• Dvar for Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

    Sefer Bereishit is full of stories about Avraham and Yakov, but there are very few stories exclusively about Yitzchak (the Akeida is really Avraham’s story, and Yakov tricking Yitzchak over the blessings is really about Yakov). This week’s Parsha, Toldot, does include one story about Yitzchak, and it’s a strange one that requires analysis: There’s a famine in the land, Yitzchak wants to go to Egypt but G-d tells him to “sojourn in this land (Gerar), and I’ll bless you.” (26:3) G-d blesses him by making the land produce 100-fold, to the point where the locals become uncomfortable with his success, and ask Yitzchak to leave. So he moves to the valley, unplugs a well that Avraham initially dug up, and the locals claimed it as theirs (on his way out he names the well Asek, or “contention”). He moves to a second well, unplugs it, and the locals claim that one as well (on his way out he names that well Sitnah, or “hatred”). He moves to a third well, unplugs it, and gets no resistance from the locals (and names the well Rechovot, or “expansion.”) Why did the locals suddenly leave Yitzchak alone? Also, generally, what is the point of this seemingly superfluous Yitzchak story?

    Imu Shalev and David Block of AlephBeta.org suggest an interesting and insightful answer: When Avraham is blessed with wealth, he pitches tents and maintains temporary residence, for the intended purpose of not showing off. When Yitzchak was gifted with wealth, G-d asked him to do the same, instructing him to sojourn in the land, rather than to settle down. Yitzchak settled down, which made the locals jealous, prompting him to leave. When he dug up the wells, he once again provoked jealousy, and was challenged. However, for the third well Yitzchak first “removes himself from there” (26:22) before digging the well. Ironically, removing himself from the land, or becoming a journeyman, allowed him to keep the well he dug, and inspired him to call the well “expansion” – freeing himself of a home base allowed him to expand. This leads to a beautiful discovery that Yitzchak made: If you free your mind of earthly possessions, your world suddenly expands. While physical possessions are important and sometimes powerful tools, they should be used to expand our experiences, not burden them.

  • Dvar for Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

    In the week’s Parsha, Chaye Sarah, there lies a hidden story behind the story, with three clues in our Parsha. The first clue is when Rivka first sees Yitzchak, we are told that he is coming from Be’er Lachai Ro-i (24:62), a fact not relevant to the story, and seemingly insignificant. The second clue is that after Sarah’s death and Avraham’s mourning of her passing, while we would expect Avraham to walk into the sunset of his life, we are told that Avraham then married a woman named Keturah and has six children, with no further mention of her or their children. The third clue is that when Avraham did pass away, he was buried next to Sarah by Yitzchak and Yishmael (25:8-10). Where did Yishmael come from, and where has he been until now?

    The Midrash pieces together the underlying story, and its meaning. The sages point out that Be’er Lachai Ro-i is the spot where Hagar prayed for her son Yishmael to be saved, and where Yitzchak went to search for Hagar after his mother died, hoping to find his father a wife. They also explain that Avraham did end up marrying Hagar, now named Keturah because “her acts produced frangrance”. Yishmael was present at Avraham’s burial, suggesting that this resulted in Avraham and Yishmael getting along. These facts provide context to their complex relationships, and more importantly, their ability to resolve their differences. May the story of our past provide hope for our future.

  • Dvar for Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-22:24)

    When this week’s Parsha, Vayeira, introduces the story of Sedom, it begins by describing God’s justification in involving Avraham (18:19). God explains that Avraham has been teaching his family to “keep the path of God with righteousness and justice” (18:19). How does that justify involving Avraham? Also, why would the Torah describe Avraham as keeping the path with righteousness and justice? What is the difference between the 1) path of G-d, 2) righteousness and 3) justice?

    Rabbi David Fohrman helps us understand this by pointing out a parallel with the description of Gan Eden (Garden of Eden). The Torah describes the angels and a sword that was placed in front of Gan Eden to protect “the path to the tree of life” (3:24), just like our story describes Avraham’s adherence to the path of righteousness and justice. While justice is a fair way to live, Sedom proves that it’s not enough, and explains what Avraham learned from its destruction. There needs to be righteousness, a willingness to do what’s right, and an understanding of the balance between the two. In contrast, Avraham walked the path of both justice and righteousness, a dynamic exchange with God about the balance of the two, a path and process worth protecting. If we can strike a balance between justice and the right thing to do in life, we too will walk the path of the tree of life.

  • Dvar for Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

    Embedded in this week’s Parsha, Lech Lecha, is Avram’s asking Hashem (G-d) “how will I know that I will inherit it (the land)?” This seems strange, because Avram was already promised that he would have children, and that his children would be as many as the stars. If he believed G-d about having children (which would be a great miracle at his age), why would he need reassurance about a much less miraculous promise of inheriting the land?

    The Sforno explains that Avram had no doubt that he would have children, and that they would inherit the land. What he needed reassurance about what his concern that his children might forfeit their future by faltering, because unlike the stars, they would be living among temptations and impurities. G-d’s response is “you shall surely know” that they will indeed rise above their struggles. How? Rashi (commentary) says because of the Korbanot (sacrifices) that they will bring. The root of the word Korban means “close”, which lends great insight into giving: The more we sacrifice to others, the closer we are to them. If we give to each other, despite our surroundings, we are assured of inheriting a prosperous and fulfilling future.

  • Dvar for Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

    From the beginning of the Torah through the end of this week’s Parshat Noach, the Torah relays a four-act drama on the theme of responsibility and moral development. Though the stories may seem unrelated, when read in sequence they present the maturation of humanity, which echoes the maturation of the individual.

    The first thing we learn as children is that we control our own actions, and that we must accept personal responsibility for the consequences of those actions, something Adam and Chava learned when they were punished for their decision to eat from the tree of knowledge. The second lesson is that of moral responsibility, as Cain is held responsible for his killing Hevel. The third lesson is the realization that we have a duty not just to ourselves but to those on whom we have an influence, or collective responsibility, a lesson Noah failed in the beginning of our Parsha when he failed to save anyone other than himself and his immediate family. Finally, we learn that man cannot just focus on his own kind but there is an Authority beyond mankind to whom we respond, illustrated by the story of the tower of Bavel.

    The subtlety and depth of the Torah is remarkable, which makes its study and analysis so rewarding. It was the first, and is still the greatest, text on the human condition and in this instance our psychological growth from instinct to conscience, from “dust of the earth” to morally responsible agents of the Torah and its lessons.

  • Dvar for Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

    Parshat Bereishit recounts the creation of the world, including plants, animals, humans and marriage. At first glance, it seems that G-d includes Adam’s marriage to Eve in order to highlight how man contrasts to animals. Apparently contradicting this theme, however, is that the biblical concept of marriage is described as an “acquisition” of a wife (Kedushin 2a), seemingly equating Adam’s control over Eve with his ownership of the animals he named.

    Rabbi David Fohrman addresses this question by comparing the concept of “acquiring” a partner to the idea of acquiring Torah. Rabbi Fohrman explains that acquiring Torah doesn’t involve control or ownership, but rather that it completes us only when we actively treasure, appreciate it and work on it. The same applies to marriage:  Men and women complete each other when they appreciate each other and continually work on their relationship, differentiating us from animals, and establishing a union worth treasuring. By appreciating the Torah, our partners and everything else in life that we have, we differentiate and complete ourselves, a goal worthy of the very first Parsha in the Torah.

  • Dvar for Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)

    Parshat Haazinu is Moshe’s last speech, delivered as a song because songs reach deeper into our souls. In the beginning of the song (32:4), it says “The Rock! – Perfect is his work, for all his paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He”. This statement is loaded, saying that Hashem is perfect, just, fair, righteous, and without iniquity. What’s strange is that it begins with comparing G-d to a rock, and then saying that G-d’s work is perfect. What’s the Torah trying to tell us by mentioning a rock, and by using all those terms? The Chafetz Chaim answers one question with a story about having faith: A man had an only son that was sick, and spared no expense finding him a cure. One doctor finally cured the boy, and told the father that the son got sick because of certain meat that he ate. The father vowed to keep that meat away from his son. Years passed, the father had to go away on a business trip, and he had his family watch the boy. After he left, the boy was tempted by the smell of the meat, ate some, and became deathly ill again. When the father returned, he called the doctor and begged him to do all he could. Once again the doctor was successful in healing the boy, and the father decided to never leave his son again. A while later the father had a party (with meat), and when the son walked in, the father quickly rushed him out. The guests all watched in wonderment, but they didn’t understand that it was for the son’s sake.

    We are the guests, wondering why things are happening in our lives, but we now know that G-d’s work is just, fair, and perfect as a rock in every way. But a rock is not perfect, you say? Well, it may not be perfect in shape or color, but it’s solid, consistent, and always grounded, which are the qualities G-d shows us, and the very qualities we should emulate this coming year. By this time next year, may we all be rock Jews, in every sense of both words.

  • Dvar for Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

    Parshat Vayelech includes the commandment for every Jew to write a song for themselves (31:19), which Rashi says is referring the following Parsha, Haazinu. The sages derive from this rule the final of the 613 commandments that each Jew has to take part in the writing of a Torah scroll. Why would we be required to write our own song, and then be given the song to sing? Also, how is the requirement to write our own song the same as the requirement to take part in scribing our own Torah?

    If we apply the concept of this weekly Dvar Torah, we can easily understand the Torah’s final commandment: If we take any commandment in the Torah and personalize it, although its source is the Torah, its ownership is very personal. Songs, too, sound different when sung by different people. In fact, music becomes even more personal because it’s a more emotional medium. That’s exactly why the Torah chose music as the metaphor to teach us about personalizing the Torah to make it special for ourselves. The Torah wants us to internalize it so much that we sing about it. If we accomplish this, we’ve fulfilled the final commandment of writing our own Torah – with all the harmonies that accompany it.

  • Dvar for Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

    Parshat Nitzavim starts by proclaiming that “you are all standing here today” (29:9), and then proceeds to use the words “this day” two more times in the next three verses, none of which were actually needed for their corresponding sentences to be complete. What significance is the Torah placing on “this day”?

    Rabbi Abraham Twerski points out that there are two natural roadblocks placed before us as we endeavor to become better people and better Jews, and both of these roadblocks can be overcome by focusing on “this day”: The first natural roadblock is our inclination to look ahead at temptations and hurdles we will encounter, and our feelings of frustration and helplessness in overcoming those collective obstacles. The Torah therapeutically empowers us to focus on one day at a time, and leave tomorrow’s worries for another day. The second natural roadblock we face is the guilt of our past, which can sometimes make us feel depressed and unworthy.  We have today to repent for those things we shouldn’t have done.

    With the past behind us, and a whole new year ahead of us, it’s nice to know that we don’t have to wait to become better people… the time is right now, and “this day” just became our present.

  • Dvar for Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

    Today. It’s a powerful word. It is used by doctors to define the exact moment their patients are to stop over-indulging, smoking, and drinking. It is used by account receivables to exact when they want their bills paid. Most importantly, it’s used by the Torah in describing what It wants from our attitudes. This week the Torah portion tells us: “Today Hashem commands you to perform these  decrees and statutes.” (26:16) There is obviously a deeper connotation. The commandments were not given on the day that Moshe read this week’s portion. They were given forty years prior. Also, at the end of the Parsha, Moshe calls the nation together and reminds them of the miraculous events that transpired during the exodus from Egypt. He discusses “the great wonders, signs, and miracles that your eyes beheld.” (29:1-3) Then he adds something shocking: “But Hashem did not give you a heart to understand or eyes to see until today.” What can the word “today” mean in this context?  Did the Jewish nation not have the heart to appreciate the value of splitting the Sea forty years back? Did they not revel in the miracle of Manna from its first earthly descent decades previously? How can Moshe say that they did not have eyes to understand until today?

    Rabbi M. Kamenetzky explains that perhaps Moshe is telling his nation the secret of eternal inspiration. One may experience miraculous events. They may even have the vision of a lifetime. However, they “will not have the heart to understand or the eyes to see” until that vision is today. Unless the inspiration lives with them daily, as it did upon the moment of impact. Whether tragedy or blessing, too often an impact becomes as dull as the movement of time itself. The promises, pledges, and commitments begin to travel slowly, hand-in-hand down a memory lane paved with long-forgotten inspiration. This week Moshe tells us that even after experiencing a most memorable wonder, we still may, “not have the heart to discern nor the eyes to see.” Until we add one major ingredient. Today.

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