Friday, December 28, 2007

They Cried

One of the great joys of teaching is learning from my students – “umitalmidai yoteir mikulam.” This year it has been my honor to learn a great deal so far from all my great students in all my classes. What follows is an idea of one of my students that I thought was outstanding.
When Paroh dies the Jews cry out. The question arises, why did they cry out in pain and not celebrate when the king died. Many answers are offered and please think about your own answer before reading further.
Talya Miller suggested that The Jews cried out because they were used to being slaves. When the king died there was a chance for freedom, but what did freedom mean? How would it play out? As Paroh’s servants they were victims, but they also had a set schedule and meals provided. Perhaps they were calling out in pain because they didn’t want to let go of the situation they were stuck in, which was not without its benefits.
This fits with the fact that the Jewish People in the midbar were always yearning to go back to Egypt. They spoke of the food and the comfort. They feared the unknown and longed for what they knew. Perhaps this is foreshadowed in their cry when Paroh died.
The Talmud tells the story of a sick rabbi visited by another rabbi with healing powers. The second rabbi asked the first "is your illness dear to you?" The meaning of this may be that before you can let go of something "bad" you have to decide that you really don't want the benefits it brings. Sometimes things we decry are dearer to us than we readily admit.
G-d sought to take us out of Sivlot Mitzrayim. This is usually translated as the suffering of Egypt. But the word sivlot relates to the word savlanut, which means patience. Part of the problem was that The Jews had gotten used to their situation. We needed to lose our slave mentality and this was no easy task.
May we be blessed in our own lives to not resist freedom, to let go of our suffering. May we be blessed with individual and communal redemption soon. And may we be blessed to cry out in joy rather than sadness when we are released.

Shmot: And A Man Went

Every word of Torah is an available jewel. Let's look at one pasuk. Please think about this sentence: "Vayelech Ish MiBeit Levi Vayikach Et Bot Levi – And a man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi.”

In the craft of writing each item can be described actively or passively, and experts say one should generally go with active phrasing. Why? Being active is more highly considered than passivity. Hakadosh Baruch Hu (The Author) is first of all impressing upon us the fact that this unnamed man was a go-getter. This is clear because the events described here with two verbs could have been described with none. The line could read, "A marriage took place.” Similarly, the Ramban says that the word Vayikach always indicates someone having the gumption to do something new.

That this man was a doer is no surprise, once we're told where he came from. The house of Levi was made famous not by pacifism, rather by their rapid responses to injustice. In his blessing Yaakov warns Levi about tempering their anger. And according to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Yaakov's words allowed for the fact that in difficult times such as those described here, their vigilant approach was positive, even necessary.

You have to wonder why this woman is referred to as "daughter of Levi" considering her advanced age of a hundred and thirty. According to Rashi her youthfulness in every regard is reflected by this image.

The idea that this was a second marriage is deduced from the existence of older children in addition to the baby born soon after this marriage. The Ramban explains that Amram and Yocheved married once, some time before the decree. The previous births are not relevant here, but the birth of Moshe is THE story and therefore mentioned now.

The Ramban addresses why the man and woman are not named; suggesting it’s a literary technique of conserving words. The focus here is the birth of Moshe Rabeinu. Later, we're told more about Moshe as redeemer. Once the plot line is developed Moshe’s entire genealogy is listed.

Rashi tells the story of little Miriam convincing her father that he must immediately remarry her mother rather than caving in to Par'oh's threat.
The Kli Yakar writes that this story is alluded to by the Torah’s carefully chosen words: "Vayelech – he went " should be followed by a geographic location. Due to the absence of a named place, Chapel reframed the definition of "Vayelech" here, based on this word's usage elsewhere, in the context of divorce (Devarim 24:2). That a woman is aptly referred to as the bayit-home is evident from the Gemorah where Rav Yossi states " I've never called my wife my wife, rather have always referred to my wife as my home" - Shabbos 118b). (See “You’re My Home - Billy Joel ad. Loc.) The name Levi is significant, as we know from Leah's naming of the original Levi:" Now my husband will become close with me". Thus, from the words comes the story: the husband separated from his wife with whom he had been intimate, only to return to "bot Levi" the woman with whom he had been close with and would be close with again.

Rabbi Yisoschar Frand explains why these parents are not mentioned by name via a striking statement of the Rambam. The Rambam states that anyone can be a tzadik like Moshe Rabeinu. If the parents were named, we might attribute Moshe's accomplishments to his parents. The mishna in Avot states that one shouldn't assume greatness will come based on lineage because "Aina Yerusha Lach-these things aren't automatically inherited."

Rav Hutner once received a letter from a distraught talmid who was suffering a slump. In his response Rav Hutner thanked him for his uplifting letter, explaining that feeling tension means the battle is half won. He proposes that we mistakenly imagine the Chafetz Chaim coming out of the womb as the inspiration of a nation. Rav Hutner writes that in all likeliness Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan underwent great, unimaginable turmoil towards becoming the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Hutner said that this talmid’s sense of frustration was an indication of his desire to reclaim his potential greatness. The comfort and complacency that sometimes accompany early success can be a curse in disguise, leaving a legacy of comfortable complacency. Perhaps (if we're allowed to say this) Moshe’s early disappointments in confronting both Par'oh and his own nation were necessary pieces of the process of his becoming Moshe Rabeinu.

None of us are born into a vacuum. And we are born in certain times and places for specific reasons. The Eben Ezra posits that Moshe Rabeinu was raised in Par'ohs palace in preparation for his role. There Moshe attained the assertiveness and lack of star-struckedness needed to depose the king of Egypt. Who our parents are can not be minimized as a major in who we become. However, there is also the concept of the crown of Torah's availability to all, and the statement of the Rambam about us all being able to achieve Moshe’s greatness, though often reinterpreted and weakened, must be reckoned with at face value.

May G-d bless us all to become who we're meant to be, through much joy, and with as little pain as possible.

Shmot: Elusive Empathy

“And it was during those days, and Moshe grew up,
and went out to his brothers, and saw in their suffering.”

“I feel your pain.” “I hear you.” “That must be hard.” These are actual attempts we make at empathy. But do people really care? Is it possible to empathize?
Rashi says that Moshe “put his eyes and heart into suffering with them.” The Torah’s words indicate what Rashi is getting at, that Moshe truly put his whole being into the suffering of his brothers. He was aware of current events and did not stay insulated from the reality of his times. He grew from being a child and prepared himself to face the world as an adult. Beyond awareness understanding he actually picked himself up, left his own world and physically visited the situation of his brothers. Then he moved on to truly seeing their pain.
The Medrash says that Moshe put his shoulder under their loads and shared the weight with them. While the help he could offer to a mass of enslaved human beings may have been negligible, the benefit he gained from putting his shoulder next to theirs was inestimable. He felt what they felt; he experienced the muscular soreness, the devestation of spirit.
The rabbis list forty-eight ways through which one integrates Torah into his being. One of these ways of acquiring Torah is to carry the burden of another (“Nosei BeOl Im Chaveiro – Avot 6:6). Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (the spiritual guide -mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. Lived from 1874-1936) points out that Torah means all of Torah. While many might perceive a religious person who is lacking in empathy as deficient in his Torah observance toward other people, it is broader than that. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski puts it, “ Since true empathy and sharing another’s burden is an essential for Torah, one cannot be Torah observant if one is derelict in this trait.”
May we be blessed to truly empathise. G-d knows it’s not easy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vayechi - Yaakov/Yisrael

Rav Chaim Schmuelvitz suggests that the name Yisrael connotes happiness while Yaakov reflects sadness. He says this is clear at the start of VaYechi: “And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Yoseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. And someone informed Yaakov, and said: 'Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you.' And Yisrael strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” (There’s an interesting literary parallelism – first someone tells Yosef something about his father, then his father is told something about him. Wonder what the message is in that little piece of Torah poetry.)
First sad, then reinvigorated; Yaakov then Yisrael. This reminds me of an interview I saw in which Robert Klein was asked if he sees himself or someone else when he watches videos of his old performances. He said that he actually sees different people, not him as he knows himself now. We are all (hopefully) different people during different ages, different moods, different times.

Yaakov was sometimes so sad that he was a different person. And yet he was always forefather and role model. Different states of mind are opportuniteies, not excuses. This is a difficult truth, true nonetheless. Wherever we're at and whoever we are at any moment we are expected to be our best, to do to our best to be close to G-d.

May we be so blessed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Your Blessings Count

Yaakov's blessings makes it clear that he gave special attention to the strengths of each of his children. If Rav Hirsch is correct in suggesting that Yitzchak and Rivka ruined Eisav by trying to squeeze him into a Yaakov shaped box, we can infer that Yaakov responded to this mistake by being super cautious in focusing on the specific needs of each of his offspring. (Such reactions are neither unreasonable nor uncommon. I have a dear friend who's father who is sometimes less careful than he should be with the secrets people entrust him with, while his son is probably the most discreet, trustworthy person I know.)

Some of Yaakov's blessings sound less like blessings than statements of fact. The lesson may be that our greatest blessings are the givens we are given. Yaakov points to the negative in some of his son's personalities, (like violence for Shimon and Levi) indicating that strengths can be a double-edged sword. That which makes us who we are in a positive light will be the flaw that brings us down (G-d forbid) if we are not careful. This fits with Rav Hirsch's observation that had Eisav's inclinations been properly channeled world history would have played out differently.

Yaakov goes out of his way to show his children that everyone has his own strength. Some may receive titles that others don't but no one is insignificant in the eyes of G-d. When Yosef sees that Yaakov seems to have favored Ephrayim over the first born Menashe he is bothered enough to forcibly correct the mistake his father made by switching his hands. Yaakov tells Yosef that he knows what he's doing, and that Ephrayim will be "greater" than Menashe. While Yosef might have feared a repetition of history in the worst way, Yaakov was telling him that that need not be the case.

Parents and teachers know that pretending that everyone is equal is neither fair nor honest, and kids don't buy it anyway. While everyone is equally important, not everyone is blessed with the same gift. We are each talented even though we don't all become famous for our political acumen or other traits that history tends to photograph. Denying the fact that one child stands out in ways that the other does not can foster jealousy rather than prevent it. Parents should strive to teach themselves and then their children that one person may be noticed for a talent that another lacks, but this does not give the first person a right to be haughty, nor does it permit the second person to be resentful. This is difficult master or even to understand at any age.

Perhaps in blessing Ephrayim and Menashe, Yaakov was noting that they were role models because they knew who they were and harbored neither boastfulness nor resentfulness. And in blessing our children to be like Ephrayim and Menashe we are blessing them to be people that accept their place in life, realizing that despite the title or attention attached to their name, they are all holy children of their parents and of G-d. (I find it fascinating that we all know the names Ephrayim and Menashe, and we all know the story of the switching of the hands. But how many of us don't have to remind ourselves as we reread the story which one was really the first born and which one Yaakov gave precedence to?)

The Ari-Zal (Rabbi Isaac Luria 1534-1572) notes that Yaakov called all of his sons together before he blessed them. Calling them together and blessing them publicly served to drive home an important truth. Every son of Yaakov had to remember that just like he had his own unique role, so did each of his brothers. We too have to remember this lesson, that while we are unique so is everyone else.

May we each be blessed to embrace our own blessing with gratefulness and equanimity.

(I am grateful to Phil Chernofsky whose ideas in Torah Tidbits provided the fodder for much of this piece)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Yosef's Plan

Brotherly Help

Giving bread is noble. Giving someone himself is greater than that. Yosef saw a subtle opportunity before him. Beneath providing the brothers with food was Yosef's plan to give them something more. If he had appeared sight unseen in his old home or had he revealed himself when the brothers arrived in Egypt the chance could have been lost forever.

The brothers were living with the unique combination of guilt and denial that allows people to function after they've done something wrong. They knew what they'd done and lived on with the lies they created. Had Yosef confronted them cold, they would probably have been overwhelmed by being so exposed and reacted with irrational, embarrassed attempts to push away the incriminating reality that Yosef represented. And if they did apologize or repent, how could such reconciliation or such repentance be real?

Had he confronted them immediately Yosef and the brothers would have still wondered if they would do the same thing again, given the chance. The question wouldn't go away. But once the brothers were exposed, their self-esteem would never return.

Because he was human what the brothers did to Yosef hurt him. But worse than the hurt was the loneliness. Even being king cannot replace broken familial bonds. Despite his anger, the part of Yosef that missed his family won out. He wondered if there could be reconciliation. Or would the brothers be too ashamed to make up? Would they be able to look him in the eye, to look themselves in the mirror? A potential answer to these questions presented itself when Yosef’s brothers appeared before him. That meeting paved a path to peace.

He insisted that they were spies even after they presented the plausible story of being a family with one brother missing and one left at home. Why doesn't Yosef agree to check out their alibi by letting them bring the youngest brother? The answer is that accusing them of being spies guaranteed that they wouldn't talk to anyone on their journey home. Had he pulled back on the spy angle they could have small talked with an Egyptian at the inn going home (a six-day journey*) and mentioned the viceroy’s demands. Knowing where Yosef came from, an Egyptian could have told the brothers the story of this youngster from Canaan's emergence to power. They would have figured out that this was Yosef and his plan would have been foiled. But the spy allegation guaranteed the brothers’ insulation until the right moment.

Yosef’s plan hinged on the fact that the brothers said that they were a family. He remembered how they had once they lost a certain family member with ostensible ease. When they’d plotted against Yosef, they continuously referred to him as "him." They told their father that "his son" was gone. Yosef hoped to reveal that they now actually cared about losing a brother. He wanted them to show it rather than simply say it. He wanted and needed to see it, and he wanted them to see it for their own sake.

It was a delicate proposition, but Yosef wanted the change in the brothers to emerge holistically. In the end Yosef proved that his brothers cared and had grown into a family. This restoration of self-esteem to the brothers earned placement before even respect for his father. That's why Yosef didn’t go home or send word early on.

May G-d bless us to succeed in giving the gift of self to others and ourselves. May a real sense of brotherhood lead us to personal and national redemption. May the story of Yosef and his brothers inspire us to return to G-d, to each other and ourselves.



The brothers are unable to speak to Yosef. The Beis HaLevi famously says it was embarrassment -that Yosef called them - specifically Yehuda - on their lie, . "You say you care about your father and little brother," he says to them, "but I am Yosef and I wonder is MY father still alive? Remember what you did to him? Your actions contradict your words."

The Beis HaLevi supports his view with the medrash which seems arbitrary in it’s juxtaposition of Yosef’s question to his brothers and the statement G-d will make to us one day. Just as Yosef states "I am Yosef" and then questions the brothers about how genuine they are in their care, G-d will one day announce to our souls, “I am G-d.” And then he will point out – “maasecha sotrim devarecha, your actions contradict your words.”

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger, author of Shemen HaTov suggests and then proves that it wasn’t embarrassment. The brothers were speechless for another reason. They had never recognized Yosef for who he really was. Long before his beard and position disguised his identity, Yosef was a mystery to his brothers. Rather than trust him at his word, or hope he was something they couldn’t understand they made him into something clear. The brothers decided Yosef was a scoundrel, a threat, a potential murderer, a baby, a daddy’s boy (or worse, depending on who you read and how you think).

Who was Yosef really? Yosef was a tzaddik. He was The Tzaddik. He’s the standard, the bar, the paradigm, the only ancestor that holds the title of Tzaddik as the way that we remember him. The brothers didn’t get it for a long time. When they finally got it, they were speechless. Here was the little twerp and he was ruler of Egypt. And what really got them was that he was righteous, G-d fearing. It was clear. He wasn’t just their father’s favorite or the tattletale they took him for. He was a Tzaddik! Who knew? They thought he was such a nebbish. Now they were speechless.

One day we’ll stand before G-d and He won’t have to point out the contradictions between what we say and what we do. He won’t have to. We’ll see G-d’s glory. We’ll understand and we’ll be speechless.

May we be blessed to get it in regard to each other to the best of our ability as soon as we can.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

(Mikeitz) (Out Of Order)

This morning, Jeremy, one of the four kollel members in my school told me an amazing vort that he just heard at a Sheva Brachot from Rabbi David Luchins.

Rabbi Luchins stated that it's known that criminal prison is a late development in world history. It certainly did not exist in biblical times. (Wikipedia confirms that "for most of history, imprisoning has not been a punishment in itself, but rather a way to lock up criminals until corporal or capital punishment.) The question is - why does it seem that Yosef was thrown into jail as a punishment, in the modern sense? Another question is why Yosef in his high position is consistently deferential to the kohanim of Mitzryim.

The medrash says that Potiphar had a quandry - it was word against word. (I once heard Nechama Leibowitz say that "this wasn't te first time he heard a story like this.) He needed a decision, so he went to the priests, who served as judicial advisers. The evidence at hand was a ripped piece off or Yosef's shirt. The kohanim made a simple conclusion, if the rip was in the front this meant that Potiphar's wife was in the right, as was telling everyone within earshot that he attacked her. If the rip was in the back, then his story was supported - that he ran away as she was trying to seduce him.

Of course the rip was in the back but Potiphar was now stuck, because how could he discredit the words his wife said. So the Kohanim suggested that he put Yosef aside in the holding pen, till something was figured out. And his life was spared, and then he fell between the cracks and ended up being forgotten there for a long time. Yosef was forever grateful to the Egyptian priests who saved his life. (The two officers were clearly put there only as an interim thing while it was decided if they'd each live or die.)

The Chidushei HaRim says that we will all ascend and be judged one day. And we will come before G-d with our torn shirt. And we will claim that the rip is in the back because we were running away. But G-d will know the truth and the evidence will be clear.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Three Metaphors, One Lesson

1) A tapestry of knots and loose ends seems a waste of yarn. But turn it over and you find a beautiful picture, realizing in embarrassment you were viewing the wrong side of the picture.

2) Someone never saw bread and then witnessed the baking process from it's earliest stages. He doesn't understand why someone buries a perfect seed, chops down the lovely plant that sprouts, picks out grains to smash, throws a mixture of grain and water to a fiery destruction in a furnace. The baking bread's scent causes the man's mouth to water. And as this fellow enjoys a slice of hot bread with butter, all the preliminary stages finally make sense.

3) Ten brothers travel far during famine to get food for the family. They encounter the Secretary of Agriculture, the most powerful man in a country, and things start spiraling downward. Mishaps escalate into impending tragedy; they are arrested as spies, one is taken hostage, their baby brother is summoned and accused of stealing, and that's just part of it. They wonder why this is happening as they ineffectively spin wheels, helplessly handling the situation. All of this changes with two spoken words. This leader tells them who he is, and the puzzle is solved. Joseph's brothers see with clarity endemic of hindsight the sense in all they endured in Egypt.

The Chafetz Chaim presents the story of Yosef and his brothers as a powerful parable for our lives. Sometimes the details of life can border on unbearable. We look at what we're told is beautiful to see only loose ends and question marks. We witness seemingly senseless cutting down of our precious efforts. One day we will retrospectively understand. And there will be no need for explanatory speeches. We will hear the two words"Ani Hashem" spoken directly to us, and everything will make sense. May we be blessed to hear these words even now to whatever extent possible.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Everyone asks what Yosef is doing to the brothers. It seems best understood as a plan of growth. Some say he was helping them do teshuva. Phrased more broadly, he was helping them become the best human beings they could be. He was placing them in a similar situation to the one they had mishandled when he was at the center of it. Now with Binyamin in the middle they get it right. This is but one of myriad examples of how to view the Torah as a guide book for growth.

One of the fascinating aspects of Torah for me is the fact that it is so layered. People are always asking if Medrashim are to be taken literally or not. For me, for now, they simply are. They're a part of the picture. And like any good story, midrashim are true, whether they happened or not.

The medrash adds a fascinating subtext to the story of Yosef and the brothers. When the Torah he states that "his father wept for him" - the medrash adds that (although in literal context this seems to refer to Yaakov crying for Yosef) this refers to Yitzchak's crying for Yaakov.

Yitzchak did not cry for Yosef because he knew prophetically that Yosef was alive. But he cried for Yaakv, feeling his pain. And why didn't he tell Yaakov what he knew? It seems that unless you're told to tell someone something you're told, you're not supposed to. (This is the true meaning of G-d telling Moshe LAIMOR - he tells him when he should pass words on, and otherwise he understood not to.) (This also explains why Rivka didn't tell Yitzchak what she knew about Yaakov and Eisav.)

Rabbi Abraham Twerski (a master of modern day mussar teaching, and my hero) writes (in living each day on Miketz) this idea. And he stresses that the lesson of this is how careful we should be with our own speech. Yitzchak would have loved to tell Yaakov what he knew but he never spoke without thinking first, and his thinking told him that it was not proper to share what he knew.

At the very start of the parsha we're told of Paroh's dream. There seem to be extra words - the sick alves come out of the Nile and stand NEXT TO TH HEALTHY ONES. Rabbi Twersky comments that the seemingly extra words teach a crucial life lesson. If the sick cows weren't i close proximity to the healthy cows, the healthy cows couldn't have been effected. The lesson is that many of us get too close for comfort to negative influences. And then when the sickness spreads we wonder. He says that we need to learn mussar and live mussar and try our best to protect ourselves from surrounding negative influences that threaten to invade at any time. He speaks of drugs as an example of something that was once peripheral to mainstream society, but somehow it got close, and now it's penetrated into every community.

Friday, November 30, 2007

VaYeishev - Loose Ends

Aviva Zorenberg writes of how Yaakov's life is an elaborate, turbulent process. Eisav's was a smoother but less meaningful life. This is why Eisav's progeny is listed so quickly with no elaboration. But the road to a meaningful life is covered with bumps. She suggests that Yaakov was hoping that, despite the fuzzy math, the years of suffering that were foretold to Avraham had ended with all the intense personal suffering Yaakov had gone through. But he was told that it was just about to begin with Yosef - and that was the way it had to be.

Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky points out that a ketonet appears by Adam and Chavah and the Kohein as well as by Yosef. This fits with the idea that Yosef was helping the brother's acheive teshuva. Thus, the common thread in these three different contexts is teshuva.

He also points out that the brothers at first thought that just like their father was entitled to trickery that wasn't really trickery in order to keep the birthright in the correct hands, so too they had a right to protect themselves from Yosef. Interesting.

VaYeishev 2

Familiar Ring of Four Cups
By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann
“Pharaoh's cup was in my hand.
I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh's cup.
Then I placed the cup in Pharaoh's hand.'
Joseph said to him, 'This is the interpretation:
The three branches are three days. In three days,
Pharaoh will lift your head and give you back your position.
You will place Pharaoh's cup in his hand,
just as you did before, when you were his steward.”
- Breishit 40:11-13
The Medrash Rabah (88:5) says that based on here The Rabbis set up drinking four cups of wine on Pesach in correspondence with the four cups mentioned here.
The Kli Yakar cites Tehillim116:13 – which mentions lifting up a cup of salvation – kos yeshuot essa, as clearly illustrating the idea that a cup of wine is an appropriate manner of noting salvation. He also refers to Yirmiyahu 15:2 – “Says G-d – who to the sword - to the sword, who to death - to death, who to famine - to famine, who to incarceration – to incarceration.” In Bava Batra, Rabi Yochanan explains this line from Yirmiyahu, telling us that “whichever comes later in this line is harsher than the one before it.” This means that one who is imprisoned is harshest because his captor can stab or kill or starve him as well as any other torture he wishes to inflict on the prisoner. Thus anyone who emerges from a dungeon of captivity should raise up four cups of salvation as he was saved from four subjugations.
The Sar HaMashkim was shown in his dream that he would be saved from these four evils and the word Kos is related four times in his story to indicate that it would be appropriate for him to drink four cups of salvation. The rabbis connect to here the idea that on Pesach we are obligated to drink four cups because we were also incarcerated in Egypt and that includes being saved from four subjugations..
Rabbi Zev Frank in his Toratchah Shaashuai cites this pasuk – “He restored the chief steward to his position, and allowed him to place the cup in Pharaoh's hand.” Breishit 40:21. He suggests that this alludes to the future fifth cup of salvation.
May we each be blessed to lift up many cups of salvation in our lives and to experience the ultimate redemption speedily in our days.


All In The Family
By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

The Family Systems psychological approach can be summed up in the words of one of its leading practitioners: "there are no such things as individuals, only fragments of families." Family can't be escaped from. That's the way the world is and it seems that's the way that it’s supposed to be.

Joy is ubiquitous in families. And so is pain. But pain is so much a part of the picture that without it the thing would be devalued to the point of worthlessness, like a coin that's smooth on one side.

Rashi tells us at a certain point Yaakov wants to rest in peace on earth. G-d says that it should be enough to rest in Olam HaBa, because peace in this world is elusive for a tzadik. And then comes the story of Yosef.

The Gemora addresses a pasuk (Yishayahu 29:22) that seems to state that Yaakov saved(was podeh) Avraham. The Gemorah asks when and how Yaakov redeemed his grandfather.The Gemora explains that Yaakov spared Avraham from tzaar gidul banim – the difficulty of raising children. Rashi explains this to mean that by raising twelve children Yaakov saved Avraham and Yitzchak from that pain. Tosafot disagrees and says that the normal difficulties of raising children are not referred to as pain but as joy(ein zu tzaar elah simcha). Tosafot says that the tzaar referred to here is the strife between Yosef and his brothers.

According to Tosafot difficulties in raising a family are considered normal. Even sibling rivalry is an appropriate part of life. Avraham and Yitzchak were spared from the extremes of the Yosef incident. But let's not forget that they each had strife between their own children. They were no strangers to pain within their family life.

Is it a coincidence that the lesson of "Bikesh Yaakov Leisheiv BeShalva" is taught in the context of familial turbulence? Perhaps the Torah is teaching us here that in striving to be a tzadik and yearning for peace we shouldn’t idealize family life to the extent that we exclude from our realities pain in this setting. It's part of the package for all of us.

The next time we look at friends and assume their family life to be the Osmands or the Bradies, we should remind ourselves that those families were not as perfect as they seemed. And we shouldn't over idealize even the family life of Yaakov
because G-d showed him that the pain was supposed to be there.

May G-d bless us with as much peace as we're allowed to have and as much growth as possible. And may it all happen in as pleasant a way as possible.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

VaYishlach - Michael Levy

I really appreciated the Dvar Torah below and have chosen to present it here as a guest piece, verbatim. While I am trying to keep this blog as purely parsha (and the piece that fits is on parsha), I need to stray a bit from protocal and introduce the author.
I have a strong memory of visiting my parents' (tslabw) in their home and picking up a copy of Mens' Health, which I later hijacked (ie. borrowed) (later lost). As I did with the Forbes Magazines - that I picked up as a kid and scoured for something I connected with until happily happening upon Thoughts On The Business Of Life on the last page - I looked through Men's Health for a personal piece that would grab my heart. I found a story written by Michael Levy accompanied by a drawing (painting?) of the bike ride described in the story that hit me hard - in a good way. The name rang a bell, he sounded familiar from overlapping circles, but I wasn't sure.
Some time later my dear friend Mark Heilman started speaking of his dear friends Michael and Levy. Then I visited Mark and we enjoyed a wonderful meal with them on one occasion (maybe more). And I have a fond memory of sitting next to Michael at a Linclon Square Shaloshudes and telling him about how much that Men's Health Piece meant to me. I googled and found a piece by Michael on Aish HaTorah's website. It seems to be that same story from Men's Health. Please find and enjoy it here.
And now please read on enjoy Michael's insights on VaYishlach.
Go Figure
Torah Portion Vayishlach
By Rabbi Michael Levy

The child within me complains: “The world contains too much uncertainty! You don't know how new acquaintances will treat you! You study hard, but you don't always do well on tests! And you might FAIL!!! It's scary!”

This child LOVES numbers. In numbers there is certainty.

A math problem always has one right answer. The solution to the rate-time-distance puzzler about the two trains on the Bad Creek Express will be the same when the next generation tackles the problem.

I can understand, and not just intellectually, why people are drawn to numbers in the Torah. To the certainty in numbers is added the dimension of Divine Revelation. The World Wide Web is full of speculations about hidden numerical references—from Osama Bin Ladin to the end of days.

Our sages understood that Torah numbers could not magically bring certainty to an unpredictable world. Yet, if God saw fit to set down numbers for generations to peruse, there is something to be learned from them.

Vayishlach, this week's Torah portion, contains one of my favorite lessons from numbers.” After twenty years, Jacob is preparing to encounter his brother Esau who (when we last heard from him) had the death of Jacob high on his agenda. Before the brothers meet, Jacob tries to appease Esau with round upon round of gifts.

One of the gifts Jacob sends his brother is a combination of male and female goats and a combination of male and female sheep (Genesis 32, 15.) . Each combination totals 220. Could it be more than livestock inventory?

Sure enough, our sages (some attribute the commentary to Rav Nachshon Gaon, who lived in the 9th century,) remind us that 220 is one of a pair of digits called the amicable numbers. The other number is 284.

All the factors of 220 (other than itself) add up to 284. All the factors of 284 (other than itself) add up to 220.

Through numbers, Jacob conveys a message of reconciliation to Esau. Perhaps the Torah is teaching us something about "angry" and "amicable."”

IN gematria, which assigns a numerical value to each Hebrew letter, 220 equals the Hebrew letters Resh Chaf. These letters spell Rach, meaning "soft," or "tender."

Proverbs 15, 1 teaches us that "ma-aneh Rach yashiv cheimah," "a soft answer turneth away wrath," as the popular English translation renders it. Jacob, in his 220 "Rach" soft overture to Esau was in effect saying "I DID wrong you by deceiving our father and taking the blessing that was designated for you-take my gifts as an apology.”

David Burns in his book "Feeling Good, the New Mood Therapy," states that an effective way to deal with another person's anger is to find some basis for agreement with him. If he says "You're a piece of garbage," and you reply "you know, sometimes I feel like a piece of garbage," how can he come up with an angry reply?

The second part of Proverbs 15, 1 states "udvar etsev ya-aleh AF,"--a response causing another pain will make rage rise." The numerical value of etsev--pain, is 162. The numerical value of AF--rage, is 81. 81 times 2 is 162.. If you respond to another's anger by saying something that will cause him pain, he will likely become twice as angry as he was before.

Should we try to appease Esau in his embodiment as the nations of the world who struggle to defeat Klal Yisrael? I leave that to the Web speculators. I'm still fighting my battles in the arena of anger and reconciliation, trying -at least concerning the lesson of 220 - to live by the numbers.
Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

VaYishlach - Falling Up

Shlomo HaMelech wrote "Sheva Yipol Tzaddik Vekam" - "A tzaddik falls seven times, and rises" (Mishlei 24:16). All fall, a tzaddik falls repeatedly and still rises.

Rav Yitzchzk Hutner suggests that rather than being a tzaddik despite falling down, a tzaddik is a tzaddik because of the times he falls and rises. In a letter to a student experiencing hard times, Rav Hutner developed the idea that achieving greatness is a process of overcoming and moving on. He explained that while we imagine righteous people being born righteous, it is more likely that they struggled greatly to become great.

"Ma'ayan Nirpas U'Makor Mashchat: Tzaddik Mat Lifnei Rasha"-"A righteous man falling down before the wicked: like a muddled fountain, a polluted spring" (Mishlei 28:26). Rabeinu Bachai cites this pasuk as ancillary to "Sheva Yipol Tzadik Vekam". A tzadik stumbles through encounters with reshaim. Just as a sullied spring re-invigorates and returns to its previous purity, so too a tzaddik collapses into the hands of a rasha but soon regains his glory.

Rabeinu Bachai offers these lines from Mishlei as an introduction to Parshat VaYishlach, and applies them to Ya'akov Avinu. Yaakov was temporarily humbled before Eisav; he showered him with gifts called him his master. In the end, Ya'akov departed unscathed from his encounter with Eisav.

The Sfat Emet notes that Ya'akov bowed before Eisav seven times (Breishit 33:3), an allusion to "Sheva Yipol Tzaddik Vekam". Using Rav Hutner's sense of the pasuk this means that Ya'akov not only fell and rose before Eisav, but the falling was part of his rising. This can be applied to all of the rough times Ya'akov went through.

In Ya'akov's lifetime as in seasonal cycles, Fall foreshadowed Spring. In the lives of individual Jewish people as in the life of The Jewish People, we fall to rise again. The road to Geula is paved with Galus, as our own personal exiles are roads to redemption.

May we merit soon to see redemption for ourselves, our families, for all of Klal Yisrael, and for the entire world.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

VaYeitzie - Yamim Achadim

Yaakov worked for Rochel for seven years. And the Torah tells us that these years were like a few days in his eyes. Why did it seem like a short amount of time, if he loved her so much? Shouldn’t it have seemed like a very long time?

Here are several answers to the question. They are listed in order of preference from my least to most favorite.

1. A man from a religious Zionist kibbutz suggested that when the pasuk says that it seemed like days because he loved her, the love refers to work, rather than to Rochel. When you love your work, time flies.

2. The most famous answer is that Yaakov was focused on spiritual matters. He wanted to marry Rochel because of his spiritual vision and was patient due to perspective. Impatience comes when we await something in a material manner.

3. The Alshich notes that the Torah doesn’t state when it seemed like a short time in his eyes. He explains that it wasn’t while it was going on, but it was right after he married Rochel that it all seemed worth it, looking back. Anyone who has waited for something and finally gotten it knows the wisdom of this explanation.

4. Rabbi Abraham Twerski notes that it says that these days were in his eyes as “Yamim Achadim”. This does not translate as “few days” but as “individual days”. The way Yaakov got through it was by taking it one day at a time.

VaYeitei Too

When Yaakov sends word that he's arrived he refers to himself as Lavan's brother. Rashi explains that while he wasn't Lavan's brother (but his nephew) he's making a point. He's telling Lavan that he's willing to go round for round with him, to meet him in his own game. This touched me. It seemed to be a continuation of the ability to play with the bad boys that he had to develop in his dealing with Eisav.
Here's a poem I wrote on this topic:
When others are difficult you have to walk their mile
Not let them push you down and then just smile
Yaakov told Lavan I will be tricky too
If you mess with me I'll mess with you
To become who he was Yaakov learned to deal
With people who surreptitiously lie and steal
We too must be realistic and also suspect
While still treating others with proper respect.

VaYeitzei (VaYeileich)

Instead of simply stating one or the other, we are told that Yaakov both left Be'er Sheva and that he went towards Charan. The Beis HaLeivi points out that sometimes you leave a place to get away from there, other times you have to go somewhere and the only way to get there is by leaving the place you're in. Here, Ya'akov needed both to leave and to go. He was fulfilling the mitzva of kibud av va'eim, with each of these actions.

A friend of mine once chastised me for always thinking that a practical, moral lesson must be gleaned from Divrei Torah. Well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. So what is the lesson of this observation about VaYeitzei and VaYeileich?

In life you often win while losing at the same time. It's better if you can win and win. But is that possible? Yaakov won doubly by the effects of his actions and sometimes we can too.

The mishna in Avot says "Hevei goleh limkom Torah" - "Exile yourself to a place of Torah". There are two halves here. There's Hevei goleh, and there's Limkom Torah. Getting away from bad influences is one half while going to a positive place is the other required piece if we seek spiritual success. For example, the practice of going to Israel to learn is for some a fulfilment of getting away from bad and immersing in good, of "Hevei goleh limkom Torah".

On a broader scale there is the concept of "sur meirah va'asei tov", "keep away from bad and do good" (as put by David HaMelech). As much as possible in all we do we should be separating our selves from the negative roadblocks in life and soaking in the positive influences hiding everywhere.

May G-d bless us with success in emulating Yaakov our father and effectively departing and going at the same time.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Toldot 1

Toldot reads like a Divine essay on family systems as it chronicles wide-ranging aspects of building a household. The parsha covers infertility, coalitions, favoritism, and sibling rivalry. It provides a study of early child rearing which includes the challenges of recognizing personality types and building on strengths.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that Parshat Toldot includes insights on how being a son or daughter impacts a person's life. The word toldot is pregnant with implications. Rashi translates it as offspring, while Sforno says toldot means story. These are related, as one way or another a person's story is his offspring.

Curiously, the parsha's opening statement, "And these are the toldot of Yitzchak", is followed by neither a list of Yitzchak's children, nor by a story about Yitzchak. The second half of the sentence, "Avraham gave birth to (holeed et) Yitzchak", doesn't even sound like it's about Yitzchak.

The first sentence of Toldot teaches us that a person's story, a person’s children, can only be understood if you know who birthed him. Upon reaching the age of responsibility an individual becomes obligated to keep Torah and Mitzvot. This is known as a bar or bat mitzvah. Similarly, upstanding young Jewish men and women are called bnei and bnot Torah. This association of the image of being a son or daughter in the context of observance of mitzvot is striking.

On the other hand, one who commits an aveira is called a baal or baalat aveira; a master of sin. The message seems to be that in the realm of mitzvot we must remember that we are someone's son or daughter. However, when we miss the mark of what is right we must own our actions and not blame our parents for what is ours.

While some may feel inclined to blame mothers or fathers for all that is difficult in life while crediting themselves with success and growth, the opposite approach is the appropriate one. Intertwined throughout Parshat Toldot and foreshadowed in the opening pasuk is the idea that parents and children are deeply connected. The good in children is a positive reflection on parents, and by logical extension on grandparents. The negative actions of offspring, however, are their own responsibility.

Yaakov and Eisav were the children of Yitzchak and the grandchildren of Avraham in terms of potential and actual goodness. When they reached the responsible hour of their Bar Mitzvahs THEY chose who they wanted to be, one going to hunt in fields, the other staying in to learn. And they were held accountable for the consequences of those decisions. We are all someone's son or daughter and our actions reflect on our lineage. We must remember that what our parents did was the best they could. It is up to us to own and try to correct our imperfections. May we be blessed with continued growth as we tweak the good work our parents began.

I wrote this several years ago in honor of my nephew's bar mitzvah. May the Torah he is presently learning in the Old City of Jerusalem be a merit and inspiration for his wonderful parents and grandparents who set him on the right path.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chayei Sarah 2

Existential Angst

The Medrash, cited by Rashi, explains the connection between the end of VaYeira and the start of Chayei Sarah: The Satan appeared to Sarah and told her that Avraham brought Yitzchak to be sacrificed. Before he reached the story's end, she died of shock. There is another, lesser-known version of the same Medrash: In this version Yitzchak himself comes and tells Sarah what happened, and she dies from the shock.

According to the second version, in which Yitzchak himself appears before Sarah, we must analyze what it was that caused Sarah to be fatally shocked. Aviva Zornberg suggests that according to this account of the Medrash, what affected Sarah so deeply was her sudden confrontation with a stark realization of the fragility of all of our lives. In this telling of the tale, Sarah realizes that "were it not for the angel", Yitzchak would have been killed. According to this approach, the connection between Akeidat Yitzchak and the death of Sarah is the precariousness of life. Yitzchak's almost being slaughtered overwhelmed Sarah with such an unbearable existential angst that it took her life.

Today we all know of other human beings that were here one second and gone the next. Deep down, we also all know that every second WE breathe could be our last one. A lesson of the Akeida is the message that the physical world in which we exist is temporal in nature. Yitzchak's near death experience, that so shocked Sarah, serves as a reminder to us that we lack ultimate control over our lives. May we all be blessed to utilize our awareness of the delicate nature of life as a motivation to do teshuva and to constantly grow in our closeness to G-d.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chayei Sarah: Our Ma’arat HaMachpeilah

Following high school, while in Israel, I stayed in touch with one of my teachers and I recall the Aerogramme I received from him. He stressed the importance of visiting the holy sites of Israel as holy sites, not as tourist attractions. He encouraged me to glean from these places the holiness they offered. He mentioned the Kotel and Ma'arat HaMachpeilah as examples of holy places with reservoirs of holiness to tap. It was timeless, sound advice and it came back to me as I turned to this week's pasha, which describes the acquisition of the Ma'arat HaMachpeilah. The following ideas are based on the work Wellsprings of Faith by Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.

Yerushalayim and Chevron are separate and distinct places of prayer that serve as spiritual centers of the Jewish People. They were each established as holy places by Avraham and are forever linked with the Avot: Yerushalayim was set as a holy place after Akeidat Yitzchak and Chevron was bought and established as the holy burial ground for the Avot and Imahot. Yerushalayim is open, situated on a mountain; all about seeing and being seen. Chevron, in contast, is concealed and underground. Yerushalayim is about open revelation, Chevron is about hidden faith.

On the one hand, the hidden aspect of Chevron makes it seem inferior to Yerushalayim, but Chevron actually claims a semblance of superiority. That which is hidden can not be destroyed. In fact, while the city of Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash have been decimated, Chevron has never been destroyed.

Every individual is a microcosm of the world. Everything that exists in the world is mirrored inside us. Just as there is a Ma'arat HaMachpeilah in the world, there is a Ma'arat HaMachpeilah inside the heart of every Jew. Deep inside us is a place that contains the holiness of the Avot and connects us with them. When we mention their merit in our prayers we are not merely eliciting a vague, old memory, but we are connecting with an essence presently residing within us.

When one stands in Chevron he or she doesn't readily see the grave sites of our forefathers. Even at the entrance of Ma'arat HaMachpeilah no view of the graves is available. The Avot are buried deep within our physical world in an unusual way in which they are there but hard to find. Similarly, the spiritual essence of the Avot is buried so deeply inside of every Jew that it is sometimes almost undetectable. The essence of our forefathers, the pillars of our faith rests in our core. As Rabbi Wolfson puts it: "It is hidden far beneath the thoughts and feelings that flicker across the face of our being, shifting like the winds and changing like the weather. It is hidden beneath the persistent patterns of personality."

May the reading of this parsha serve to remind us of the faithful message of the Ma'arat HaMachpeilah. May we be blessed to tap into the deep faith of our fathers which lives inside our souls. And may we all be blessed to be in Israel soon and tap into the holiness of the land, in places like Yerushalayim and Chevron.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Thursday, October 25, 2007


This parsha begins in what seems to be a regular way but with a twist. We are told that G-d appeared to Avraham, but we are not told the reason why - no prophecy, no command. Rashi says G-d appeared for the purpose of visiting the sick. The Ramban builds on this. The deeper meaning here is that G-d showed favor to Avraham, following Avraham’s performance of Brit Milah, by resting His presence upon him.

The Ramban cites examples where a person’s high spiritual achievement earns them a visit from G-d. This happened after the constructing of the Mishkan, and at the Yam Suf to the entire Jewish nation. This occurred to Yaakov in his dream about angels. It is a gift from G-d when He visits without a reason, just to be with us. We may learn from this that a great gift we can each give each other is to visit and be with one another without words conveyed.


There is a contrast in this parsha between those who fear G-d and those who don’t. Avraham tells Avimelech that there is no fear of G-d in his place and that without that a man could readily kill another. Later, the spot of the Akeida is marked as a place of fear of G-d. It is called The Place That G-d Will Show. There is a connection between the word for seeing and the word for fearing. When you see clearly, you come to fear G-d. Avraham who truly feared G-d asks G-d not to kill Sedom’s tzadikim along with the reshaim. Avimelech co-opts these words and uses them selfishly to save himself alone. Avimelech’s name means “my father was king. Avraham’s name means “kings will come from you.” These two men had a different vision and a different approach.

Lot, similarly misses the mark of fear of G-d. he tries to be like Avraham. But he chooses materialism over spirituality. He uses language similar to Avraham’s but in a warped way. They both address why the angels visited them, but Lot misses the mark.
(Adapted from the original thoughts of Rabbi Yitzchak Twerski)


After the Akeida G-d says, “Now I know that you fear G-d.” But wasn’t it clear that Avraham feared G-d before this? The point here (as the Netziv sees it) is that as much as Avraham feared G-d, his calling card was love of G-d. Given the command to kill their son most people would fall back on their closeness with G-d and ask for a reprieve. But Avraham proved that he was balanced that his love of G-d did not over ride his fear. Perhaps (as my student Ariel Sandor suggested) this explains why an angel speaks to Avraham at the end of this story and not G-d Himself. This stresses the idea of distance that must be balanced alongside closeness and love.

Stars and Dust Forever


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

Some say that the sand represents us at our height and the stars 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 it’s 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.

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
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
This too will pass

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

The Vayeira Symphony

Remembering Nechama

Years ago (when life seemed to move slower) I spent five years in Israel. I was blessed to be in Nechama Leibowitz’s class during that time, and more than the scholarship what I hope I’ll never forget is Nechama's humanity. Nechama used anecdotes, one of which applies to Vayeira.

On a hot summer day two men wait an inordinate time wait at a bus stop. One turns to the next and says, “Sure is hot, isn't’t it?” If the second guy responds, “yes” then he hasn’t done right. The translation of the first man’s words is – let’s talk. To misunderstand that is a social crime. Her point was that when learning Torah we must recognize that direct translation betrays true meaning which hides in the subtext. The way she made the point was so human that the story became a thing itself.

I don't recall the context in which she told this next one, but I remember the story. Nechama was standing at an outside Chupa and next to her were two little girls. She overheard as one explained to the other what a wedding was all about: "Exactly nine months from tonight they will have a baby!" she explained, as if it was that simple.

Yaakov asked to be saved from being killed, also to be saved from killing. Nechama told of a student that visited her after his army service. He was different, she could tell. After a while he told her what changed. He'd killed a man and would never be the same. He was in a tank and an enemy tank approached. He thought, how can I kill? And then - if I don't kill, I'll be killed. All this, in a split second. And he killed a man.

Pursuant to this week's parsha I remember Nechama telling of a man who loved symphonies. She described a unique opportunity the man had to hear a live performance of a symphony orchestra in his apartment: The concert begins and the doorbell rings. Realizing it may be someone in need the man goes to the door, abandoning his beloved music. It's his neighbor. He wants to borrow a cup of sugar. The man happily fetches the sugar and wishes his acquaintance well. He sits back down with his symphony and the bell rings once more. His neighbor wants to know, if it's not too much trouble, if he could spare two eggs. No problem. He gets the eggs. He gives the guy the eggs. He sits back down and the needy fellow is at the door again. This keeps happening. With a smile, our hero provides the man with what he wants each time. He doesn't get to hear the symphony because he put helping another human being over his greatest personal pleasure of the symphony.

Nechama used this anecdote to explain the extraordinary greatness of Avraham. His symphony was G-d, and it was playing in his home. And he let go of his pleasure, G-d's visit, to take in hungry, tired travelers. The Medrash comments "Gadol Hachnasat Orchim MaiKabalat Penai HaShechina" - "Taking in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence." I like the way Nechama said it with a story.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Vayeira - Laughter

Lech lecha and Vayeira contain two similar reactions to the news that Avraham and Sarah would have a child. Regarding Vayeira everyone notices when Sarah laughs, including G-d. Avraham's laughter seems somehow overlooked.

Conventional wisdom, based on Rashi (I first heard this from Rabbi Chaim Bravender), suggests there are two types of laughter. When you see someone saunter by with a flower growing from his head you laugh (Rabbi Bravender's illustration) because it’s incongruous. If someone tells you that they are going to accomplish a reasonable task - and you laugh, you're implying that they can't do it.

Sarah laughed in mockery, rhetorically asking if G-d could give her a child. Avraham laughed as one laughs at jokes involving fancy suits and banana peels. One could argue that this distinction is or is not implied by the text. Whether or not this is THE pshat, there is a lesson to be learned within this approach.

Laughter can be spiritual. If we notice things as they catch us by surprise, laughter can free us to move on. Laughter can bring joy, a holy, urgent thing. If we laugh at people, we damage our souls, their souls, and the soul of the world. Sarah may have been punished for her cynicism.
This episode speaks loudly in our times. We laugh too often in mocking ways.

In a related note, at the event that marked the release of Aron Bulman's Man In A Room With A Tallis On, Aaron's son Meir brought up Sarah's laughter. Meir said that it's rare to be able to point to an exact second when a dream comes true. Together, that day we all shared the moment of Aaron's dream of publishing a book of poetry coming true - posthumously. This brought to Meir's mind, the question of why Sarah was punished for laughing at a crazy notion. She was a woman beyond the age of childbirth. Strangers approached her and said she'd have a baby. Imagine (Meir suggested) that a homeless guy in Grand Central Station tells you that a lifelong dream of yours is going to come true. The thing is he said, is that if you never gave up on your dream, then you'd smile when you heard the idea. And you'd top the smile with something like - "From your mouth to G-d's ears." Avraham laughed a joyful laugh as he recaptured his dream. Sarah had sadly let her dream go.

May we be blessed to laugh as Avraham did, in joy. May we blessed to always hold on to our dreams. And may we be continuously blessed with happy surprises from G-d.

Friday, October 19, 2007

All My Life's A Circle

Parshat Lech Lecha reminds me of social work school. As the ba’al koreih starts to reads my mind drifts back to my Wurtzweiler years. Read on to find out what Lech Lechah has to do with social work.

Every student’s question on our first day of class was “how is social work different than psychology?” - a sensible thing to ask for a class full of therapist wannabes. Here’s what Dr. Beder told us: social work is more about looking at the whole person. Looking at the whole person means seeing strengths and considering environment rather than focusing on pathology. This holistic view distinguishes social work from other disciplines.

I grew to love social work and became interested in the ecological approach, which emphasizes the worlds that surround an individual, like circles drawn around them. It is the importance that social work attributes to environment that brought social work close to my heart. Sometimes these worlds are concentric, sometimes they branch out of one another, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they seem to stand alone. A child grows up in a home, which is in a community in a city in a country in a planet. Within the community there is school, and shul, and karate that all branch out of community but may not interface with one another. Within shul there is prayer, and friends, and family.

Every person lives in a variety of circles. The teacher was vague regarding our first assignment. She said that we had to write about what it meant to be a person. We were to focus on one character of a book and on ourselves. And we were to glean from what we had learned in class and in the field.

I chose to write about Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. What jumped out at me from the book was the appearance of different worlds. Francie lives in many worlds: one world in the library, another on her porch, one in school, another at home. And even within her home various relationships stand alone. Francie’s father Johnny lives in different worlds too. The reality of different worlds is driven home after Johnny Nolan dies. When Francie goes to his barbershop to pick up his shaving cup, the barber tells her that her father was a good man. At this moment, Johnny’s worlds of friends and family touch for the first time.

I think a lot about the circles around me, these worlds that I live in. As I work on myself, I remember my environments. Being an American, born and bred in Queens, growing up on 225th street, attending yeshiva day schools, learning in Israel, Getting Semicha from YU, working in Frisch, reading poetry at Makor, performing at Park East Synagogue, typing these emails at my table – all of these worlds are relevant to the question of me. In order to grow, I must look at my worlds and see how they’ve effected me.

Avraham was told to go to the land of G-d. The land is described as land that G-d would show him. But this can also be read to mean the land in which G-d would show Himself to him. Avraham is told that he must leave country, birthplace, and father’s home to get to this land. For a physical trip this order would not make sense, it would be backwards. But in light of the ecological approach to social work the meaning is clear. Avraham was told to work his way through the concentric circles that influenced him in life. He had to travel through the worlds that enveloped him.

The world that most tightly wraps itself around us is the world of family. Our place of birth effects us as well. And finally, we are all affected by our country’s general environment. G-d advises Avraham to deal with these influences in order – from that which affected him least strongly to that which affected him the most. Only after sifting through these worlds could he arrive at the land of G-d. And only then could he fulfil the deep literal imperative of "Lech lecha," traveling to himself.

May we all be so blessed
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Achim Anachnu

"If you go to the left I’ll go to the right, and if you go to the right I’ll go to the left” - famous words of separation, famous words that needed to be said regarding separation that had to be made. That’s the way it’s normally understood by most of the commentaries and the way most of us have it in our heads.

According to Rashi, Avraham actually said, “If you go to the left I will be nearby to support you on the right. And if you go to the right, I’ll be right there for you on your left.” The Siftei Chachomim explains that it would be odd for Avraham to be saying that he would run the opposite direction from Lot, because he just finished saying “achim anachnu” - we are brothers and shouldn't fight. So why now would he be saying I’ll go to the other end from wherever you go?

As Rashi sees it, Avraham was saying that on the one hand he needed to distance himself from Lot, but, he would never abandon Lot. And this little line has a profound message for us. There are people that we need to distance ourselves from on one level. But it doesn’t mean that we give up on them, that we don’t care.

The well known story of the footsteps illustrates this idea: A man saw a vision of all the scenes of his life. And through each scene he saw two sets of footsteps; one set was his, the other belonged to G-d, who had promised to accompany him always. But then he noticed that during the hardest times there was only one set of footprints. He asked G-d, “how could you abandon me during the toughest times?” G-d explained, “during the hardest times, I was carrying you.”

May we be blessed to feel love and compassion for others, for in the end this is the way of G-d, whom we strive and yearn to emulate. Although those we love may mistakenly feel abandoned, we separate only with an attitude of concern and support. Dear brothers and sisters are in their own space to our right or our left, and we view these positions as angles from which to offer support.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Rabbi Rosensweig On Noach

At Shalosh Seudot at YU last week I heard Rabbi Michael Rosensweig speak. Here's my take on what he said. I've adapted and re-rdered a bit, but stuck to his ideas without adding in my own. Any mistakes are mine:

Noach did better as an Ish HaElokim than as an Ish HaAdamah. In the aftermath of the flood Noach offers a sacrifice to G-d, plants a vineyard, and then a short time later Noach fades away. The sacrifice goes very well. The Ramban comments that part of what the allowance to eat meet following the flood had going for it early on was the fact that Noach immediately used the animal meat for a sacrifice for G-d. Noach forsaw the concept of Kodshim, of using the regular in a holy way. The commentaries however, go to town, regarding choice in planting. Rashi and the medrash say that a vineyard shouldn't have been the first priority in agricultural ventures. The Ramban paints the vivid image of "rows and rows" of grape vines that Noach cultivated.

Noach, apparently had an easier time with the concept of sactifying the profane than he had with the idea that nothing is profane. When it came to daily life, rather than a one time sacrifice, Noach fell short. This led to the disappearance of Noach and to Avraham's emergence.

Avraham understood that true holiness pervades every aspect of life. This legacy is inherent in the tradition Avraham transmitted to his descendants in the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. On the other hand the 7 Noahide laws represent a narrower view of holiness more in consonance with the approach of their movement's founding father. As opposed to Noach, who worshipped the G-d of the heavens, Avraham was known for recognizing G-d as Elokei ShamayimVa'Aretz, the G-d of heaven and earth.

This year's Shabbat Noach is also Rosh Chodesh and so it is a juggernaut of kedusha-holiness. The question always arises, if one forgets Yaaleh veYavo in Bentching on Shabbos-Rosh Chodesh, need one repeat the Birchat HaMazon? The concensus is that the answer is no, although some Rishonim say yes. On Shabbos you repeat because the meal is obligatory. On Rosh Chodesh you don't repeat because the meal is optional. But when Rosh Chodesh is on Shabbos the meal is obligatory because it's a Shabbos meal, so does that fact mean that the repeating rule now applies to forgetting yaaleh VeYavo as well? The question can be seen as paradigmatic of the issue of the messhing of these two days.

Rosh Chodesh is kind of like Chol HaMoed - holy but not. There seems to not be kedushat hayom as there is with Shabbos or Yom Tov. On the other hand it's a reminder of the kedusha of every day. And it dovetails well with either Shabbos or weekday. Rosh Chodesh is a seemingly regular day that reminds us to sanctify everything we encounter in life.

One of the new sgan mashgichim in YU got funding for a program to learn right after Shabbos in the YUBM and be paid per hour. Right after Shabbos is often down time after the holy time of Shabbos. In life it's important to remember priorities. In the Mishna Torah, in Sefer Mada, the Rambam writes that the way to recognize G-d is via the wonders of the world. In the Sefer HaMitzvot, he says it's through Torah. The first is in the context of the book of Madda. But that is the tafel, and the Ikar is what's layed out in the Sefer HaMitzvot as a yesod.

Shabboss' holiness is meant to overflow into the full week. May we be zocheh to see G-d as Elokei Shamayim Vaaretz in our lives every day.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Sweetness of Self Reliance

After the flood Noach sends out a dove, which returns with an olive branch in its mouth. According to the Gemorah, the dove was saying, "I'd rather eat something bitter that was provided by G-d's hand than receive the sweetest honey from the hand of man." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that a dove doesn’t normally eat olive branches, but the dove brought back an olive branch as a metaphorical statement that the bitterest food in freedom tastes sweeter than the sweetest food in captivity.

Rashi states that the man referred to is Noach. Why does Rashi make a point of telling us that the man that the yonah speaks of resentfully is Noach, when this is clear from context? Rav Henoch Leibowitz explains that Rashi is saying that the dove felt uncomfortable being handed food EVEN from Noach. The dove preferred to be self-reliant even to the services of Noach who cared for the animals under his charge with generosity and compassion.

The message in this metaphor is that we should be sensitive to the sensibilities of people in need. Beyond noticing that someone needs help, we must remember that no one likes requiring assistance. It is for good reason that we pray to Hashem daily that the hand of G-d alone should satisfy our needs and that we should not have to turn to gifts or favors from any man. Help from even the kindest people is difficult to accept because inherent in any receiving is an uncomfortable feeling of subservience.

We should strive to help people in a way that increases their dignity. This is why on the Rambam's list of levels of tzedakah the highest is giving someone a job. It is this Jewish wisdom of helping in a respectful manner that inspired a best selling New York Times author to take on the topic of giving in a book based on the Rambam’s eight levels of Ztedakka. This new book is called Rambam’s Ladder, by Julie Salamon. It is well written, and thoughtful as well as thought provoking and I recommend it.

The idea of giving in a way that keeps in mind the discomfort inherent in taking charity is particularly relevant to anyone in a position of authority. Children need parents, teachers, and even older siblings to assist them as they grow. Workers need supervisors, patients need doctors, and everyone needs advice. Whether we are disciplining, teaching, overseeing, treating, or advising, the means and the end are always equally important. It may be challenging and even paradoxical, yet we must strive to help others in a way that increases independence, always remembering the lesson of the dove.

(This is one of the pieces that has been edited and expanded for my upcoming sefer on the parshiot. Look for it within the year, please G-d).