• 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 Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    In Parshat Vayechi, part of the blessing that Yaakov gives to his son Yehuda is that “His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk” (49:12), scion of the royal lineage of the Jewish people. While wine has always been associated with royalty, what does the color white and milk have to do with the future kings of the Jewish people?

    The Gemara (Kesuvos 111a) has a fascinating interpretation of this verse: “Better is the one who shows the white of his teeth (i.e. in a smile) to his friend, than the one who gives him milk to drink.” Rabbi Zweig explains that this is because one who provides milk to the poor provides a physical gift that sustains the person for a little while. However, the one who comforts others with a smile and encouraging words gives that person an everlasting feeling of self-worth. Perhaps this is the inspiration for all the great smile quotes, and could help inspire us to “give” more smiles.

  • Dvar for Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

    In this week’s Parsha, Vayigash, Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers, after making sure they didn’t harbor any resentment. As Rabbi Haber points out, what’s more amazing is that Yosef forgave his brothers, after being stuck in a dangerous pit crawling with poisonous snakes, screaming out for help while catching a glimpse of his brothers sitting down to break bread, ignoring his pleas for mercy. If one’s brothers sold them as a slave, would they ever be able to forgive them, kiss and embrace them, and adhere to all the families’ laws and customs after they caused you such profound pain? Yosef did all of these things. He didn’t assimilate; he didn’t become an anti-Semite. He defied every law of human nature. How?

    Rabbi Haber goes on to explain that Yosef was empowered by one sentence: “You didn’t send me here, G-d did” The fact is they did send him there, but from Yosef’s perspective that was something THEY had to deal with. As far as Yosef was concerned, it was all an act of G-d. He was not the judge, he was a brother and he was a Jew. He would act like a brother and he would act like a Jew.

    We can learn SO much from Yosef today, if we could just memorize and adapt one line into our lives – “it wasn’t you that sent me here; it was G-d” – we’d all be closer to all our “brothers”, and we’d all be better Jews.

  • Dvar for Miketz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)

    Parshat Miketz tells of the sons of Yaakov traveling to Egypt to buy food and bring it back to their father. Yosef tries to foil their plans by accusing his brothers of being spies because their father wouldn’t have to send all 10 sons to get food, and the brothers respond that “we are all sons of one man” (42:11). How does that explain why they were all sent? The suspicion Yosef raises still exists!?

    In Majesty of Man, Rabbi Leibowitz explains that when Hillel and Rabbi Akiva emphasized loving our fellow man as ourselves, they were describing fundamental principles of the Torah. As the Ramban explains, although the trip to Egypt was long and dangerous, Yaakov felt that developing the brothers’ feeling of unity and brotherhood was worth the risk. This Ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew) is so critically important that Hillel and Rabbi Akiva stressed it, and Yaakov risked his own sons’ safety for it. If we neglect each other’s needs in the outside world, in the workplace and at home, we’re placing ourselves in danger of losing the comm”unity” we strive to be a part of.

  • Dvar for Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

    Parshat Vayeshev relays that when Yosef recounted his second dream to his father (of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him), Yakov rebuked him (37:10).  As Jonathan Gewirtz asks, why didn’t Yosef tell his father about his first dream? Also, why was Yakov so angry at Yosef, who merely had a dream, when in contrast he was not angry when Shimon and Levi killed the entire city of Shechem (34:30)?

    One possible answer comes from a Maharshal that says that “most dreams follow their interpretations.” When Yosef shared his first dream with his brothers, their response unwittingly interpreted his dream when they responded “will you rule over us?” However, after the second dream they remained silent, so Yosef shared it with his father. Yakov was aware of the power of his interpretation, which is why he cloaked his interpretive response with anger when he said “shall it come to pass?…”, with the intention to deflect the brothers’ animosity toward Yosef. Yakov’s fierce response shows us the heightened sensitivity we need to have toward interactions among those around us and their perspectives.

    Perhaps that’s why on Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of the oil, as opposed to the victory over the Greeks. Being mindful of others’ perspective, viewpoints and feelings will help us focus on the positive things in life, like diversity of opinions, shared goals and common dreams.

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