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