Friday, November 8, 2013

Vayeitzei

Guest Post

The Eyes Have It

  • By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman

    The Torah’s description of Ya’akov’s two marriages, first to Leah and then to Rachel, is, at first glance, somewhat difficult to understand. We are told that Lavan had two daughters, the older one Leah, and the younger one Rachel. Leah, the Torah continues, had eyes that were “rakos,” which is commonly translated as soft, weak, or tender, and Rachel was of beautiful form, or complexion, and beautiful appearance (Bereishis 29:16-17). Ya’akov, the Torah tells us, loved Rachel, and proposed to Lavan to work for him for seven years, and then marry her. Lavan agrees, following which he worked for Lavan for seven years, which, in his love for her, seemed like several days, but, on the morning after the wedding, discovered that Lavan had given him Leah instead of Rachel. Ya’akov complained to Lavan about his trickery, and, eventually, married Rachel, as well. Many questions arise regarding this account, but a puzzling one is how Ya’akov did not realize, until the morning, that the bride he had been given was Leah, given the difference in appearance between the two sisters, as described in the Torah.

    My friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Twersky, author of Amitah Shel Torah, has pointed out (although not in his book) that the medieval collection of midrashim, Lekach Tov, says that Leah and Rachel were identical twins, and, the reason that the Torah mentions the difference in their physical appearance is because, in truth, that difference was very slight, so that the appearance of Leah’s eyes was the only way in which the two sisters looked differently from each other. This comment of the midrash answers another question, which is, given the common translation of the word “rakos,” why does the Torah, uncharacteristically, speak in a disparaging manner about one of the matriarchs. Actually, however, the Targum, translates the word “rakos” as “yafin,” which according to Rav Noson Adler in his Nesinah LeGer to Onkeles, means “beautiful.” The Rashbam, as well, says that the Torah means to say that Leah’s eyes were beautiful, in that they were light, or blush, rather than dark. He adds that according to the Rabbis, the eyes are the salient feature of a person’s face, and if a woman has pretty eyes, her entire appearance is attractive. The description of Rachel, on the other hand, is of her overall appearance, not that focused on any particular feature. This approach, while it answers a number of otherwise particularly puzzling questions, still leaves us with the question of why the Torah placed so much emphasis on the physical appearance of Lavan’s daughters. Rav Aharon Kotler was strongly opposed to a simple understanding of the account, saying that it reflects badly on the personality of our forebears, and that there is a deeper meaning in the background. I believe that we can, with the support of certain commentators, explain what happened differently from the common understanding.

    Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzato, popularly known as Shadal, explains the term “rakos” as meaning weak, associating it with the expression, found later in the Torah, of “rach ha-leiv” (Devarim 20:8), or “weak hearted.” The term, then he says, refers to an ethical character trait, and the Torah mentions it in regard to Leah so that we should not think that Ya’akov felt that Leah did not have good middos, or character. Perhaps we may further suggest that “einayim rakos” means a good eye, thus conforming with Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avos, who says that this is the most important character trait that a person should develop. Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher, agreed, saying that the the good traits mentioned there are included in the trait of having a good eye (Avos 2:14). Rabbi Reuven Bulka, in his commentary to Avos, explains that this trait entails seeing the good in everyone. We may add that this includes one’s own self as well. Leah, then, saw the positive elements in both Rachel and herself, and realized that Ya’akov, in order to become the patriarch required for the Jewish people at that stage of its founding, needed to incorporate within himself the personalities of both the sisters. As Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained, Leah represented gevurah, or perseverance, in her quest to become Ya’akov’s wife, and Rachel represented chesed, or kindness, in her acquiescence to Lavan’s plan of tricking Ya’akov, to save her sister from shame. The two character traits, combined, resulted in the trait of tiferes, or splendor, which Ya’akov represented in the process of the creation of the Jewish people. Leah, with her good heart, understood this and acted accordingly.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lech Lecha Poem By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

There's a story we all know
about Avraham being asked to go
Hashem said to Avraham, "Lech lechah"
We should hear the story and we say, "Aha!"

If you think about it for a while
you can see it with a new style
Look at it in a different way
change your life, starting today

Avraham was told from himself to go
that's a game-changer of the whole show
He was told that he really had to change
to take his life and rearrange

"Lech lecha" means go to you
G-d said, "You know what to do"
"Lech lecha"- return to your self
Whether you're a giant or an elf

"Lech lecha"'s a call to everyone
It's sometimes hard, sometimes fun
"Lech lecha" means become the real you
We could start now, we know what to do

Avraham was told to become who he was
That's all any of us have, all anyone does
All of our lives we go to who we are
May we be blessed to be close, not far

Noach

If a friend woke me in the middle of the night and asked me to share a Dvar Torah on Parshat Noach, I’d probably come out with the one about whether or not Noach would have been an even greater tzadik, or not such a tzadik at all if he'd lived in Avraham’s generation. This is also an easy and popular route for a pulpit rabbi to take: Step One – Read pasukaloud, Step Two – Read Rashi aloud, Step Three – Pause meaningfully, Step Four - Connect with current events.

The pivot of this famous Rashi on Noach is the word “bedorotav.” Noach was referred to as a tzadik in his generation. In addressing this curious description, the rabbis go in two directions. One approach says that he was a tzadik in his generation, because he was the most righteous man in unrighteous times, but if he’d have lived at the same time as a righteous man such as Avraham, he’d have paled in comparison. The medrashpresents an analogy of a small coin that is valuable compared to lesser coins, but put next to a currency of greater worth it becomes inconsequential. The other take is that if Noach acted nobly in a lowly generation how much more so would he have shined as a hero had he lived in the same time as an Avraham. The medrash compares this to a girl that was born into brothels and rises above the immorality that surrounds her.

The problem with the discussion about what Noach would have been like in Avraham’s generation is that the two men were alive at the same time.If you do the math that’s given in the Torah itself it becomes clear that Avraham and Noach overlapped for 58 years (easy to remember because it’s the gematriah of Noach).
Why does the Medrash cited by Rashi say that Noach and Avraham were not in the same generation? This is, in fact, based on the text of the Torah. Right after the flood the Torah states that Noach dies. He lived for three and a half more centuries! The text is teaching us that Noach was not involved in society, and thus even though he was technically alive, he was not considered as living in the same generation as Avraham. Though he was technically alive, Noach was all but buried.

The positive and negative views of Noach each base themselves on the same word bedorotav. This reflects the idea that Noach’s greatest positive and negative qualities stemmed from the same source. This fits with the commentary of the Ran (Breishit 6:9-12) who takes the common conception of Noach as a “Tzadik in Peltz” – someone who kept solely to himself and turns it on its head. The Ran says that Noach’s generation was so far-gone that he did the right thing. He explains that the secret of Noach’s righteousness is revealed to us in the words “et haElokim hithalech Noach – Noach walked with G-d.” The word “et” connotes a direct connection to G-d, while implying a total separation from the people of his time. The fact that this behavior is described immediately following the statement that Noach was righteous and pure teaches us that the method through which he achieved righteousness and purity during his life before the mabul.

After the flood Noach continued using the same modus operandi that he employed beforehand. A new approach was called for at this time. Because he separated himself from society in the era following the flood Noach was unable to help others during this time of his life. Furthermore, this time around his approach sadly led Noach to his own decline in status. After the flood there was a chance for a new beginning but this new start called for outreach. Instead of relating with others Noach cocooned, just as he had done before the flood. What was strength became weakness.

It is often the case that people use one approach to survive at one stage of their lives. But later in life they need to move on from this approach and have trouble doing so. What leads to success at one time can lead to failure in another context. A therapist friend tells me that therapy is often about getting someone to halt a behavior that once saved his or her life, but is now restricting them from moving forward in life. For example if someone – G-d forbid – was abused when they were young they may learn to protect themselves by being very private. However when they enter the broader world of relationships, community, and work they need to learn to trust people and not be so secretive.
May we all be blessed to cultivate our strengths at the various stages of our lives.

May we all be blessed to cultivate our appropriate strengths and not allow them to morph into fatal flaws.
(The essence of this piece is based on the thought of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Breishit - Big Thoughts On The Moon

I thought of something during the leining of Breishit.  It says that there were two big luminaries. Then it says there was a big one and a small one. Rashi famously says that the moon couldn't handle sharing the crown with the sun, saying, two kings can't share a crown.  So G-d made the moon smaller. It dawned on me that there's a straightforward explanation that avoids the question of why it says two were big and then one was big and one was small. Maybe they were both big but one was bigger than the other.  Rashi is, perhaps, hinting to a certain kind of psychology.  The moon felt smaller than the sun because in size it looked smaller.  But in terms of importance they were each great.  The result of feeling small was to be small. If we could learn to realize that whatever size we appear to be we are all big in terms of our significance, we will never have to feel small.

Vayeitzei In September

I was reminded today of the  Masei - destinations/travels vort and my dear friend Pinny Bulman's son's bris where I was introduced to the idea. My friend Yitz Pinkus spoke today (i guess because it was a retreat and he felt strongly about this idea and we won't all be together for Parshat VaYeitzei he said it now) about Leah's names for her first three sons were all all about how her husband didn't love her and she wished he would. Her fourth son was named for gratitude; rather than just looking to the future she stopped this time to appreciate where she was and what she'd just received. We're not told about her situation or mindset after that. My friend, the speaker, said that he likes to believe that as Leah came to appreciate what she had, Yaakov did come to love her in a way that made her feel content in that area as well.  My friend spoke about personal/universal things- how our lives are real and happening and we shouldn't mistakenly think that we are  ever  just waiting for our lives to begin and in doing so miss the life we are living. It was a beautiful talk from someone who learned to speak in an articulate and organized manner not from a course of any kind but from simply opening his heart (a lesson for me as a public speaking teacher of many years).

it reminds me a bit (somewhat of a stretch but i feel like sharing this) of what a non religious (formerly frum) exterminator told me on hoshana rabbah as he attacked my roach problem (I love that he told me that it's not me or my apartment, that it's all pretty nice and pretty well kept), I told him that my person who cleans for me would be coming on Thursday and then i told him I'd be away for Yom Tov. He questioned how she was coming and i said she has the key, comes, I trust her - maybe i trust people too much. He then told me (did i mention that he happily and joyfully took up my offer to bentch my lulav and esrog?) that based on Rav Nachman MiBreslov he thinks that what we believe becomes reality.  Rav Nachman says it's about faith and happiness. He applied it to my trust- that because i trust people fully those people become trustworthy.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Hi

I often wonder what to write, what to share, and where.  For now, here, I want to say that I am grateful that G-d is there.  Also, I am grateful for friends, family, students, teachers, guides, connections.  There is so little that I am ready to say here now.  And yet.  I am grateful to anyone who visits here and connects with my words.

A thought: The Talmud says that this world is compared to darkness.  The Mishnah says that this world is like a banquet hall. Which is true? Both. This world is gorgeous, every spec and every second of it.  But the beauty has to be revealed.  Through leading spiritual lives we continuously uncover the grandeur of this world.

Nassa - The Word Is Love - The Jewish Week Edition

Like many people, one of the fondest memories of my childhood is being held in my father’s embrace while I stood under his tallis in shul as the kohanim blessed us. It is befitting that this blessing evokes such warmth as the essence of the blessing is love.

In the rabbinic blessing that the kohanim recite to God before blessing us (it is the only blessing on which a blessing is recited) they state that God commanded them to bless the people with love. Where did God command that? Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni suggests that love is a euphemism for God’s name, as it represents His essence, which is evoked in blessing the people.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook explains that a blessing is only successful if it is offered with love. This is borne out by the roots of this blessing: On the inaugural day of the Mishkan’s use, Aaron was filled with love and joy when he saw that the sacrifices he offered were accepted. His feelings overflowed and he blessed people. God said, in the merit of this initial and spontaneous blessing, Aaron’s descendants earned the merit of blessing the people throughout the generations. It is not a coincidence that Aaron and those who followed him and his ways are described as “loving peace, and chasing after peace, loving mankind and bringing them close to Torah.” The foundation of this blessing is love.

Rabbi Moshe Isserlis ruled that the presiding kohanim must be good hearted. The Magen Avraham cites the Zohar saying that if there is not love from the kohen to the people, and from the people to the kohen, then he should not bless them.

According to Maimonides, the kohanim say a prayer before the blessing, that their blessing be whole and free of sin. A possible pitfall could be if they think that it is they who are actually blessing the people, rather than God. The other flaw that can strike at their blessing is if the kohanim do not feel a complete love for the people they are blessing. A connection that is not deeply bound is not a full connection and cannot endure. The kohanim must truly feel as one with the people that they are blessing or the blessing will not flow forth.

The Jewish people are blessed in the singular, as if one person. In order for the blessing to be received, the people must be connected with one another and not just the kohanim who are procuring a blessing from God for them. This is another meaning of the pre-blessing imperative to bless the people with love. Besides having to bless lovingly, the kohanim pray for the community to be filled with a love that leads them to love each other as one so that the blessing can take hold. It is of interest that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for love — ahavah — and the Hebrew word for one — echad — are the same.

Aside from the blessing prior to the blessing, Maimonides also states that the priests ought to say a prayer following their blessing of the people: “We have done what You have decreed for us to do, now do with us as You have promised; look down from your holy dwelling and bless Your people Israel.”

The two key themes at the base of this command seem to be love and connection on the one hand, and on the other hand the recognition that this blessing comes from God and not from the kohanim. The connection between these two ideas may be that true love is rooted in having a small ego and recognizing the greatness of God and the spirit of God that rests in all people, all created in His image. Another link between these ideas is that the blessing will only come from God when He sees a true connection between His people.

May we merit feeling love for one another always, and particularly at the holy and beautiful time when we hold our children near and receive God’s blessing with love. 

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance and teacher at The Frisch School. He lectures on humor and other Jewish topics, performs stand-up, and is the author of “In The Field,” a collection of haiku. His writing can be found at rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Vayeirah - Al Ma Avda HaAretz?


By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman
       In memory of my dear uncle, Dr. Heiner Hoffman, who passed away last week in New York at the age of ninety three. Dr. Hoffman, twin brother of my late father Joseph Hoffman of blessed memory, was a professor of microbiology at New York University for thirty years. He authored a standard textbook on the topic, as well as many important scientific research papers. Research that he did early in his career led to the development of bacterial rennet, the key element in the production of today’s kosher cheeses. May his memory be a blessing.
   In this week’s parsha, we learn of the destruction of Sodom due to the immorality of its inhabitants. Not only did the inhabitants die, but the land itself was scorched through the rain of sulfur and fire from heaven. The Ramban points out that even though there were nations dwelling outside of Eretz Yisroel who were extremely evil, God did not punish them in such a harsh way. However, because of the lofty spiritual status of Eretz Yisroel, which is God’s palace, this severe level of destruction was rendered upon it. I would like to suggest that there is a particular feature of Eretz Yisroel that the people of Sodom lacked that generated its fate.
   The Talmud in Nedorim (81a), cites a verse in Yirmiyahu (chapter 9) in which God says that the land was destroyed because the Jews abandoned the Torah. The Talmud explains this to mean that they did not recite the blessing over the Torah before learning it. Many commentators are troubled by this because the Talmud in Yoma (9b), gives different reasons for the destruction of the Temple. However, Rav Yaakov Emden, in the introduction to his Siddur commentary, points out that the Talmud here explains why the land itself was destroyed and desolate, not why the Temple was destroyed. The critical importance of the blessing over the Torah, in this context, explained Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, zt”l, is the declaration that God chose us from among the nations and gave us his Torah. When one makes this declaration before learning Torah, he is saying that the Torah is the essence of the Jewish nation and that, through studying it he is connecting to the rest of his people and helping to bring out the Torah's essence in life. When one learns without making this declaration first, his learning is done for himself, not for the benefit of the Jewish People. Eretz Yisroel has a special ability to unite the Jewish people. When Torah study becomes something selfish, that unifying factor is lost and the land is destroyed
   The people of Sodom, as well, were famously concerned only with themselves. The Mishna in Avos says that their approach to life was, “What is mine is mine, and what is your's is your's.” As the Ramban notes, the prophet Yechezkel says that the key sin of Sodom was that they did not support the poor people. The rabbis tell us that they went so far as to legislate this approach to life, making it illegal, on penalty of death, to help the poor and needy. This kind of deportment was directly opposed to the unifying factor of Eretz Yisroel. Since it is God’s palace all of his creations need to be honored. Sodom, failing to do so, was destroyed to the point of its land being scorched, and served as a warning for future generations to develop a sense of unity in Eretz Yisroel.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lech Lecha – Stars and Dust Forever

By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

The Jewish People are compared to stars and sand (Breishit 22:17.)

Some say that the stars represents us at our height and the sand represent us at our low. We have souls and are created in G-d’s image. On the other hand we are earthy beings with physical desires. The images of the stars and the sand serve to remind us of our duality. Great men have suggested carrying two cards in two pockets: one labeled “KEKOCHVEI HASHAMAYIM” and the other marked "KECHOL AL SFAT HAYAM.” They say that the secret is to know when to look at which piece of paper.

Another approach is that while both stars and sand convey one idea of a great number, there is a basic difference between them. The stars shine and stand alone. And while there may be too many to count, you can point to each star individually. On the other hand, grains of sand blend together. It is impossibly difficult to pick out a grain on its own. These are two aspects of being a Jew; we have a potential as part of a nation, also each of us needs to shine alone, our star.

The Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim z"l of Lenshitz, died 1619) notes that there are not two but three similes used for what G-d will make Avraham’s descendants like: stars, sand (Breishit 22:17), and dust (Breishit 28:14). Each one of these conceptions represents a separate message.

The stars represent us in our prime. In Devarim 1:10 Moshe states that G-d increased us like the stars. Rashi comments that this refers to having made us great.

Although sand is often interpreted to represent us at our lowest, the dust actually better serves to symbolize us at our most dishonorable point. Sand really represents our survival against the nations. We endure like the sand, which breaks the waves when the oceans threaten to destroy the earth. As Dovid HaMelech describes, “all the billows (mishbarechah) and waves have passed over me” (Tehillim 42:8) – persecution threatens to destroy us, but like the tide against the shore, it hits us, breaks, and passes. And this is why when Yaakov meets with Eisav after it all, he chooses to evoke specifically the image of “the sand on the river bank.” That metaphor best fit the moment, representing our ability to break the blow of our oppressors.
(The Malbim, also interprets the sand as representing a protecting boundary against destructive forces. He notes that this image is employed in Yirmiyahu 5:22)

Dust represents us when we hit rock bottom. It is from that state that we rise up, call to G-d and return to super strength. This is what it states in Tehillim 44:26 – that we fall to dust and then cry to G-d. This is also what Yaakov was promised, that his descendants would become like dust but then regain power and spread to all corners of the earth.

We all have highs and lows, when we need to remember the other extreme. And we possess the resilience to break the forces that we sometimes fear will drown us. Wise words from Peter Himmelman put it this way:
These eyes do see
that you're nearly free
And if you hang on a little longer
you're going to see it too
j
Some days seem to drag on forever
you need all your strength
just to keep your head together
Soon you'll see things are going to get better at last
j
This too will pass

May we be blessed to remember our blessing, that we are like the stars and the dust and the sand.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Noach: Why G-d Does Miracles In The Least Miraculous Ways


A lot of ideas that are considered basics of Jewish philosophy come from the Ramban on Chumash. One example of this is in this week’s parshathe idea that G-d does miracles in a way that is as close to nature as possible. This explains why even though the only way the ark could only hold all the animals in it was it via a miracle, G-d had Noach build a big ark (though He could have done a bigger miracle by fitting all the animals in an even smaller vessel and not bothered Noach to make a big boat).

A strong question can be raised, why is it such a fundamental fact in Judaism that G-d does miracles within nature? An important lesson here is that we remember that even though large miracles do happen we need to stay close to and live in the natural world.  This relates to the Ramban's fundamental assertion, marshaled at the end of Parshat Bo that the point of big miracles that happen rarely is to remind us that seemingly commonplace natural events are miraculous.

Also relevant is the concept of ein somchin al haneis  - one should not rely on a miracle. By doing a miracle in a way that resembles the natural order of things, G-d is reminding us to live and work in the natural world we inhabit and not sit and wait for supernatural miracles. This also relates to the idea of hishtadlus and bitachon. By doing a miracle as close to nature as possible G-d reminds us that we must make efforts that make sense in the natural world and then we can trust that miracles will come from above.

Additionally, this relates to hakarat hatov - the concept often misunderstood to mean saying thank you, but which really means seeing the good. G-d stays close to nature when he does miracles to remind us to pay attention to the daily miracles we dismiss as merely natural.

G-d acts within nature because that’s where we must live.  This is where we strive to lead holy lives. In this physical world we reach toward connecting with G-d.

The mishnah states that the world stands on 3 things - Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim. The mishnah includes not only the fact that this saying came from Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik but also that he outlived Anshei Knesset HaGedolah.  Why are we told this random biographical fact about Rabbi Shimon?

This seemingly extraneous information is directly connected to Rabbi Shimons's statement. He outlasted the great era of The Men of the Great Assembly and lived on to see less glorious times. He was saying that even though that golden era was gone what was important was on a day in and day out basis to adhere to Torah, prayer, and kindness. That's what keeps the world going.

On a similar note after the chagim, as we complete a full week of school and begin a stretch of such weeks, as we go through the six months till Pesach we need to focus on the holy potential of daily life. We need to remember that G-d’s miracles are embedded in every miraculous moment of our day to day routines.  May we be blessed to see G-d’s close to nature, big miracles.