Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Vayechi 5775, December 2014: Achdut, Brotherhood

I have been waiting for this week's parsha since I began writing these weekly thoughts down. The reason I've been anticipating it so much is that there is an aspect of this week's sidra that the meforshim do not comment on and I feel strongly it is because they are men and largely missed seeing a point which women find fairly obvious and certainly intuitive, though the men I have discussed it with have uniformly agreed that it is correct. So I am grateful to have an opportunity to share this with another group of women.

This is the last parsha of sefer Bereishis, the first sefer of the Torah. We began back in Tishrei with parshas Bereishis, and the murder of Hevel by his brother Kayin. In the following week's reading, we read of (according to Yalkut Shmonei and other sources) Ham castrating his father Noach so as to prevent having to share the world with more siblings. Avram's brother Haran is so jealous of Avram's riches he demands to be thrown in a furnace himself (Tiferet Zion, Bereishis Rabbah) and the Angel of Death throws Haran's body at their father Terach's feet.  Yishmael shoots arrows at Yitzchak. Eisav will stop at nothing to kill Yaakov and only angels and miracles protect Israel. Yosef's brothers want to kill him. But they do not. They agree it would be inappropriate and would break halacha, and rather they sell him, though they take no precaution to ensure his safety or his life. Still, it is a bit of an improvement over actual fratricide and hatred which drives men to kill and maim themselves or their loved ones.

The brothers come to Egypt changed men, and Yosef learns they have always treated Binyamin with love; what's more, they regret having sold Yosef in his youth and truly show they wish they had the opportunity to demonstrate proper brotherly love. This is a huge new level of behavior in comparison to the previous generations evil and inability to experience teshuva.

Now we finally come to this week's parsha. Yes, all twelve shevatim receive their brochos, some for good, some bad; but not one speaks up and complains in the manner of Eisav. No one whines, "I get only two pesukim to my brocho?""I get warnings while he gets promises?""I am burdened while he is enriched?" Even more telling, however, is the moment beforehand, when the aged Yaakov gives his blessings to Yosef's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yosef places his sons so that Menashe, the first born, is at his father's right, to receive the first blessing and the respect due to the elder son. Yaakov however crosses his hands and places his right hand on Ephraim's head, seeing prophetically that Yehoshua would descend from Ephraim (Midrash HaGadol). Yosef attempts to correct Yaakov, but Yaakov insists that he is giving the proper blessings to the proper men. And what happens? Nothing at all. Menashe and Ephraim accept their grandfather's statements with perfect peace and equanimity. There is never mentioned anywhere in Torah or commentary (so far as I know) a single word suggesting that there was any enmity between Menashe and Ephraim over the fact that the younger grandson received the older grandson's blessing. No bloodshed, no curses, no feuds, no anger, but rather joy at receiving a brocha directly from a grandfather who knew Avraham's tent, who was receiving direct prophecy, who was showing love to all his sons and the two grandsons he took to be his own. Nor is there ever any mention that any of Yaakov's other grandchildren held it against Ephraim and Menashe that they had been raised to the status of shevatim, as if they were directly sons of Yaakov, while they themselves were simply Yisroelim, b'nai Yisroel, among the people.

This is an incredible difference in behavior and outlook. To come from fratricide to true love through acceptance of the Torah and the teachings they received from Yaakov is an almost unbelievable advancement in civilization for the Jews.  It is at this point, at the end of sefer Bereishis, that we see they have truly become a nation, a people, under Torah. They are ready to suffer as a nation under a new Pharaoh, and survive it intact, and in fact to leave Egypt and receive the physical Torah and extensive teachings from Moshe only because they have learned to truly love each other completely and without reservation.  This is the mitzvah of achdut, loving our brother, literally and figuratively. We must show boundless, endless, perfect love to our own family but also to all our brothers in b'nai Yisroel. It is not always easy at all, I realize myself, and struggle with it daily. But it is the nature of Torah and the nature of the true people of Yisroel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash 5775, December 2014: Welcoming

After confronting both Shimon and Yehuda individually, Yosaif identifies himself to his brothers and sends them back to their father Yaakov to bring the entire extended family to Egypt, where Yosaif can provide for them and ensure their safety. To ensure that Yaakov will fully believe the brothers that Yosaif is alive and moreover in control of all national logistical affairs throughout the mighty country of Egypt, he selects specific gifts to evoke memories of the last Torah lessons Yaakov taught him in his youth, when Yaakov accompanied him on the first section of his journey which led to his enslavement and ultimately his rise to power, specifically wagons and calves. Ironically, the brothers are sent home to Yaakov with physical reminders of the laws of the egla arufa, the calf whose neck is broken when a stranger is found dead outside village boundaries when it cannot be determined who is responsible for the death and the nearest population center must as a group take responsibility for not ensuring his safety.  The brothers, who when they saw Yosaif, the outsider among them, plotted themselves together to kill him, to trap him, and eventually just to sell him into slavery as an equivalent to murder, must return to their father with this reminder, and inform him that despite their own insistence years before that Yosaif must be dead, he is in fact alive and well. Chizkuni even writes that Yosaif feared the brothers would in fact refuse to tell Yaakov, and explicitly asked them to have Binyamin be the one to explain to their father if necessary to get around their own complicity and oaths to secrecy.

Why was it necessary for Yosaif to bring Yaakov and all his family to Egypt? Ramban says that had he tried on his own to send enough for all his family in the manner they were accustomed to, the Egyptians would have suspected he was stealing the wealth of their country and sending it to Canaan instead; in fact the Tz'enah Ur'enah says explicitly that Yosaif only sent special gifts with his brothers on their return at Pharaoh's urging. Each brother was given food, changes of clothes, and silver coins.  Finally, Yaakov and all his family and holdings arrive in Egypt. The midrash tells a story also given in the Tz'enah Ur'enah that when Yaakov first met Pharaoh at Pharaoh's palace, there was an idol in the entranceway. Miraculously, when Avraham had approached the Pharaoh of his day, a door had lifted itself up and removed the idol as the tzaddik entered, and this was repeated at Yaakov's arrival. The Jews are allowed to settle in Goshen.
Making guests feel like they belong.
What do we see here? Many of the aspects of hachnasos orchim, the welcoming and care of guests. This mitzvah extends well beyond the occasional invitation to others to join in a Sabbath meal. For it begins with their arrival and entry in the home, which must feel comfortable to them. Their time in the home must be full of nourishment, be it spiritual or edible or educational, whatever was promised and is expected. They must feel at peace and rich spiritually as their visit comes to an end. And finally, we must do all we can to ensure their safe and happy departure, not just so that they will think of us fondly, but so that we are truly fulfilling the mitzvah. I myself remember households in which the woman of the home was so welcoming that when I visited she genuinely made it feel as though it was I who was presenting her with a gift by taking her time and effort from her.

The haftarah of this weeks parsha (from Yechezkel) reminds us just how much this sidra relates to the fulfillment of the preconditions of the coming of Moshiach. Let us all remember what we can do and how fully we must do these mitzvahs to hasten that day! Have a wonderful Shabbos, all.

It takes more than cookies.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mikaitz 5775, December 2014: Memory and Dedication

I had a little dreidel, with a "gimmel" for "Gilad."
Forgetting, remembering, dedications, rededications; it can be hard to make sense of this parsha other than as a narrative. Almost every year as well, parshat Mikaitz is read on the Shabbos of Chanukah, which naturally can't be a coincidence. How do we reconcile these disparate parts of history?

We have a repeated motif of men who forget what they should remember in the seemingly simple story. First Pharaoh's butler has forgotten to tell Pharaoh about Yosaif, whom he met in prison; Pharaoh himself forgets his dreams yet remembers that he had the dreams and can remember the details when prompted by Yosaif. In fact Pharaoh grants Yosaif the name, "Tzafnas Pane'ach," meaning "he who reveals the hidden/forgotten." When Yaakov's ten oldest sons encounter Yosaif for the first time in Egypt, they don't recognize him; Rashi says this is because they physically couldn't recognize him as an adult having not seen him since his youth; Chizkuni says the new name and his Egyptian dress confused them; but Ramban writes that it is the expectation, the memory, the though that makes the difference, and Yosaif expected his brothers to show up eventually to make use of Egypt's grain stores, while the brothers had no expectation of discovering their young brother sold into slavery to appear in the guise of the most senior civil servant in all of Egypt. Finally in one of the most poignant memory lapses in all of Torah, when they are brought back to Egypt after their second visit and accused of having stolen  the goblet, Ramban states that they answered the accusation sure that such a thing could not have happened and declaring that if it had, the brother who had stolen should be killed and the other ten taken as slaves; they had not learned from their father's declaration to Lavan that anyone from his household who would have stolen Lavan's idols deserved to be killed, which resulted directly in Rachel's death.

Toldos Yitzchak tells us that at the moment the goblet was discovered in Binyomin's bag, the brothers each tore their clothes in distress., explicitly because they realize that they deserved imprisonment or slavery for the crime of selling Yosaif, but now they had brought punishment down on Binyomin as well, despite his innocence. Binyomin too tore his clothing due to his better understanding of the curse now upon him and his distress for his brothers' pain and here is a key to understanding our connections.  For the midrash tells us that it is in recompense for tearing his garments when he was guiltless that Binyomin became the forefather of Mordechai, co-savior along with Esther of the Jewish people in the time of the first exile into Persia.

A hint of this is also given earlier in the parsha, when we are told (Chizkuni) that after designating Yosaif as the proper authority to carry out the plan of warehousing grain, Pharaoh dressed Yosaif in his own jewelry and second-best robes, and had him sent out through the city in the second royal chariot, with runners announcing before him, "Here rides the young ruler!" It's very reminiscent of Mordechai being brought through the streets in Achasueros's robes and chariot, with Haman leading him and calling out "This is what is done for he whom the king wishes to honor!"
The young man on the left in the garb of a Maccabee is my son ;)
Now we see a connection to Purim, but what does that have to do with Chanukah? Purim celebrates our re-dedication as a people, our willingness to sacrifice and act to show our devotion and loyalty to G-d and to our nationhood. It is the events of Megillat Esther which allowed the building of the second Beis HaMikdash. And in fact, our haftarah for Shabbos Chanukah speaks primarily of the people and the Kohen Gadol, and then of the menorah; it doesn't speak mainly of the Beis HaMikdash itself. It also promises to punish Bavel for destroying the first.  It tells that the holiness of the people with miraculously "clean" the garments of the Kohen Gadol, remove the stains of sin, and infuse all of B'nai Yistroel with purity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vayeishev 5775, December 2014: The Tzaddik in Each of Us

This week's parsha is often difficult for people to understand as a simple narrative, but two simple keys open the door to comprehension.

1. Almost every action in the parsha involves tzaddikim acting l'shaym Shamayim (according to what they understand is G-d's law), and
2. Tzaddikim are not Malachim, angels. Tzaddikim are by definition human beings with free will, who have a desire to put G-d's law and G-d's will ahead of their own desires at all times.

We discussed this a few weeks ago briefly in trying to understand the situation with Esav and Yaakov. Both had free will, both grew up with Torah learning opportunities, both had the ability to make choices in behavior and fulfillment of G-d's commandments. So it is with any tzaddik. He has the opportunity to fulfill mitzvahs and the understanding of what those are, but he must make the choice to act and follow through to actually become a tzaddik. Merely thinking or learning is not enough.

So how could Yaakov favor Yosaif over his brothers? Yosaif had the greatness of Reuven, the nobility of Yehuda, the prophetic ability of Levi, and the wisdom in Torah of Yissachar (Rabbi Behaya according to Chazal); he also had remarkable similarities to Yaakov himself. Yaakov also saw prophetically that Yosaif had a great destiny (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer).  It was because of Yoseif's great Torah knowledge that Yaakov made him a gift of a special dyed silk garment (Bereishis Rabbah).
Silk woven in many colors
Ruach haKodesh rested on Yosaif and he had two dreams of the future, one in which sheaves of wheat representing his brothers bowed to the one representing him; and one in which the sun and moon and stars bowed to him. Both dreams were truly the prophetic dreams of a tzaddik. But to tell them to his brothers was simply the act of a young man mature in Torah but possibly immature in personal relationships. In any case, (Zahor haGadol), the fact that the brothers doubted the veracity of the dreams delayed the rulership of Yosaif over Egypt for twenty two years, for the fulfillment of any true dream is still dependent on the interpretation, and they ridiculed it, as did even Yaakov after the second dream.

Yaakov sent Yosaif out to find his brothers in Sh'chem; he thought that keeping him fairly near would protect him. On the way, Yosaif encountered the Malach Gavriel, who tried to persuade him to turn back, hinting at him by saying that the brothers had journeyed away that the brothers had not only traveled geographically but felt they had distanced their bonds of brotherhood with Yosaif.

The brothers saw Yosaif approaching and as tzaddikim discussed what was appropriate to be done with him. Was he liable for death for what they perceived as repeated lashon hara?  They sat in judgement because they considered that he had attempted to kill them with his words to their father reporting what he perceived as capitol crimes but which were in fact innocent actions (supposed offenses against kashrus, supposed improper affairs with women). Yosaif the tzaddik was zealous in protecting Torah. Yet Yosaif the youth was not mature enough in behavior and decision making to discern the truth of the situation in each event. Reuven interceded though, feeling that while they were acting in a Torah manner, it was possible the brothers as a group also didn't have the full picture of Yosaif's actions, and might come to regret putting him to death.  Yehuda then took the lead in convincing the brothers that by their understanding of Torah, it might be proper to sell Yosaif as a slave, but not to put him to death.

This now gives us the ability to appreciate what's often seen as the "interruption" of the story of Yehuda and Tamar. It's not truly an interruption, it makes perfect sense at this juncture to see the continuation of multiple tzaddikim all acting at odds because of different understandings of a single situation. Yehuda married his oldest son Er to Tamar, daughter of Shem. Her Torah learning was so great that it was reflected in her physical beauty, and Er chose not to risk harming that physical beauty by impregnating her. For this sin, as well as for that of his father in making Yaakov believe his son Yosaif had died (Tanhuma Buber), he was condemned to death. The tzaddik Yehuda now followed his understanding of halacha immediately and married his second son Onan to her in levirate marriage. Onan however behaved the same as his older brother and was likewise punished. Yehuda then feared that there was some aveira related to Tamar herself that was causing his sons to die, and tried to postpone a second levirate marriage between her and his third son Shaila.

Tamar, being truly a tzaddekes, arranged to marry Yehuda himself according to halacha, in order to fulfill the Torah commandments. This is why rather than any true payments she accepted from him only three symbolic ones, a ring (a usual requirement of Jewish legal marriage), a staff (representing the poles of a chuppah), and his tallis kattan (some say his cloak) (representing the chuppah itself).  When it was obvious that she was pregnant and she was brought before the Torah court, she refused to humiliate Yehuda even at the risk of her own life. Yehuda himself realized what the truth of the matter was, and that she was in fact permitted to him since her marriages to his older two sons had never been consummated. It says both in Sotah and Rashi that in fact a heavenly voice rang out announcing that Tamar would be the ancestress of royalty and prophets, and in fact that the line of descent from her and Yehuda would bring about Moshiach.

And so it is that the nature of a Tzaddik is not to be inhuman, removed, or even perfect in understanding. It is to be trying at all times to act l'shaim Shamayim, with only Torah intentions, which can only happen if we strive to learn Torah and understand it as best we individually can with our own intellects and ability.
We can each strive to learn Torah and become Tzaddikim

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Vayishlach 5775, December 2014; Becoming a People

This week's parsha culminates so many ideas we've discussed in previous weeks. We discussed how to live among the nations. We learn here fully how to approach them, first by preparing with tefillah, then with gifts, then with preparing for war both through flattery and then clearly displaying our strengths (when Yaakov refers to possessing an ox, a donkey, sheep, menservants and maidservants, he is actually invoking Yosaif, Yissachar, the faithful Jewish people, Dovid haMelech, and Avigayil, according to Bereishis Rabbah).  For we, the Jewish people, are destined as we know to live spread out among the nations.

At the same time many suggestions for Jewish behavior are given: to lie low and remain as invisible as possible so as not to provoke the non-Jewish authorities, and to prepare for our encounters with them if there is any danger. Yet we are also taught (again, according to Bereishis Rabbah) that because Yaakov humbled himself excessively before Eisav eight times, G-d decreed that eight mighty rulers should descend from Eisav before ever a king of Israel should arise. Yaakov successfully entreated that their power over the land and over taxation should be spread out over centuries, so as not to overburden the Jewish people.

Yaakov battles with Eisav's angel. The midrash teaches the angel was sent directly by G-d to this encounter (in fact, angels are never able to use free will to do as they choose, which is why they cannot truly fulfill mitzvahs). The single man was able to counter equally the sar, the angel representing an entire nation, throughout the night. In the end, the angel succeeded in injuring Yaakov's thigh. The Ramban says this act is symbolic of the fact that in times of trouble the nations of the world will come close to destroying the entire Jewish nation, but never can. The question is asked why the other forefathers were never afflicted by an angelic battle? Avraham was G-d's pillar of kindness, Yitzchak of justice. But Yaakov was the pillar of Torah. It is Torah which is the key to Jewish survival, and so it is that which would have to be wiped out entirely to exterminate the Jewish people. In the time of Moshiach's arrival, Torah scholars and supporters (represented by the thigh) will be few. Yet their devotion will be enough, no matter how much the nations attempt to deprive the Jews of Torah study (Kovetz Igros). It is this angel, recognizing that Yaakov's support of Torah can never be extinguished, who renames him Yisroel, he who has prevailed against celestial and mortal beings.

The Jewish people has indeed become a people, a nation, and not just a family.

This is the critical point for the story of Dina, which I am actually not going to discuss in much detail here this year (another year, another thought). But suffice it to say, the massed kings of Edom determine to destroy Yaakov's family entirely for Shimon and Levi's killing of the population of Sh'chem.  The kings' advisors refused to participate and warned the rulers of the power of the Jewish people, that their G-d protects them, that he saved Avraham from multiple threats and tests, that he protected Yitzchak from Yishmael, and that Yaakov had prospered in all he had done, even surviving an attempted attack by Aisav himself backed by 400 men. The Edomi soldiers left their camps and the kings abandoned the attack (Sefer Hayashar).

So we have become a true nation among nations. Why at this moment? Just because of the battle with Sh'chem? No. Immediately after this we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov's mother, and then the death of Rochel his wife. It is well known that Rochel's spiritual tears at the time of the later exile brought about by Nebuchadnezzar saved the Jewish people, where no other entreaties moved G-d to promise redemption (Rebbe Kehana). The Jewish people needed to become a true nation before the deaths of the two great matriarchs, otherwise it is possible that losing the great spiritual leadership of both of them at once might have extinguished or at least damped down the flame of Torah and holiness.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Vayaitzay 5775, November 2014; Intellect, Cunning, and Trickery

I'll start this weeks comments with some very basic "why" questions. Why in last week's parsha Toldos did Rivka have to direct Yaakov to in detail to trick his father, when she had clear navuah of what was right that she simply could have shared directly with her husband?  Why did Elifaz, son of Aisav, attack  Yaakov, and then allow him to continue on his way? Why after having had a miraculous dream on Har HaMoriah did Yaakov awaken and immediately express concern over sleeping in a place of holiness, rather than assessing what he had seen? Why do Rochel and Leah agree to fool Yaakov at their father's demand, allowing Leah to be the first bride? And finally, why does Rochel steal and conceal her father's terafim (idols)?
A pie crust show the trickery that can be hidden beneath something so sweet as a pecan pie: not a direct, straight road at all!

In short, what is the meaning of all the duplicitousness and trickery and how can holiness involve such actions?

The Midrash haGadol tells the story of Eisav demanding that his son Elifaz pursue Yaakov as he departed Be'er Sheva, with explicit instructions to kill his uncle. Elifaz however had a G-d fearing mother, Adah, who warned him that he mustn't even attempt to kill Yaakov.  Elifaz had grown up being taught by Yitzchak and had truly learned from him some of the time, taking to heart the teaching that a pauper is like a dead man; and so he caught and robbed Yaakov of all he had, even his clothing on his body, but did not physically harm him in any way (Sefer haYashar).  G-d miraculously provided Yaakov with new food and clothing for the journey and Yaakov continued on to the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver, where he remained and learned diligently for fourteen years before going on to Charan.

On stopping at Har HaMoriah, Yaakov had his well-known revelatory dream (actually a series of visions or dreams). Awakening, he realized he was in the presence of the Shechinah, the spiritual, completing, feminine holy emanation of G-d which permanently rests on the site, the gate to Heaven. According to the Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer and Bereishis Rabbah, Yaakov then made a vow that if G-d would protect him from speaking ill, from immoral action, violence, and murder, he would provide sacrifices (todah and olah) and that if G-d would provide him again with clothing and food he would return a tithe back to G-d. After this, Yaakov was miraculously transported to Charan, where Lavan and his household lived.

Yaakov serves seven years of hard work for Lavan for the right to marry Rochel, but is instead married to Leah; after a week he is also married to Rochel with the requirement that he continue to work another seven years for the privilege. Lavan continues to trick him in relation to his wages, his responsibilities, his rights in the household; all despite the fact that from the time Yaakov arrived, Lavan began to prosper, growing rich and having his wives give birth to sons where formerly he had only had daughters.

When Yaakov prepares to leave Charan, he knows that Lavan's trickery will continue, and so he waits until Lavan leaves to shear his huge herds of sheep a three day distance away, then gathers his wives and sons and belongings and departs. Rochel takes the opportunity to steal her father's terafim, which she hid within her own saddle pillows without informing anyone else what she had done. Bereishis Rabbah says she stole them l'shaim shamayim, to prevent more idol worship in her father's house; Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer says though that she wanted to prevent the use of the idols in the household to reveal their flight to her father and his servants.  All the same, as soon as Yaakov's household had departed, the well of the region dried up and the other blessings Yaakov's presence had brought likewise disappeared; as soon as he was informed, Lavan knew what had happened and pursued and overtook Yaakov. Yet Rochel is now cursed by Yaakov's words inadvertently; not knowing that she was actually the thief and that Lavan is not simply deceiving them about missing his idols, Yaakov declares that anyone in his household who might be responsible is worthy of death.

But now arrives a critical moment often overlooked. G-d sends the angel Michael to Lavan with a sword first and secondarily a message: "Beware of speaking to Yaakov either good or evil!" Lavan takes this to heart and even speaks of it directly to Yaakov.

Here then is a key moment for our answer, and the other in the haftarah read this week, from Sefer Hoshaia (please note I'm only discussing the Ashkenazi reading; I realize that Sephardim read a different section this week). For Yaakov and his descendants have been hardened and polished, like diamonds, in their dealings with Esav, and with Lavan, in and out of the holy land. They have learned how to be as holy as possible while using only an absolute minimum of trickery or deviation from the purest path, how to accept personal responsibilities, how to remain holy in a foreign land, surrounded by the unholy and even the murderous.  They have acted together as a family, a people, and served G-d without question, and they are fully determined to continue doing so no matter what hostility or hardship is ahead. In fact, in their times surrounded by evil influences everywhere they survive as a nation we know. It is when they are at home in the holy land but allow themselves to become dissolute (as in the haftarah) that they lose their righteousness and allow themselves to be swayed to idol worship.  While anti-Semitism may be a condition of galus, the descendants of Lavan and the other nations are not allowed so much as to speak to Israel of good or evil here where we are.  When they do--and sadly of course they do--they themselves ultimately are punished by complete destruction. Meanwhile, after all these centuries, the descendants of Yaakov live on, filling Shamayim with our pleas and tefillos for our galus to end and for our return to the holy land.

The finished pie. Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrate it. Otherwise, just accept the symbolism ;)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Toldos 5775 November '14, Choosing the Self

Yissachar Moshe ben Hezkiah haLevi leaves in a  few hours for Israel, in this time of much distress.
This is being written on the day after the bloodbath massacre in Har Nof, in which two Palestinian men entered a synagogue full of men davening Shacharis and proceeded to shoot and hack four of them to death, injuring others, then shot and killed the first policeman to arrive on the scene before themselves being shot by police forces. The hatred, the blood, the senselessness are heavy in all our minds.

Today my son, a child born with a life-threatening illness that indeed almost killed him many times, whom we nursed through countless hospitalizations, trips to world research centers, and weeks of non-stop illness, today my son leaves for Israel.

We begin this parsha learning that after ten years of marriage, Yitzchak and Rivka have had no children. They daven together, and Yitzchak's prayers are answered explicitly rather than Rivka's, not through any fault of her own, but explicitly says Rashi because he was a tzaddik AND the son of tzaddikim, while Rivka's parents were reshaim. Nowhere do I find an answer though as to the question of whether her own prayers would have been answered had his not been adequate, and this is a question I myself ask but must continue to follow up. If anyone has sources with answers, I welcome them!

When she is pregnant, Rivka feels great physical distress, beyond that other women are able to describe to her from their own experiences. She travels to the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver to ask the meaning of her great pain that seems excessive compared to others' experiences.  Midrash Lekat Tov also tells us she explicitly asked them for a blessing of Hash-m's mercy on her. Shem himself receives prophetic understanding of her situation and explains to her that she is carrying twins and that (according to the Midrash haGadol) once they are born the entire Earth will be too small for the two to  live in peace, and so it is completely impossible for them to share one womb without struggle. Shem also explained the well-known prophecy that the two will constantly be in disequilibrium, one rising as the other falls. Rivka herself received prophetic vision at that moment of the two. She understood fully that Esav would be a rasha, and Yaakov a tzaddik. She saw the two nations of Israel and Edom in their full futures. However, she became very distressed, and so the only specific descendants she was shown from the two nations were the Jewish leader Rabbi Yehuda haNassi and the Roman Emperor Antoninus, who protected the Jews and discoursed in good faith with Rabbi Yehuda, according to the Eitz Yosef.

But there is a philosophical struggle we ourselves must address here (which Rashi hints at). How can the two be pre-ordained to be a tzaddik and a rasha? If Yaakov is pre-ordained by G-d to have no struggles in his faith and to be incapable of evil, why should he receive reward for his good? If Eisav has no control over his evil, how can he himself be faulted for it? Is he not then like a true wild animal, killing because it is his nature? We don't blame a large cat for leaping out of a tree to land on prey; it was not exhibiting evil, it was following its own nature and set of skills provided directly by G-d, after all.

While the prophetic visions were true, at the same time we have a principal about prophecy that a good prophecy from G-d must come true but an evil one can be altered if those involved do teshuva. This prophecy is in some ways good, in some ways bad, really overall simply factual: there are twin nations, they will both be great nations, and the actions of the Jewish nation will control which of the two is in power.  So in this case, the Jews themselves, Yaakov and his descendants, have always had the power force this to be a "good" prophecy, so long as they are completely devoted to Torah. To the extent that they are not, Aisav gains in power.

It was entirely within the power of both Aisav and Yaakov to choose their actions at every moment of every day. Each of them had the ability to turn the evil portions of the prophecy to good. Many of us have angry impulses constantly, resentments large and small, disasters which befall us. But each moment we also have the choice to respond with emuna and with the principles of Torah in mind. Bear in mind, Yaakov and Eisav lived the first 15 years of their lives in the company of Avraham himself. They saw heavenly beings coming and going from his tent and experienced his direct prophecies; they had the opportunity to learn Torah directly from him.  There could have been no question in either of their minds of the validity of the Torah and of G-d's reality and the promise of Olam Habah.  These special gifts were equally available to both brothers to use as they would, to appreciate and to incorporate into themselves. Do some of us have more gentle natures without effort, and some more violent impulses? Of course, no question. But likewise, the rewards from Shamayim recognize the level of difficulty for an individual to do a mitzvah, to behave according to Torah principles. One who struggles and overcomes receives a far more bountiful reward than one who is handed things on a silver platter.  Eisav in fact had the opportunity to achieve far, far more than Yaakov ever could have, by his very nature. He had the physical reality of angels in front of him regularly, discussing Olam Haba with Avraham Avinu himself. Yet this he rejected in favor of this world, physical wealth and power.

The problem of course is that if we now skip to the end of the parsha, we find that as a result of Yaakov's receiving the blessing from Yitzchak with the help of Rivka who saw in her prophecy before her sons' birth that this must happen, there was kindled in Aisav an unquenchable hatred.  The only reason Aisav did not kill his brother outright at that moment was his realistic understanding that the court of Shem and Aiver would catch him and sentence him to death if he were to do so, according to the Midrash Shocher Tov. Aisav hatched multiple plans for assassinating his brother through third parties, and so Rivka arranged for Yaakov to be sent to her own family out of Aisav's reach.

Midrash haGadol sums it up with the statement, "It is a well-known halacha that Aisav hates Yaakov." What can this mean, how can hatred be a "halacha?"  It is the nature of Galus, exile. We refer to our current situation as the Edomi (Roman, Aisav) exile. It was prophesied that Edom (the nation descending from Aisav) must hate the descendants of Yaakov (Israel). The whole world is obviously not Edom, but in this state we have reached following our descent to the point of this final, complete galus, Edom is also dispersed among the nation and hatred towards us is rampant. In an upcoming parsha we'll address the methods Yaakov himself modeled against this tide of danger, but in this moment we can only accept that it spreads among other nations including Yishmael who was already pre-disposed to hatred towards the beloved of Avraham and Yitzchak.

At the moment we can only do what we can do. We are in galus. We can daven for protection and G-d's love. We can daven to understand the world as much as possible. We can take action for self- and community-defense. We can reach out to those who will accept what we have to offer in peace. Most of all, we can simply rely on faith in hashgacha pratis, and act in every way we can to bring Moshiach.

My prayer is that my son has a safe trip, and that during the immediate future we join him in Yerushalayim because Moshiach has arrived to G-d's glory.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chayei Sarah 5775 (November 2014), Ensuring leadership

While we discussed the haftarah as a key to understanding last week's parsha, I never mentioned the obvious parallel of the end of the haftarah, the section only read traditionally by Ashkenazi communities, about the revival of the son of the Shunamit woman, and how it is suggestive of the akeidah. While Yitzchak willingly ascended the mizbeyach and his father prepared to make of him a korban, the Shunamit woman calmly prepared her seemingly dead son's body and spoke calmly to her husband, she fell at Elisha's feet in agony over her son's loss and begged that if possible he revive the child.

Just so the midrash says, only a (somewhat falsified) vision of Yitzchak being sacrificed allowed the angel of death to approach Sarah in her great distress, for now at the beginning of this week's parsha Sarah dies, leaving a huge void for women and of course all holy households of the time. For while Avraham focussed only on complete obedience to G-d, Sarah with her equal or greater holiness could experience complete obedience while still feeling the emotions of a human parent.  Since as we have discussed before it is the women who bring holiness into the whole household and to the children far more than the men, the loss of Sarah as a teacher was huge. In addition, the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver was still available also to the men while only Sarah had ministered, supported, and taught the women of the world seeking Hash-m's teachings.

This week's parsha, of course, begins with Sarah's death followed immediately (after bargaining for the land holding Maaras haMachpeilah to inter Sarah and sitting shiva for her) by Avraham dispatching his servant Eliezer on a mission to bring back a girl of Avraham's family to wed Yitzchak. Eliezer departs on his journey expecting it to take a normal 18 days and is miraculously transported in only hours to his destination. On arriving, he sets a deal with G-d, that he will wait at the local well and look for signs of a noble girl whom he will assume must be from the holy family of Avraham.  Bizarre though this may sound when he could obviously simply inquire about how to find the family directly, he is both rewarded in the success of this method in the zechus of Avraham and Yitzchak, that Rivka indeed immediately ascended to the well; and simultaneously has his own hopes dashed as his main motivation in such a strange plan was presumably to be unsuccessful and to continue to push Avraham to marry Yitzchak to one of his own daughters.

Rivka as we know is a true rose among thorns, a tzaddekes eager to leave her family of intriguers, thieves, and murderers with alacrity. She speaks carefully, only the truth as she knows it, she speaks directly and clearly, and she takes risks in speaking up directly for her own sake to agree to leave immediately to Avraham's camp from her own home. She takes nothing but what she has been given by Eliezer, and her own nurse and servant Devorah as a chaperone.

Finally at the closing of the parsha, Avraham dies, having seen Rivka reintroduce light and completeness to Sarah's tent with her holiness and greatness.  Before his death, he recognizes that Sarah in having pushed to remove Hagar and Yishmael from the household was fully correct (he has in fact remarried Hagar now renamed Keturah, because her being removed from Avraham for a period of years has brought about her own complete tshuvah, which Sarah foresaw), and that likewise he had to provide a suitable wife for Yitzchak who could also serve as a Naviah and female leader of the G-d fearing people. If not for Sarah's wisdom, all could have ended very differently for Avraham's family and followers throughout the land.

This week's haftarah is taken from I Melachim (1-31), telling of Dovid haMelech installing Shlomo as his rightful heir and successor to the throne.  The obvious parallel is that it tells of Dovid in his old age, while the parsha speaks of Avraham in his.  This is very superficial though.

Dovid haMelech at this point in his live was suffering from extreme effects to his body of old age, and years of physical toil, distress, warfare, and exertion in the name of learning Torah as well. While he had put down the rebellion of his son Avshalom, he now unknowingly faced a rebellion hidden from no one but himself by Avshalom's younger brother Adoniyahu. The general Yoav and the former Kohen Gadol Evyasar who had been removed from office by Dovid haMelech were openly supporting Adoniyahu despite knowing full well that Shlomo had been promised and prophesied the throne.

Now Shlomo's mother, the tzaddekes BasSheva, along with Nassan haNavi, came to speak to Dovid. They clearly explained the situation and thread, first BasSheva in detail (she then left the king's presence), then Nassan who only corroborated what BasSheva told the king but who verified all she had said (the Ramban explains that while a nasi can simply allow nevua to take its course, it's incumbent on a navi to take action to make it do so).  Dovid called BasSheva back to his presence and pronounced that that very day he would crown and anoint Shlomo, which he then did, in the presence of Nassan, Bnayahu the head of the Sanhedren, and Dovid's retinue, Shlomo was coronated at the age of 12.

And so we see that it's not the machinations of would-be kings, king-makers, prophets, or generals who control the highest levels of action (and in fact who lead to the conditions whereby the first Beis HaMikdash could be build). It's the actions of the holy Jewish mother not demanding, not scheming, but using her intuitive nevua and her understanding of the needs of others which leads to the fulfillment of prophecy and the meeting of the needs of individuals, families, kingdoms, and whole peoples.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Vayaira 5775 (November 2014), Chessed

My disabled son at a camp/training program at Sunflower Bakery, a program which is a true embodiment of the meaning of chessed. This kosher bakery exists to train youth with disabilities to work in bakery settings to the maximum of their abilities, whether that is as a pastry chef or cookie maker, then helps them get all the necessary certifications for food service work and places them in paid jobs.  Only three of the full time staff are paid; the others, all women, are entirely volunteers, coordinating, applying for grants, screening youth applicants and more.

The parsha begins at the point when Avraham is recovering from his bris milah, and is visited by three malachim (angels, heavenly beings) in the guise of men. The Toldos Yitchak tells us that the second was the malach Raphael come to heal Avraham, the third Gavriel come to destroy S'dom, but the first, always noted as the first among the three, was Michael, come to announce to Sarah that in a year she would have born a son. His mission was not to Avraham, though that was whom he spoke to, but to ensure that Sarah was notified.

In contrast to Sarah's modesty, generosity, good nature, intelligence, and dutifulness to G-d's will, we now have the tale of Lot's family. His wife display's none of Sarah's modesty nor generosity despite Shem having taught Avraham, and Avraham having taught Lot that the family of Noach was saved in respect of their mitzvah of generosity and chessed in caring for the animals on the ark. Rather, she publicly went from house to house deliberately gathering attention and ensuring all nearby knew she had been asked to provide a small portion for guests to the home.  Even so the two remaining angels (Michael having returned to heaven after performing the specific task of informing Sarah) attempted to save her in honor of Lot's desire to do the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.

After the destruction of the five cities, Avraham and Sarah left the area since there would be no more travelers whom they could provide for and teach. They traveled towards G'rar, where the kind Avimelech heard of Sarah's approach and attempted to marry her. Unlike the Egyptian Pharaoh who had lusted after her beauty, Avimelech knew of the greatness of her family and her own reputation as a prophetess, though somehow he did not fully comprehend and was deliberately mislead about Avraham being her husband and not another kinsman. Due to his righteous reasoning, he was not destroyed nor his land damaged, and Sarah was returned to Avraham. Avimelech makes public pleas directly to G-d along with all his household, and makes amends to Avraham and Sarah; they then pray themselves that all the women of the land bear children with ease. And for the first time we see the teaching that one who prays for another receives the blessing themselves, for it is now that Sarah becomes pregnant for the one time in her life. Bereishis Rabbah teaches that, "If anyone should give up hope that Hash-m will ever rebuild Yerushalayim, he would be told, 'Look to Avraham your father and Sarah who bore you (Yeshayahu 51:2).' As Hash-m rejuvenated Sarah in her old age, giving her children, thus will he do to Yerushalayim."

The haftarah of this week re-emphasizes the glory of the righteous Jewish woman; it is taken from sefer II Melachim and tells of the prophet Elisha and his interactions with an impoverished widow and with the Shunamit woman.  I will mention that both stories have deep cabalistic meanings which I will not go into at all here in my brief discussion of p'shat. The widow was in fact the widow of the righteous royal courtier Ovadya who provided for G-d fearing prophets under an idolatrous king. Her household had sold absolutely everything including their furniture and food to pay their debts after Ovadya's death, and the Royal Prince Yehoram threatened to take the widow's two children and sell them into slavery to make good on the debts.

While no miracle had ever happened in Ovadya's honor during his life or after his death, his widow pleaded to the prophet Elisha, and her own greatness merited a deep miracle. She was told to accumulate vessels from neighbors and anyone she could, and pour from the tiny jug of oil that was all that was left in her cupboard. The oil poured to fill every single vessel brought into the house until they ran out; then she was able to sell the pure olive oil to pay the money. But while the prophet may have been the human vessel to bring the miracle to fruition, surely only the true inner perfection of the widow herself who had helped her husband in his efforts to care for G-d's prophets in opposition of the king himself allowed the miracle to occur at all.

The final story is that of the Shunamit woman who has a single child who dies; only the prophet Elisha can revive him. Again, how often are the laws of the universe set aside, even by a great prophet? Certainly, how often for the good of a single family, a single mother? Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer says,
Why did this woman merit that the dead should be revived for her? Because she was always involved in acts of kindness towards others."

Sarah, Ovadya's widow, and the Shunamit woman all embodied perfect chessed. Through this they teach us, enrich us, and inspire us.