• Dvar for Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

    Parshat Vayechi contains many blessings that Yakov bestowed on his family, a few of which are widely used today. One of the popular ones is “May G-d make you like Efrayim and Menashe” (48:20), ironically given to Efrayim and Menashe. What makes Efrayim and Menashe special? Furthermore, Yakov crossed his arms when blessing them, such that the younger one (Efrayim) got Yakov’s right hand, while his left hand rested on the older one (Menashe). After having experienced sibling jealousy with his own brother Esav, as well as the brothers’ jealousy of Yosef, one would think that Yakov would be sensitive about showing favoritism towards a younger sibling. Why would he risk more sibling resentment?

    The answer lies in the timing of this blessing. Yakov places his crossed hands on Efrayim and Menashe (48:14), blesses them (48:15-16), Yosef tries to correct Yakov (48:18), Yakov refuses (48:19), and then Yakov blesses his grandchildren. As the Bnei Yissoschhar explains, the fact that the two brothers accepted their fate, without complaining during this whole ordeal, or harboring any ill feelings in the future is what made them great, and is the very blessing that we bestow on our children today. Accepting our roles without letting jealousy or ego get in the way of personal contentment is a true blessing, not just for our own well-being, but for our family and community as well.

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

    After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers in Parshat Vayigash, the brothers travel back to Yakov (Jacob) to relay the good news. After momentary disbelief, Yakov’s spirits are lifted (45:27) and the next Passuk relates that Yisrael immediately informed everyone that he will go see Yosef before he dies (45:28).  Why did the Torah call him Yakov in one Passuk and Yisrael in the very next verse? Furthermore, in Pessukim (verses) 46:2, 46:5 and 46:8 the names Yisrael and Yakov are both used. Which is it, and why the variance?

    Rabbi Shimon Klein (etzion.org.il) suggests that the name Yakov reflects a human perspective dealing with natural human and grounded interactions, while Yisrael expresses a higher destiny, meaning and perspective, a name declared by G-d Himself. Once Yakov realizes that Yosef was alive, he realized that there was a higher purpose that was now set in motion, and that a nation was being formed, as “Bnei Yisrael.” G-d then address’s Yakov’s mortal fears of leaving a land he was told not to leave (46:2), reassuring him that a great nation will emerge. Then the newly minted nation carried Yakov to Egypt for the next stage of their journey (46:5).

    The whole is always bigger than its parts, and a group functions better than individuals. Our Parsha takes it a step further: A higher purpose not only transforms us when we’re together, it transforms us as individuals as well. G-d told Yakov (46:2) that he, as Yakov, should not be afraid of the challenges that lie ahead. We as individuals should not be afraid of life’s challenges, for a higher purpose not only unites us as a people, but empowers us as individuals.

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

    Parshat Miketz details the events of Yosef being stripped of his coat (39:12) and thrown in a pit for the second time (the first time by his brothers, the second time into jail, which the Torah calls a pit (41:14)), only this time with vastly different results. What changed this time, and how was this change instrumental in Yosef’s growth and ascent?

    Rabbi David Fohrman offers a beautiful explanation that brings several stories together, with a common practical lesson for us all to extract. He explains that Yosef’s troubles started with the negative reports he told his father about his brothers, where the Torah uses the word “dibah” to describe his brothers, a term used one other time in the Torah to describe the negative reports the spies delivered about the land of Israel. To rectify his first mistake, Yosef had to go back into a pit and correct his actions. When he comes out of this second pit to report to Paroh and interpret the dreams, Yosef tells Paroah “biladai”, or “it’s not me” – it’s G-d that interprets the dreams, not me. That level of selflessness is a more mature version of Yosef than the one that was self-absorbed the first time he was thrown into a pit, and ironically the reason why Paroh is comfortable bequeathing so much power over to Yosef.

    To underscore this message, there’s a similar growth parallel between the two coat episodes. The second time Yosef was stripped of his coat, it was done in an act of honor and integrity, and to avoid the temptations of Mrs. Potifar, despite the ramifications. The fact that Yosef was willing to lose his coat for the second time despite the disastrous results the first time, despite the unfortunate results the second time, simply to keep his integrity intact, showed tremendous growth as a person, which proved that he was ready to move forward as a leader, both for the house of Paroh and for the Jews.

    The integrity and humble characteristics that Yosef developed is what enabled him to grow as a person, and what ultimately enabled him to lead his family through some rough times. The Torah imparts this growth beautifully and subtly, such that only careful analysis and introspection will help us grow and ascend, as Jews and as people.

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

    Parshat Vayeshev describes the story of Yosef’s deteriorating relationship with his brothers, and their plot to kill him as a result. The Torah tells us that Reuven came to Yosef’s rescue and saved him from their hands (37:21). However, the story itself doesn’t play out that way. Reuven suggests that the brothers throw Yosef into a deadly pit instead, which they do, but then Yehuda suggests that they sell him into slavery instead. It turns out that Reuven’s idea didn’t end up saving Yosef at all, so why did the Torah say that it did?

    The Lekach Tov explains that while ultimately Yosef wasn’t actually directly saved by Reuven’s actions, because his intentions were to do the right thing G-d considers that Reuven actually saved him. While this shows the importance of proper intentions, and the credit one gets for actions done for the right reasons, it also highlights the effect our actions may have on others.
    It could also be that the reason why G-d considers intentions relevant is because from Yosef’s perspective, it seemed like all his brothers were against him, while he genuinely felt like he was doing the right thing. It must have been a very lonely feeling, having no one on your side, not even your own brothers. All that changed when Reuven attempted to protect Yosef, and while ultimately that didn’t prove to be effective, perhaps it gave Yehuda the spark to suggest selling him instead. Reuven’s “failed” actions may have sparked hope in Yosef, and an idea within Yehuda that ultimately benefited everyone. All Reuven had to do was try, and that’s all that’s ever asked of us.
  • Dvar for Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

    This week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, recounts Rachel’s last days, as she gave birth to her second son and subsequently passed away. Her dying wish was to name her son “Ben Oni” (35:18), which means “son of my pain”, but Yakov instead called him Binyamin. There is obviously great significance to names given in the Torah, and this is the first we find of a wish for a name being ignored, and the fact that it’s a dying wish being ignored possibly makes this even more significant and worthy of analysis.

    While other explanations are given, one possible reason is that while Rachel focused on a negative when naming her son (the pain she endured), Yakov thought it best to instead focus on more positive things, like the fact that Binyamin was born despite Yakov’s old age (Rashi), or the fact that one of Rachel’s descendants, Mordechai, would one day save the Jews (called “ish yemini”). It could also be even more poignant: Rachel’s pain would one day turn into a positive, as the Jews were able to pray at her grave many years later. The name change is not about suppressing pain, it’s about using it as a strength, a lesson Yakov hopefully imparts to us every time we contemplate this Parsha.

  • Dvar for Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:1)

    In Parshat Vayetzei, Yaakov (Jacob) begins a journey to find himself a wife, and essentially begin his life. But when he sleeps and dreams of G-d telling him that the land he’s sleeping on is Holy, he is compelled to bring sacrifices, and promises to give a percentage of what he has back to G-d as Maaser (tithe – which we still practice today). In the Torah, however, it says that “Yaakov woke up from his sleep and said “Surely Hashem is present in this place and I did not know” (28:16), and shortly later it says that “Yaakov woke up early in the morning and took the stone that he placed around his head and set it up as a pillar” (28:18). Did Yaakov go back to sleep? It seems that he woke up twice. Furthermore, why did he suddenly feel compelled to promise to give a percentage of what he earns?

    One way to answer these questions is by examining the dream Yaakov had. In the dream, G-d told Yaakov that the land he was sleeping on would be his, for his children, that He would protect Yaakov, and eventually return him to his land. Why would the land, which is the least spiritual thing in the world, be so important that G-d had to assure Yaakov that it would be his, and that he would be returned to it? The answer to this question is also the reason Yaakov ‘woke up’ the first time…He didn’t physically wake up, but merely realized how much potential land had. As Yaakov put it….”This is the gate to heaven”. Through working on the land, and through using it to fulfill G-d’s will, we can create a gate to heaven. Land is no longer just land, but has now become more sacred, simply because it gives us more opportunities to do Mitzvot (positive deeds), thereby becoming more spiritual. Giving a percentage of what we earn to charity is ALSO a way of using a very earthly item (money) for a higher purpose, which is why Yaakov saw it necessary to commit to it right then.

    We too must realize that there is nothing in this world that can’t be used to elevate us spiritually, and it’s our job to find ways to do just that. So we use Email to read Dvar Torahs, which is great, but it shouldn’t stop there. We must use food, clothes, money, and even nice scenery to bring us closer to the “gates of heaven”. The sooner we realize how much potential there is for us to grow spiritually in this world, the sooner we can “get growing”.

  • 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.

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