Archive | D’var Torah

Transitioning into a harsh life in Egypt

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

This week, we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus). Moving on from Bereisheet — the rich and vibrant verses relating the mysteries of creation, the human portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs, through Joseph’s majestic triumph in a foreign land — is a rough transition. We shift from a mood of fruitful accomplishments into scenes of cruelty, blood, sweat and tears.
This opening parasha is heavy and dark, detailing the rise of an evil ruler who enslaved the Children of Israel and caused them unthinkable suffering. When 30 years of harsh labor could not break the Jewish spirit and they continued to grow, Pharaoh intensified their workload. But in the middle of this bitter exile comes a beam of light. Moses, the redeemer of Israel, is born.
This idea emerges as a pattern through the generations. Whenever a period of terrible hardship and persecution arises for the Jewish people, the soul of a special leader descends into this world to counteract the darkness. Furthermore, there is a principle in Judaism that “God creates the cure before the illness” — it’s already there but needs to be discovered.
In this story, Pharaoh’s astrologers discerned that the Jews’ future savior had arrived, and so to prevent this event, Pharaoh “charged his people, saying: Every son that is born shall be cast into the river…” Describing Moses’ birth, the Torah mentions that after the delivery, his mother Yocheved looked at her newborn baby and “she saw that he was good.” (Exodus 2:1) Then she hid him away for three months.
The commentaries wonder what this seemingly extraneous phrase — “she saw that he was good” — tells us. After all, it’s natural for any mother, upon seeing her newborn baby, to immediately be overcome with an intense feeling of love, joy and gratitude and to embrace the child — so, of course, he was good in her eyes. But because every word is precise and relevant (how much more so concerning the focal figure in the Torah), there must have been some unique goodness that she noticed.
One interpretation, brought by the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan, is that Moses was born in the seventh month of pregnancy, an early birth that could have resulted in death. Nevertheless, he was complete and strong. Another explanation, cited by the most literal commentary of Rashi, is that this additional comment of “she saw he was good” is reminiscent of (and linked to) the very first time the Hebrew word “good” is used in the Torah:
God’s first creation was light, whereupon the verse in Bereisheet (1:4) states: “God saw that the light was good.” Just as God created light, then saw that the light was good, so too Yocheved gave birth and saw that he was good. This remarkable similarity, therefore, hints at some connection between the birth of Moses and the appearance of newly created light.
The Talmud explains that the moment Moses emerged from the womb, the entire room was suddenly filled with light, a sign that a special soul had entered the world.
The heroine
The backstory of Moses’ birth involves a discussion with Moses’ sister, Miriam. Jewish tradition recounts that when Amram, Moses’ father, first learned of Pharaoh’s decree, he reasoned (and likewise persuaded others) that any procreation would be in vain — their children would be killed anyway. After hearing this, Miriam, his daughter, strongly opposed his reasoning. She argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a definite reality that must be heeded without any calculations of future outcomes, which are merely possibilities. As a result, Amram and other men reunited with their wives, providing the impetus for the Exodus.
The Jewish Sages declare: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” And a key characteristic is reflected in this story. Imagine the strength that it took for a mother to make such a dreadful decision, knowing that her newborn son would immediately be killed. Yet, the cosmic effect of such faith — inspired by Miriam — brought about the redeemer and most famous spiritual leader in history.
One simple message is clear: Each child is an entire universe, unlocking channels of blessing for its family and the world at large.
A double decree
Like the abovementioned hint at the light that entered the room, there is another revealing subtlety in a famous verse, quoted in the Passover Haggadah, regarding the attempt to prevent the Jewish redemption. “Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river; and every daughter techayun (you shall sustain, keep them alive).’” The precise wording sparks an inquiry: If Pharaoh’s sole concern was for all Jewish boys to be drowned in the river, why bother adding the obvious ending — “and every daughter you shall sustain”?
The superficial understanding of this phrase is that the fate of the girls did not interest Pharaoh; “just leave them alone.” Yet the juxtaposition — two instructions within the same verse — suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some harsh decree. Picking up this nuance, the commentaries point to the meaning of the word techayun — “you shall sustain them, keep them alive.” They explain that the additional wording — “to sustain” — connotes a more active expression, an instruction to raise every daughter in the ways and practices of Egyptian culture.
Thus, Pharaoh gave two messages, one related to killing the bodies and the other to the souls: Pharaoh ordered his people drown the Jewish boys in the river in order to bring about physical death. Those same Egyptians were commanded to actively “sustain” (i.e., raise) the girls as Egyptians, by immersing them in the prevalent culture, and thereby causing them to forget their roots.
Egyptian traps
Since Egyptian exile is mentioned as the root of all subsequent exiles, its harsh decrees — as well as its recipes for persevering — apply (in some form) to all periods in our history. In this regard, we may encounter a prevailing attitude and pressure to immerse children in the popular way of life, even if it runs contrary to essential Jewish values. More specifically, Jewish children are often taught more about the modern political figures and heroes, before they can explore their own roots. In this week’s parasha, we have two heroes to celebrate and educate about: Moses and Miriam.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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The ethics of our fathers and uncles

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

Words to live by

When I was 24, my father died and I inherited some money. It wasn’t a lot because, really, everything went to my mother, as was appropriate. And the money I inherited is long, long gone, having been spent on my many, many years of graduate school. What is not gone, what I still have from my father, what I can never lose from my father, are the values that he instilled within me.
There is actually a tradition within Judaism of leaving ethical wills to our heirs. The money and property, if there was any, was taken care of separately, but we have a tradition of trying to summarize and pass down the ethical wisdom we have learned through our lives and want our heirs to follow. The tradition of ethical wills stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the last Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. At the very end of the portion, Jacob is lying on his deathbed and we read: “Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father.’” Jacob then proceeds to tell his children what will befall them based on their past behavior. This final farewell is seen as an attempt to get them to act better in the future.
When my nephew started college, I began writing down some of my wisdom for him and I would like to share some of it with you as an ethical will of sorts.
To my dear nephew,
Now that you have gone away to college and no longer have the benefit of your parents’ constant advice, I would like to give you the benefit of my own wisdom and experience. In no particular order:
God willing, you too will eventually have children or nieces or nephews. Never underestimate the pleasure one can have in embarrassing them. Remember, however, that the embarrassment should be of the variety: “I cannot believe I am related to this person.” Embarrassing someone for their own traits or foibles is just mean. Also, be careful not to cross over from teasing to bullying. Teasing someone you love can be a way to show how fond you are of them. But teasing someone you don’t love or like is really just bullying and you should never be a bully.
When you mess up — and you will — be an adult about it. Apologize and try to make up for what you did. It only makes you look small when you can’t admit that you’re in the wrong.
Live your life generously. Show your love and affection generously because the ones you love should never be in doubt that you love them. Too often when we’re angry with people we are tempted to withhold our love and affection as a way of punishing them. Rather, express honestly “I love you, but I’m really angry over x, y or z that you’ve done.”
Live your life generously. Give freely and share what you have with those who are in need. Other people — your parents, me, your friends, your teachers, even random strangers — have all helped you for no other reason than you’ve needed the help and they have been in the position to help you. Pay it forward and help others in return. Human beings are social creatures and we all need each other, so help when you can.
Cultivate a sense of gratitude and don’t take things for granted. When I look around the world and I see how other people are living, I realize how fortunate I am. Even when I had very little in my life, at my lowest points, I did have things I was grateful for and when I focused on what I had, I didn’t mind as much what I didn’t have. In the words of the Sages: “Who is the one who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.” Don’t get me wrong. I like having stuff that is important to me and being able to eat what I like rather than ramen, again, is really terrific. Being grateful doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve that which we want for ourselves and our families. But be grateful for what you do have in the moment.
Remember to do laundry, especially your sheets. Smells that you no longer notice are highly noticeable to others, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Similarly, don’t become blind to the poverty, need and injustice that surrounds us every day. True, we can’t live in a state of constant agitation over what we see, but neither should we become so thick skinned that we no longer notice it. Again in the words of our Sages: “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are your free to leave off from it.”
There are two ways to go touring. One way is to see everything possible, rushing from sight to sight, taking snapshots to prove that we were there, even if we only spent 15 minutes. Another is take a more limited view and take the time to truly experience the few sights that we do go to see. In my experience, there are more sights to see, more foods to taste, more books to read, more plays to go to than I ever could in my lifetime. Our lives are inherently limited, not infinite. So in my mind, enjoy what you do to its fullest, don’t just rush from one thing to another, because there will always be more that we leave undone.
Your loving Uncle Ben.

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Words with Friends: what you say, how you say it

Posted on 02 January 2020 by admin

I have always been bothered by an obvious question: Why Joseph’s brothers recognize him? His screaming visage as he was cast into the pit must have been traumatically seared into their memory, yet now they can’t make the connection?
A careful look at this week’s Torah portion, and the ones that precede it, shows the role that language plays in clarifying, or obfuscating, communication. Joseph employs stinging words to convey contempt for his brothers.
Genesis 42:7
When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.”
At the same time, every deferential word Judah utters in his passionate speech to Joseph actually means the opposite of what he says:
Genesis 44:18
Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”
Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowicz (1801-1866), the first Rebbe of the Radomsk dynasty, wrote a masterful Chassidic commentary on the Torah called Tiferet Shlomo. In it, he suggests that this may be why Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him after such a lengthy separation. The Joseph they left in the pit was deferential and meek, only animated by his outlandish dreams. In no way could they imagine his transformation into an assertive and powerful viceroy, whose draconian policies and cruel verdicts would leave them reeling. Joseph did not conceal his true identity with a clean shave and Egyptian royal garb; he used his tongue, instead, as the ultimate disguise.
If you’ve ever felt distant from a brother, or someone close enough to be one, but you can’t figure out why you grew apart, the search for a specific crime or affront may be fruitless. Sometimes, it’s that we are not speaking, or that we are not speaking what is in our hearts. Consider the way we do this in the use of our everyday discourse. We don’t directly assault others through words that are intended to sting, but we cloud our true intentions through intentionally imprecise words. How many of us have told friends or acquaintances “We should get together” or “we should speak more often” — yet had no intention of doing so, or no plan for making it happen? We tell someone, “We’d love to have you for Shabbat” and never follow through. We use the phrase “with all due respect,” a phrase seldom followed by an expression of respect. We say “that’s interesting” when what we mean is that what we heard is crushingly boring, and we say “I hear you” when we just don’t have the strength for an argument or don’t feel as passionately about the subject under discussion. And we adopt a cavalier attitude toward these empty, offensive or deceitful expressions because they are just words, and we assume that words are meaningless. But the Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk reminds us that words can drive people apart, they can render you utterly unrecognizable to your sibling or friend.
While we rarely avoid it, it’s obvious to us that slanderous and malicious speech is toxic and best excised from our behavior. But perhaps a way to ensure that we don’t fall into corrosive speech patterns is to employ precise and refined language, taking a second or two more to formulate our thoughts before speaking, so that we mean what we say, and say what we mean. If speech can drive us apart, it surely has the power to bring us closer again.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky is rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla and a member and former president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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In challenging times, sorrow becomes hope

Posted on 11 December 2019 by admin

The Western Wall in Jerusalem was one of the last standing remnants of the Temple that was destroyed by our enemies. For anyone who witnessed that event, it must have been a symbol of tragedy and defeat. As time passed however, the meaning of the Western Wall shifted, and it became a symbol of hope. Throughout the centuries, pilgrims came from all over the world to pray there. They envisioned a time when our people would be gathered from the four corners of the Earth and return home to Israel. How do symbols of sorrow become symbols of hope?
This week, in Parashat Vayishlach, there is another symbol of sorrow that will become a symbol of hope: Rachel’s grave. Rachel dies and is buried in Beit Lekhem. It’s odd that she is buried there, because the other patriarchs and matriarchs are buried in Hebron. Why wouldn’t Jacob bury his beloved wife with the rest of their family?
According to the Midrash, Jacob chose that site for Rachel’s tomb rather than the family cave in Hebron because he had a prophecy. When she died, Jacob foresaw her tomb would become a symbol of much-needed hope in a time of desperation. The midrash teaches us that Jacob predicted the Israelite defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. He foresaw that, as they would be led into exile, they would walk along the very route where he was destined to bury Rachel. The exiles would walk past her tomb in their moment of defeat, and Rachel would rise from her grave to see them leaving in chains. She would begin to weep, and God would comfort her saying, “Still your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. There is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their borders.” If these words are familiar to you, that is because they are from Jeremiah, Chapter 31. At Rachel’s death Jacob was blessed with hearing the very words that Jeremiah would prophesy centuries later.
In other words, Jacob buried Rachel in Beit Lekhem instead of Hebron because he knew in the future, during a time of national tragedy for our people, her tomb would become a seed of hope. The exile was a dark time for our people, and who better to give them hope than our ancestor Rachel, who knew the suffering of being a sister-wife and the longing to bear more children? If the exiles heard God comforting her and saying her children would return, then her image would strengthen them. Rachel’s tomb would become a symbol of hope in dark times and the eternal possibility of returning from exile.
Over the years Rachel’s grave has been used as a symbol of hope much like the Western Wall. Even today Rachel’s grave is a pilgrimage site where people pray for a better life and a better world. Couples with fertility problems go there to pray for help. Maybe her grave is in Beit Lekhem and not in Hebron to remind us that in the most challenging of times there is still reason to hope.
Rabbi Elana Zelony is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson.

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Out of gratitude flow many positive emotions

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

If there was a festival in the Jewish calendar called Thanksgiving, this week — not last — would be the most appropriate time to commemorate it.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is an essential virtue, from which flows a stream of other positive emotions. One of the natural impediments to this emotion is a sense of entitlement. Sometimes this self-centered approach stems from conditioning, like a child who has always been handed whatever he desired; when the child throws a temper tantrum, parents immediately respond. So, carrying this instinctive habit into adulthood, the person adopts the same pattern in relating to God. Whenever things don’t turn out in the desired way, or some pain is experienced, the natural response is to believe that life is unfair, that he or she deserves better. These negative emotions cloud the recognition of the many blessings.
In contrast, someone who is aware of life’s fragility and inequality — the extent to which others are much less fortunate — can better appreciate all the little gifts and luxuries. Every family milestone reached is humbling. The mind remains free of expectations. The notion that he is not owed anything, in turn, fuels hard work and provokes gratitude for every good thing that comes his way.
Leah gives thanks
This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, relates the birth of most of Yaakov’s children, who later form the 12 tribes of Israel, beginning with Leah’s sons — Reuben, Shimon, and Levi. Leah’s fourth son she names Yehudah (Judah), “the royal son” from whom comes the direct line of Jewish kings, from David to the eventual redeemer. [This is the only name in the entire Bible which has, within it, all 4 letters of God’s essential name Havayah (yud-hei-vav-hei) along with an additional letter daled, which hints at his descendent David.]
Leah named him Yehudah, from the root hoda’ah, meaning “to express gratitude.” The Torah relates (Genesis 29:35): “And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Yehudah, and [then] she stopped giving birth.”
A classic teaching (Talmud, Tractate Brachot, 7b) is linked to this verse: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “From the day that the Almighty created this world, no human being thanked Him until Leah came and thanked Him, it is written: “This time I shall thank God.” (The simple meaning of “this time” is in relation to the previous births, but the deeper meaning is the first time in history.)
The commentaries are puzzled by this statement for obvious reasons. There are many people in the Torah who expressed gratitude, long before Leah came onto the scene. In fact, the content of Chapter 139 of Psalms, according to Jewish tradition is attributed to the first human being — Adam — who declares, “I shall thank You for in an awesome, wondrous way I was fashioned; Your works are wondrous, and my soul knows it very well.”
Therefore, the intention behind the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is not that nobody expressed thanks before Leah, but rather that her naming of Yehuda was somehow novel, or a deeper expression of gratitude. How so?
Various reasons are offered for her distinctive thanksgiving. Some explain that Leah was able to focus on the good, even while enduring a difficult and disappointing life, feeling second-best to her sister Rachel. Others explain that, unlike the earlier characters who marveled after being saved through a miraculous event, or could detect clear divine intervention, Leah, however, acknowledged the wonders within the seemingly natural process — the gift of each new soul that enters the world.
Furthermore, she prophetically foresaw that Jacob would have 12 children, who would be their foundations of the Jewish people. And she would be the largest contributor to this legacy. The main feature, the commentaries explain, that infused her gratitude with more power was her recognition that such an opportunity was a pure gift. After receiving an additional portion in the big family picture — something she didn’t earn — she expressed her thanks in a name that would endure.
Jewish ethical works that deal with self-refinement point to this superior quality. The ultimate perception, which requires training to instill until it becomes second nature, is that he is not entitled to anything — whatever one ends up receiving is a gift of loving kindness. In line with this attitude, when someone praises God, it should be with a sense of joy and inner emptiness, not burden. “The poor man speaks [prays] with supplications…” [Proverbs 18:23] and because he feels “poor” rather than accomplished, the words penetrate with more sincerity.
That is why the tribe of Yehudah establishes the line of Jewish kings. The sense of humility, the realization that one must give thanks for everything, is a crucial requirement for an important leader, who can easily become too proud.
Two meanings
The linguistic root of Yehudah, the Hebrew word hod, has several subtle meanings. There is expressing thanks for a gift or kind gesture, like the modern Hebrew version “todah.” Then there is a sense of hod as acknowledgment of the truth. One connection between these two meanings is that in order to feel gratitude, one must first perceive the reality, recognize the blessing or appreciate the wonders in living
To acknowledge also requires humility: the ability to set one’s immediate desires and preconceptions aside, to be silent and momentarily withdraw to pay attention to something beyond immediate concerns. So, humility, acknowledgment and gratitude intertwine. In the mystical tradition, the spiritual state corresponding to the power of hod is also called temimut (sincerity). The greatness of Leah’s expression incorporated all these.
The Torah describes Leah as the “elder,” which, in mystical code, hints at the faculty of understanding. She also represents humility. The source for her deep thanksgiving resulted from the recognition (understanding) that I don’t deserve anything. The ability to be consciously aware of and express appreciation for every breath, every movement of a limb, and moment of life is captured in Yehudah.
Incidentally, the term “Jew” is derived from his name. And we are called Yehudim to emphasize the importance of this character trait: a continual sense of recognition, feeling gratitude, then expressing it in speech.
From focused to compound gratitude
It is, therefore, fitting that the root word hod — to acknowledge and be grateful — permeates our traditional daily prayers. There are different forms of gratitude, that work in a progression as we move through the siddur.
First, there’s a general acknowledgment, like in the “modeh ani lefanecha…,” the short phrase uttered immediately as we open our eyes each morning.
This first thanksgiving of the day, as we shift from dream state into consciousness, sensing our soul reinvigorating the body after having been guarded in the heavens overnight, is gratefulness for receiving another day to enjoy and accomplish — like a newborn baby entering the world. Here, gratitude is immediate, not prompted by any contemplation. It also sets the tone for our mindset that day.
Then comes a more focused gratitude in the stream of blessings and Psalms. Similarly, as we move through the day, with our mental faculties more alert, we can generate a gratitude from reflection — such as the wonderment of the underlying intricacy and harmony in the human body, how every organ must function perfectly just for us to breath, walk around and digest. “Let every breath thank God.” (Psalms 150) Or the gratitude for having an abundance of food. Or the gifts of the main relationships in our life. In this compound gratitude, understanding and emotions are also mixed into thanksgiving: The more details one sees, the more appreciation, which in turn stimulates a current of positivity.

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Judging other Jews

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
You once made the statement that it is not synonymous with Orthodox Judaism to look down upon, or to judge, those who are not observant or have lesser observance than that which Orthodoxy espouses. I would tend to disagree, based upon many quotes I have seen in traditional literature which put down those who are not observant. Take, for example, the blessing in the daily Amidah prayer beginning “velemalshinim,” “…may you speedily uproot and smash and humble the sinners.” Statements like these are what gives the license to those in Orthodoxy who tend to judge others.
Morty W.


Dear Morty,
I would be curious to see the “many quotes” to which you refer, as I am unfamiliar with them. The one quote you mention from the prayer book (siddur) is a compelling one; let us examine it in context:
“And for slanderers let there be no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all Your enemies be cut down speedily. May You uproot, smash, cast down and humble the wanton sinners speedily in our days. Blessed are You, God, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.” (Artscroll Siddur, p. 107)
This blessing is chronologically the last one to be written in the Amidah. The first 18 blessings were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly, upon the building of the Second Temple. This blessing was added over 500 years later. The Jewish people were in great danger due to the destruction, its ensuing exile and the many groups out to destroy the Jews. It was composed in response to such heretical sects as the Sadducees and the early Christians, who imperiled the lives of the Jews by slandering them to the Roman government. They further sought to lead the Jews astray through persuasion and political power.
The blessing encompasses two distinct messages:
Firstly, the Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Meir who was constantly bothered by a group of wicked men living nearby. He was going to pray that they should die, when his wife Beruriah challenged him. She claimed, based upon a verse, that one should pray that the wickedness, not the wicked, should be destroyed. R’ Meir accepted his wife’s rebuke, and prayed that their wickedness should disappear, and they repented and became righteous. (Talmud, Berachos 10a) The first section, then, of the blessing is emphasizing the wickedness of the slanderers, praying that those people should return to the fold.
The second part of the blessing is referring to those who are so deeply hateful of the Jews and the Torah and their desire to destroy them, that they are beyond reproach. That is the emphasis on “wanton sinners,” those who do so with a high hand, knowing full well that they are in rebellion against the Jews and their Torah. It is mainly this part of the blessing that the Sages sought the most humble and loving rabbi amongst their ranks to compose this blessing. “Samuel the Small,” called by that name due to his profound humility, was chosen (Talmud, Berachos 28b). He would surely not mix in the slightest hint of haughtiness or self-righteousness in his composition, but out of deep pain that such a blessing need be enacted for the sake of the survival of the Jewish people.
A few statements from modern-day leading sages from recent generations:
• Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch asserts that we no longer have heretics among our nations like those referred to in this blessing. (Collected Writings iv, p. 207)
• The Chofetz Chaim exhorts us not to judge even the most irreligious in our times, as their state stems from a lack of education, and “don’t judge another person until you stand in their place.” (Marganisa Tava 17)
• The Chazon Ish writes it is our obligation to embrace our secular brethren with bonds of love. (Yoreh De’ah 2:16)
This is the ruling of these three giants of Orthodoxy, leaders of the past generations, and is mainstream Torah thought. Those who act or think otherwise, it is by their own volition; they have no place in our sources or tradition.

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Esau and Jacob show us that nobody is perfect

Posted on 04 December 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is Toledot, and within it, we read about the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac. The rivalry started within the womb, where the twins struggled to such an extent that Rebekah despaired from the pain. Jacob and Esau’s rivalry would continue for their entire lives, though they eventually find a way to co-exist in the world mostly by staying away from each other.
Our tradition portrays Esau in a highly negative light. He is described as a skillful hunter, but one day when he comes home from the hunt, he sells Jacob his birthright, the right to become the leader of the family, for a simple bowl of lentil stew. Later, he marries two Hittite women of whom his parents did not approve. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau vows to himself that he will murder Jacob. In rabbinic literature, he looks even worse. He is shown as a rapist, a murderer and an idolator. Further, his descendants include Amalek, Agag, Haman, and according to the rabbinic literature, even the Roman Empire, none of which were particularly good for the Jews. He’s a bad guy.
But how bad is he really, if we look at Esau in a more dispassionate light? Well, to start, he was a good hunter. I will grant you that that is like saying John Wilkes Booth was a good shot — it’s kind of beside the point. But Esau was a good hunter and pleased his father by providing the foods that Isaac enjoyed. Esau’s reaction to finding out that he lost his father’s blessing because of Jacob’s trickery is absolutely heartbreaking. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’ … ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’” Even when Esau vows to murder Jacob in revenge, he resolves to wait until after their father has died so he doesn’t cause Isaac any pain. Again, I grant you, not awesome, but at least he was thinking of his father’s feelings. And when he realizes that his choice of wives has upset his parents, he marries his first cousin, the daughter of his uncle Ishmael. Also not great, but he tried.
And how good is Jacob, really, if we look at him in a more dispassionate light? He manipulates his apparently dim-witted brother into selling him his birthright. If your sibling came into the house, exhausted and hungry, wouldn’t you just give them some food, not withhold it as a bargaining tool? When Jacob’s mother suggests tricking his father to steal his brother’s blessing, Jacob’s only objection was that he might get caught, not that it was wrong. So Jacob lies, steals, and dishonors his father, which according to the Ten Commandments, is kind of a bad thing. So Jacob is not looking so good now, is he?
Here’s the bottom line, though. No amount of historical revisionism is going to turn Esau into a good guy and the right man to lead the future of the Jewish people. And while Jacob was definitely the better son to lead the family and receive his father’s blessing, he was by no means perfect. Esau wasn’t all bad and Jacob wasn’t all good. Which is true of most people, that we are an admixture of both good and bad qualities. None of us is perfectly good or perfectly evil. Rather, we are all flawed human beings, a fact that is important for us to remember.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Lech Lecha: transformation and faith in God

Posted on 06 November 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and in it we get to know Avram. At the beginning of the portion God calls out to Avram, “Lech lecha, you yourself go from your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” From that moment of divine call, a call to change oneself, a call to uproot oneself, we can see this entire portion is about personal change. Throughout this portion, Avram goes through a complete transformation.

The first transformation is his physical location, which at first glance doesn’t seem much like a personal transformation, but in reality is a trigger for one. Avram leaves his home and his family to a land he isn’t even told about before he leaves. It is a profound statement of faith in God, but it is also personally transformational because Avram is forced to be completely independent without any reliance on kinship ties that are so common in the Middle East, even to today. In Israel today, it is called protektzia or the personal connections one call rely upon to get one out of trouble or prevent it from happening in the first place. Avram was forced to forgo his family connections and learn to be strong and independent. We see Avram’s increased independence in how he interacts with his neighbors. At the beginning of the portion, he is afraid of the Egyptians and feels that he needs to resort to trickery to survive. By the end of the portion, Avram is a conquering warrior who turns the tide of battle and saves his nephew Lot during the war of the five kings against the four kings.

The second transformation is a transformation in Avram’s expectations for the future. In the beginning of the portion, Avram and Sarai are childless and Avram believes that he will have no one to inherit. By the end of the portion, he has a son, granted, with his concubine Hagar, but even more he has God’s promise that he will have an heir through Sarai. His more positive outlook is symbolized by the promise that God makes to Avram. God promises that he will have descendants and that, even though they will spend 400 years in slavery in Egypt, they will go free and become as numerous as the stars. It is a transformation of a bleak outlook, slavery in Egypt, to a limitlessly positive view of the future with innumerable descendants. Avram goes from the prospect of never having children to having more great-great-great etc. grandchildren than he could ever imagine. Avram went from a negative view of the future to a limitlessly positive view of the future.

The third transformation is Avram’s spiritual transformation. True enough: At the beginning of the portion, Avram hears God’s command, packs up and moves without even knowing where he was going. That shows a certain faith. But it takes Avram another 24 years of spiritual journey before he enters into the Covenant with God that changes him from Avram to Avraham, incorporating part of God’s name in his own name. It took 24 years of spiritual exploration before Avraham could establish with God the Covenant between God and the Jewish People.

So we see over the broad sweep of this Torah portion, that the message here is one of transformation: physical, mental and spiritual transformation. And we encounter God as a God of becoming. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Lao Tzu: “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” The message I take from Lech Lecha is not to fear change, but to embrace the becoming. All that lives, grows and changes over time. Only that which was never alive remains unchanged. But God wants us to live, to be and to become, embracing the changes we encounter on our own personal journeys of transformation.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Feel adrift? Fight to reconnect with Judaism

Posted on 31 October 2019 by admin

As any member of the clergy can attest, one of the greatest blessings of serving the community is the opportunity to be with families day after day, year after year, at key moments in their lives. Jewish tradition suggests that the joys of b’nei mitzvah, weddings, baby namings, b’rit milah and more offer us a sample of olam haba (the world to come). And even funerals, as difficult as they can be for all of us, often contain a certain sacred beauty as we experience the wisdom of people’s diverse lives. The repetition of facilitating these rituals not only teaches us about people, but also offers us a unique perspective on Jewish text and tradition. When you experience lifecycle moments over and over again, you begin to notice patterns in our tradition.
Often at key moments in life, Jewish tradition counsels us to respond in seemingly contradictory ways to how we naturally feel. At weddings, a time of immense joy, we break the glass to recall Jerusalem’s destruction; at funerals when perhaps we’re most upset at God we’re directed to praise: (Baruch Dayan HaEmet) Blessed is God, the true judge! This habit of contradiction nudges us toward gratitude when we could easily overindulge, or pulls us back toward our Creator and to life when we might slip into darkness. Jewish texts and rituals help us regain a sense of balance through life’s unpredictable ups and downs
Parashat Noah, one of the earliest texts of the Torah, what scholars call our primeval history, foreshadows this guidance. As we sadly can relate, major natural disasters change our lives and change us. The flood changed Noah and his relationship with God. After the flood we read in Genesis: “Noah removed the cover of the ark and saw that the face of the earth had dried.” (8:13) Noah looks out and sees that the flood is over, but he’s stunned by God’s destruction and doesn’t move. Only God’s call to Noah brings him back to action. “God spoke to Noah, saying: ‘Go out from the ark . . .’” (8:15–16)
Midrash Rabbah teaches that in this verse God says “go out,” meaning “Bring my soul out of captivity” (Psalm 142:8) — this means Noah, who was imprisoned in the ark for 12 months…. “Because You delivered me” (ibid.) — that You delivered me [says Noah] and said to me: Go out from the ark. (Genesis Rabbah 34:1). According to the rabbis, Noah became accustomed to life in prison [life in the ark] and he needed a nudge back to reality, and also that Noah became complacent because God was delivering him because of his grace — so God reminded Noah of his own responsibility for himself. In other words, Noah shouldn’t expect God to free him from the ark; he must get up and go himself.
Given that Noah witnessed God’s massive power — to bring floods, to destroy the earth, to select just one family to save among millions of people — it could be easy for Noah to throw up his hands and expect an all-powerful God to take him to his next step. But Torah says different. It’s up to Noah to begin rebuilding, to again become a partner with God in furthering creation. Noah affirms this relationship with God as well, as we read: “Then Noah built an altar to God, and took from among all the clean animals and from among all the pure birds, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.” (8:20)
Parashat Noah serves as a reminder for us to strive to rekindle our relationship with God and leverage that relationship to find a sense of balance in a world of extremes. At the times when it’s most likely for us to drift away from Jewish meaning, that’s when we should do our best to reconnect. Especially in the weeks ahead as we act to rebuild neighborhoods, we can look to each other, our neighbors and God for this exact guidance and perspective.
Rabbi Daniel Utley has served Temple Emanu-El since 2016 where he aspires to help millennials, teens, and interfaith families find joy, meaning, and connection through Jewish life. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Bereishit is chock-full of wisdom and secrets

Posted on 23 October 2019 by admin

This week we will begin a new cycle of Torah reading; this Shabbat is referred to as “Shabbat Bereishit,” from the first word of the opening verse—“In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and earth…” It is always read at the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, known as the “saturated month,” packed with holiday events. 

A common perception going into this weekend is that the most auspicious days of the year are over — the Days of Awe, followed by the Days of rejoicing (Sukkot) followed by a day filled with dancing (Simchat Torah). Now it’s time to settle down and dive back into a normal routine of work. Not so fast. 

There is an old Yiddish adage that says: “how a person acts during Shabbat Bereishit determines the way the entire year will go.” At first glance, the concept of setting the tone seems misapplied. Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year, a time where everything is decided, and this Day of Judgement has already passed. We have also gone through the cleansing process of the Day of Atonement and celebrated in the sukkah. What then is the unique character of this Shabbat that provokes such a statement?

Fundamentals:

One answer has to do with the content of this first parsha, which serves to encapsulate all biblical themes and messages that will unfold throughout the Torah: from the notion of a First Cause who sustains and guides the details of the universe — “in the beginning God created” — to the formation of a complex creature of unique intelligence, “a speaking being” possessing a moral sense yet with an inner pull toward both good and evil. 

The commentaries point out how its specifically this portion, more than any other, is loaded with wisdom and secrets. It is not simply the first in the order of chapters but the foundation of our general outlook: the essentials that one must internalize and keep at the forefront of the mind to succeed in life.

But there is another idea that pertains to the specific calendar placement. The holidays have just ended. An analogy is given of a merchant who travels from city to city accumulating items, filling his bag, without paying specific attention to the value of those acquisitions. Upon returning home, he sits down exhausted from the long trip. Just then, he is filled with tremendous excitement. He reaches for his bag and begins to unpack it, to see what he has gained. This Shabbat we begin to unpack our holiday bags; we discover all that was accomplished and begin to tap into the awaiting blessings.

Actualization:

Exploring this idea from a different angle, this week serves as a bridge between the end of one stage and the beginning of another. At some point during the High Holidays there is deep reflection. During prayer or maybe while listening to a good sermon or stirring melody a moment of truth and personal discovery occurred. Insight led to resolutions. We reconnected to our Judaism with increased vigor. Feelings of gratitude welled up from the pleasure of sitting together with the family. And this Shabbat plays a vital role in determining what becomes of that experience — whether it will vanish from the mind or make an impact.

Extra focus this week — to sit in shul, listen to the Torah portion and learn, sanctify the day and reflect — stamps the month. It also ensures that all the accomplishments of the past few weeks do not remain in potential but flow into the coming new year. In order to build this abstract bridge, one must be able to reflect, extract the good, and look to the future to transfer that good.

Building bridges:

The process of making a bridge, from a more mystical perspective, is transporting holiness into the ordinary. On Yom Kippur we elevate by detaching from the physical. On Sukkot we reveal that even within our eating, drinking and most physical pleasures we can remain fully connected — even more so, when we infuse our ordinary activities with purpose and holiness. We now take that power into the year. 

A similar bridge — a transfer of holiness — occurs every week. Shabbat bathes us in bright light. We are spiritually satiated. Then Saturday night arrives, which provokes a distinct mood. On the one hand, we are fresh from the holy restfulness of Shabbat. On the other hand, we are eager for a new start, anticipating all the events of the coming week. So, this night contains contrast, a mix of emotions, a blend of light and darkness.

This dichotomy gives rise to a melancholy feeling; the typical “Saturday night blues” run wild. But it is always within such a void that the opportunity to build a bridge occurs. In Jewish tradition, this is done through a special meal to “escort the Queen.” We burn a braided candle, sing songs, tell stories, and mentally extend the flavor of the Shabbat that has passed to carry some of its sanctity and serenity with us into the ordinary. 

Similarly, this coming portion in the calendar is a link between the saturated month of Tishrei and an empty month of Cheshvan. It is a most sacred time to absorb and transfer the powerful concepts and all the personal resolutions of the recent holidays, so that they penetrate our everyday lives.

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