had heard Hashem’s voice.   

Can you imagine clearly hearing the voice of the Creator King of the universe, being obedient for so many years in the face of a world that thinks that you have gone mad? It seems to me that this kind of hearing goes beyond the physical ability to apprehend sound and into a supernatural realm where truly only the righteous stand.  I am always awestruck when I ponder how the righteousness of one man, a husband, and father was enough to bring to safety his wife, his sons, and their wives. I believe that there is a lesson that we can glean from this reality. It is clear that a combination of good deeds, obedience to the Word of G-d and covenant are our eternal connection to Hashem no matter in which generation we find ourselves. And even though it is jumping ahead in our text, as with Noach, covenant still holds even if we “mess up.”  Perhaps this is a piece of tranquility and rest that we can all share during these particularly turbulent days.  So, we see darkness and light, righteousness and corruption, a safe haven and an impending disaster and our journey continues.

The animals that must be brought into the ark come of their own volition. We have male and female pairs that will repopulate a cleansed world and here we have a new juxtaposition to talk about, not the gender, but how many pairs of clean versus unclean animals board the ark. In Judaism, there are many aspects to the number seven and that is how many pairs of kosher animals come into the ark. But for our conversation, I just want to note the 7:1 ratio stacks the deck [all puns intended] in favor of purity and cleanness to out weigh impurity and treif/uncleanness when the animals finally leave the ark and set out to live in nature once again. This contrast between clean and unclean animals applies to both the raven and the dove.

There is wonderful aggadic material that you can find concerning the raven in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 108b) and in (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 23). For today it is enough to acknowledge that the raven is not a kosher bird, but the dove is, moreover the dove is a gentle herbivorous creature while the raven is an aggressive flesh-eating scavenger. If we depart from the food that they eat, then we can use these two birds to ask ourselves a reflective question. How are my middos or character-traits? Which bird am I, what must I refine in my own life?

A raven, a dove, and a rainbow, a new day full of promise between
G-d and people, but is it paradise found? It is not long after leaving the ark that Noach plants a vineyard, becomes intoxicated thereby uncovering his own nakedness and his son Cham, who the Torah here tells us is the progenitor of Kena’ an, falls into depravity, while his sons Shem and Yefes act righteously.

How could this contrast happen so quickly after their experience of the flood? I think the answer lies in the reality that we are human.  We are created with a dual nature: a Yetzer Hara and a Yetzer Tov or a good inclination and a not good inclination. It is up to us, which direction we follow. There is always struggle because we are human but following the ways of Shem and Yefes, lead to the blessings of
G-d, while the ways of Cham lead to a life absent of blessing. Parshas Noach does not end here it continues on with the lineage of the three sons which leads to the story of the Tower of Bavel.

Bavel means confusion. It’s where our English word babble comes from. For me this is the final connection to Noach’s name and the last juxtaposition in this parsha. (The parsha however concludes with our introduction to Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham). Regardless of how we get to Bavel, confusion is the opposite of rest and tranquility. The Torah also called Torat Chayim (The Law of Life) teaches us how to choose life.

Before the flood, lawlessness possessed the land with disastrous results. After the flood, a despicable choice was made by a son and perpetrated upon a father.

If the choices we make lead us in the light of Torah then we will find rest and tranquility for our soul on the other hand if we walk in the darkness of the Yetzer Hara then our soul will not find rest but the agitated state of confusion. May we always remember to make our choices by following the Yetzer Tov, Hashem, and His Torah. Surely, this way of life can be understood to function as an ark of safety in the promises of our merciful, loving and covenant keeping G-d.