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).

Why There's No Wine Named For Noach

Citing Breishit Rabah, Rashi addresses the seemingly superfluous words “VaYichal Noach"(Breishit 8:20), and writes “he made himself profane for he should have involved himself first with another choice in planting.” Wine has a negative side and was therefore not the best choice for a first harvest in a new world.

Rabbi Yaakov Kranz (1741-1804), best remembered as the Magid of Dubno tells of a man was given the blessing that his first activity upon returning home would multiply forever. When he got there he screamed, “Get the money! Get the money!” His wife screamed back, questioning his rude greeting. A fight ensued, and for the rest of their lives their arguing multiplied.

The way that we begin is crucial. There is a strong probability that early negativity will grow as time goes by. Thus, it is why it is wise to pay careful attention to the way that we begin every every venture.

Rabi Yosi ben Kisma, was presented with a lucrative offer to be rabbi of a town. He turned it down, informing the man who made the proposition that he wouldn’t live anywhere other than a place of Torah even for all the money in the world. (Pirkei Avot 6:9)

Rabi Yosi's experience is a lesson in the importance of beginnings. He realized from the fact that this man spoke of money before anything else that in his community’s mind it came first. Rabi Yosi in turn illustrated what was most important to him by establishing that its being a place of Torah was priority one.

In what is still the beginning of the Jewish year, may G-d bless us to plant wisely.

P.S. Reader Dave has pointed out to me that there is a wine named after Noach. May it be for a tikkun. (See here.)