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

    Parshat Vayigash starts in the middle of the story of Yoseph confronting his brothers. After holding back as long as he could, Yoseph finally revealed his identity, and eventually asked for his father to be brought down to him. When Yaakov, his father, finally did come, Yoseph took him to meet Paroh, setting up a confrontation between two opposing powers; Yaakov was the spiritual leader in his generation, while Paroh ruled the physical. Their conversation seems (47:8-10) strange at first glance. The only question Paroh asked Yaakov was (literally) “How many are the days of the years of your life?” which is not only a strange question, but is obviously worded strangely, too. The response seems even more bizarre, when Yaakov answers that “the days of the years of my (physical) living is 130 years, (but) the days of the years of my life are few and bad, and did not surpass those of my fathers.” What does all the obscure language mean? Why didn’t Yaakov answer Paroh’s question directly by just telling him how old he was? And who asked about Yaakov’s forefathers?

    Rav Hirsch helps us by explaining that Paroh actually asked Yaakov how many truly meaningful, spiritual days he had had in all the years of his lifetime. Yaakov answered by first explaining to Paroh that although his physical years were 130, he didn’t look at those physical numbers. Instead, his focus was on achieving the spritual greatness of his forefathers, and answered that he hadn’t reached that goal. Physical numbers meant nothing unless there was a spiritual purpose attached to it. And although Yaakov didn’t reach his own personal goals, he’s our forefather BECAUSE he struggled to reach them. That’s the lesson Yaakov taught Paroh, and that’s the lesson we must learn: We mustn’t get caught up in our clothing designers, cars and bank accounts, but must strive to be more spiritual, where the only thing that really ‘counts’ is effort! We should all commit to doing at least one action a day (give charity, read a chapter of a Jewish Book, learn one Jewish Law) to make deposits into the only bank account that really counts – the spiritual kind!

  • Parshat Vayeshev relates a seemingly disturbing series of events. After telling us that Yosef snitched on his brothers, it says that Yaakov loved Yosef more than all the other brothers and that’s why he made him a striped shirt. Then it says of the brothers could no longer tolerate Yosef, and didn’t believe his dreams of them bowing to him. First, why did Yaakov love one son more than the others? Second, why couldn’t the brothers tolerate Yosef only after his father made him the striped shirt? Lastly, why did Yosef insist on telling his brothers his dreams, when he must have sensed that they didn’t want to hear them?

    Rav Kaminetsky explains that Yaakov had taught Yosef all that he’d learned in the Yeshiva (school) of Shem and Eiver where he studied, and where Yitzchok AND Avraham studied as well. The main strength of that school was that they taught Torah that could survive in  negative environments. Avraham used it to deal with the rest of the world, Yitzchok used it to deal with Yishmael, and Yaakov used it to deal with Lavan and Esav. Now Yaakov was teaching it to Yosef, and the brothers were worried. Were they as bad as Esav or Lavan? Why would Yaakov have to teach Yosef that Torah? Little did they know that Yosef would need it to deal with Egypt, and all the trials he would face there.

    Yaakov loved Yosef more because he learned more, and WANTED the other brothers to be jealous (that’s why he made him the shirt), so that they’d want to learn it too! But instead they became jealous for the wrong reasons. It was THEN that Yosef tried to tell them that they shouldn’t be jealous, because he had to learn for his OWN sake, because he’d have to be a leader in a foreign land (as the dreams with stocks suggested, since there were no stalks where they lived). But the brothers had let themselves be blinded by hate, and couldn’t see the truth, as obvious as it may have been.

    There’s an important lesson in all of this, and that is that jealousy can be used in a good way, as Yaakov TRIED to do. But if we’re not careful, we could miss the whole point, and end up doing things we shouldn’t. The first test is to ask ourselves if we want something because we need it, or simply because someone else has it. We should be jealous of things we can learn and grow from, like Torah knowledge, good character traits, and even courage and persistence. Everyone has qualities we can and SHOULD be jealous of, as long as we use it NOT to prove ourselves, but to improve ourselves.

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

    Parshat Toldot tells the story of Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav, two brothers that couldn’t be any more different. When their father Yitzchok (Isaac) decides that it’s time to bless his two sons, Yaakov ends up getting the better of the two blessings. In comparing the two blessings, though, the Chafetz Chaim points out a very interesting observation: When Yaakov gets the blessing, the Torah says “And may G-d give you of the dew of the heavens and of the fatness of the earth” (27:28). However, when Esav gets his blessing, Yitzchok says “Behold, of the fatness of the earth shall be your dwelling and of the dew of the heavens from above” (27:39). Why was the order of the fatness and the dew reversed?

    The Chafetz Chaim explains that since Yaakov preferred the spiritual to the physical, his blessing came from heaven (dew) to earth (fatness of the earth). On the other hand, since Esav valued the physical more, his blessing was customized to his desires by focusing on the physical first. Although that’s a nice explanation, there’s a much deeper lesson to be learned from it. Because Yaakov focused on heaven and the chain of where things come from, he realized that he’s being GIVEN of the dew of the heavens, which produces the fatness of the earth, and consequently thanked the source, G-d. Contrarily, as the verse adds, Esav’s fatness was simply his “dwelling”, as if it were there all along, with no connection to where it came from. Yaakov was blessed with the ability to see beyond what was in front of him, and therefore appreciated it (and G-d) more. We too are given that same opportunity every day. And all we have to do is stop and think about what we have (as opposed to what we don’t have), and where it REALLY came from. Only then will we ever truly be content, fulfilled, and most importantly, blessed.

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

    Parshat Chaye Sarah records two major transactions, which begs us to wonder about their connection. The Parsha starts with Avraham insisting on paying for his plot of land in which to bury his wife. After much negotiating, Efron agrees to accept payment for the plot. The Parsha then goes into even greater detail describing the efforts of Avraham’s servant in finding a suitable wife for Yitzchak, his son. What’s the connection, other than then technically both being “transactions”?

    One possibility is that the dialog of the first transaction could be the requisite to the completion of the second. In other words, Avraham had to understand and negotiate a FAIR transaction where both sides benefit before he could find a wife for his son. This requirement says a lot about what it takes to find a suitable mate: Give! If you find yourself taking more than you’re giving in a given relationship, you need to insist on adjusting it. If any marriage is to work, the first ingredient is mutual respect, which breeds mutual giving. It is this fact that Avraham mastered before venturing to find his son a wife, and it’s this lesson that we should master before venturing to find our own mates.

  • Special Dvar for Yom Kippur 5772

    Rabbi Abba (the scribe of the Zohar) once sat at the gateway of the Town of Lud, where he saw a traveler sit down on a pile of rocks at the edge of a mountain overlooking a cliff. The man was exhausted for his journey and immediately fell asleep. R. Abba watched this innocuous scene for a bit until to his dismay he watched as a deadly snake slithered out of the rocks making its way towards to the sleeping man.[R. Abba, who for some reason was immobilized and transfixed by this unfolding drama,] suddenly watched as a new turn of events happened. A giant lizard jumped out between the rocks and killed the serpent. R. Abba continued watching and saw that the man stood up and was perplexed to see a beheaded snake lying in front of him. He quickly gathered his possessions and rose to continue his journey. At that instant the pile of rocks he was sitting on collapsed and fell into the ravine below. The man was about to wander off when R. Abba ran after him and recounted everything he had witnessed. R. Abba asked the man, “My friend to what do you attribute all these miracles that just transpired?”

    The traveler at first did not want to be bothered but felt the sincerity of R. Abba’s question and confided in him. “1) Throughout my life I have never let a person harm me, and where I did not pacify him; 2) Never have I gone to sleep without forgiving someone for hurting me in any way; 3) Anyone who would hurt me would I endeavor, with all my heart, to resolve whatever animosity was between us; 4) And lastly, I would go out of my way to perform acts of kindness for the person involved in the misunderstanding.”  When R. Abba heard this he burst into tears. This person’s actions were greater than Joseph, for Joseph had to deal with his brothers, who he was certainly going to forgive, while this man forgives anyone and everyone who has harmed him.

    It’s up to us to forgive others, passively and actively, so that we may merit forgiveness of our own, and a prosperous and successful year to come!
  • Dvar for Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

    Of the many sub-topics in Parshat Ki Tavo, one especially noteworthy expression is when the Torah says, “G-d has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear until this day” (Deuteronomy 29:3). Tradition (and Rashi) has it that Moshe gave Shevet Levi (the tribe of Levi) a Torah scroll, and the rest of the nation justifiably complained that they didn’t get one. But their complaint wasn’t that they didn’t get a scroll, but that future generations might have a problem with it. Upon hearing this complaint Moshe rejoiced! As Rabbi Liebowitz explains, he was actually happy about a complaint because it showed how much the Jews valued the Torah and their bond with G-d so much, that they even thought about the future of that bond.

    If we look closer at the Passuk (verse) we’ll see it even clearer: G-d gave us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel. Why does the Torah say that our hearts will KNOW? The answer is that if we feel something strongly enough, in our hearts we KNOW it to be true. The Jews knew in their hearts that they had to protect the future of the Torah by safeguarding against potential diversions. The Torah is telling us that we must look into our hearts, and do whatever it takes to preserve, maintain and grow as Jews, until our hearts know what’s right. And if we don’t know exactly what we need to do, we must always use our eyes to look at customs of the past, our ears to listen to the existing rules, and our minds to develop our own Jewish niche, until our heart knows we’ve found it.

  • Dvar for Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)

    At the very end of Parshat Ki Tetzei we encounter one of the more famous commandments, instructing us to remember what Amalek did to us as we left Egypt. While the whole world saw the Jews as untouchables, Amalek decided to kill us by attacking the weak people lagging behind, thus proclaiming to the world that they weren’t afraid of G-d by attacking His nation. However, they WERE scared of the Jews themselves, which is why they attacked the weak ones. Strangely, though, the next few Pesukim (verses) tell us to wipe out the memory of Amalek from this world. So which is it? Should we remember what they did to us, or should we wipe out their memory and forget? To top it all, the Torah then tells us AGAIN to not forget!?

    To help us understand the issues involved here, Chazal (our Rabbis) have explained, using an analogy, that it’s as if Amalek jumped into scolding hot water, and although they were burned, they cooled the water, and everyone around them was a little bit more comfortable with the hot water. As the book “Majesty of Man” elaborates, human nature dictates that the more we see of something, the less sensitive we are to it. So what’s the solution? Well, the Torah tells us to remember, erase, and yet remember: Remember the elements in this world that would pick on the weak and defy G-d and authority, but only so that you could erase them, thereby erasing their influence. The final step is to never forget what happens when we surround ourselves with negative influences. As human nature dictates, and as the history books (following this battle) record, we are influenced by our society, neighborhood, and by our friends. Just as we must be careful not to let ourselves be affected by anything negative, we must also remember that we can have a positive or negative effect on those around us. May we have the strength to control ourselves and inspire others!

  • Dvar for Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

    This week we read the Parsha of Shoftim, which charges us to “Appoint for you judges and officers at all of your gates” (16:18). Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the word “lecha” (for you) seems superfluous. This commandment could have simply stated, “appoint judges and officers”, so why did the Torah add the word lecha? The question is even stronger if you consider that the commandment is a society-based commandment, and the extra word is singular. It seems almost contradictory to address an individual while describing a community-based law.

    Rav Moshe explains that the Torah is teaching us a very fundamental concept. In addition to the need for society at large to have these judges and officers, individuals must be both a judge and officer over themselves. The Shlah continues this thought when he explains the continuation of the Passuk (verse), explaining that a person has seven “gates”: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. The way that these gates are used will either build or destroy the person. A person must control the flow through these gates.

    But the Torah also tells us that to accomplish our goal of controlling what comes out of our ‘gates’, we need both judges AND officers. Judges make the rules, and officers enforce the rules. Not only do we have to make an extra effort to know the rules by which to live, but we also need to build safeguards to help us stick to those rules. (I.e. if the rule is not to speak negatively about others, maybe we should try not to hang around people that do.) If we study the Torah’s guidelines, we’ll realize their value and understand our need to protect them.
  • Dvar for Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

    This week’s Parsha starts off with the word “Re’eh”, which means “See”. What are we seeing, and why do we need to see it? Rabbi Yehoshua Wender explains that in our lives we are all on a quest for truth. We are looking to find the real meaning behind everything in this world. However, we need to see everything in its proper light. In every thing in this world there is truth, and there could be falseness, and it is our job to not be tricked by the lies.  So how do we know what’s true and what’s not?

    G-d has given us a Torah that contains the ultimate truth, and that same protection from falseness. Living in this world is like being in a room of fun house mirrors. You walk in, and there are all these curvy mirrors that distort your image.  Some make you look fat, others make you tall, and yet others make you skinny.  The only way to get a true image of yourself is to look in a flat, uncurved mirror.  The Torah is such a mirror: You can look in the Torah and find the truth, untainted, uncurved, undistorted. But it’s also possible to get a true image from looking at a curvy mirror, if you stand in just the right spot, at just the right angle, you can see your self the way you really are.  The catch is that you won’t know that that’s your real true image unless you’ve looked at yourself in a straight mirror and have that image to compare with.  The world is the same way: It is possible to see the world truthfully using other sources, but unless we have studied the Torah and know what truth looks like, we’ll never know if we’ve really found it.
  • Dvar for Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

    Parshat Ekev is where we learn of the benefits and rewards, punishments and consequences, of following and not following the Mitzvot (commandments) set forth for us in the Torah. Among those commandments is a famous one (8:10), which says that “you will eat and you will be satisfied, and bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good land that He gave you.”  If you just ate food, why are you thanking G-d for land? You should be thanking Him for the food itself. Why be indirect? The answer lies in understanding the true difference between animals and people…What separates us from animals is our ability to choose, and our exercising of that choice. Our nature tells us what we NEED to do, while our mind (and religion) tells us what we SHOULD do. Therefore, the more things we do simply because of habit and without thinking, the less free will we’re exercising, which makes us more like animals. Conversely, the more restraint we exercise, the more freedom we’re expressing, because we weren’t slaves to our nature. What makes being a Jew so special is that we have so many ‘choices’ of commandments we can perform, and each of those positive choices make us less like animals and more like G-d.

    With this in mind, even if we already ‘perform’ Mitzvot now, if we do it out of habit and without thinking and actively deciding to do it, we’re just as guilty of doing it ‘naturally’. For Jews, deciding to do something is just as important as doing it, because then we think about why we do it, and the source, reason, and meaning of it all become part of the action. Now we can understand why we thank G-d for the LAND, when we merely eat its bread: We not only thank G-d for the bread we eat, but we also think of the land that it came from, because we’ve thought it through to its source, instead of taking bread at face value. The lesson of the Parsha is for us to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and realize how much control we have. Perhaps we should think of at least one habit we have, and use this lesson to push us to overcome our natural tendency to blindly
    surrender to that habit.

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