Vaera 5769

by Ron Shapiro

January 24, 2009/28 Tevet 5769

After Moses finally accepts God’s request to lead the Jewish people during the famous “Burning Bush” scene last week, Parshat Va-era begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the Jewish people and tell them that God will bring them out of Egypt. Surprisingly, the Jewish people did not believe Moses and Aaron. When God told Moses to speak to Pharoah, asking him to release the Jews from slavery, Moses refused. He claimed that Pharoah would never listen to him, considering that he has a speech impediment and not even the Jews believed God’s promise. However, God assured Moses that this would not be the way, for Aaron would speak to Pharoah.

When God described to Moses and Aaron how to confront Pharoah, God said:

“V’ani akshe et-lev paro v’hirbeiti et ototai v’et-mophtai b’eretz mitzrayim” (Shemot 7:3) But I will harden Pharoah’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 357)

Why does God say that he will harden Pharoah’s heart before he has even rejected Moses’s request? Why would God cause the 10 plagues to happen unto the Egyptians and cause so many deaths to humans created in his image? One interpretation states that God responded to Moses’s in this way so that he would not be embarrassed due to his inadequacy (Etz Hayim p.357). Another explanation points to the fact that for the first five plagues the text reads, “Pharoah’s heart was hardened,” rather than, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart,” which appears in the final five. Rashi believes that God hardened Pharoah’s heart so that he could see the power of “the Hebrew God.” The Rambam explains this phrase by saying, “Sometimes a man’s offense is so grave that he gives up the possibility of repentance” and that with each rejection on his own Pharoah loses his ability to repent.

The parsha later begins narrating the story of the beginning plagues, which seems like a never ending loop of “God warns Pharoah but he ignores the warning, plague comes to Egypt, Moses and God forgive Pharoah.” Why doesn’t God sense this repetitiveness after 4 or 5 plagues? Why does he continue to forgive Pharoah time and time again?

The parsha teaches us that even when someone has done so much evil that they can no longer they repent, we should still give them another chance to better themselves. Pharoah is depicted as one of the most evil figures in the Torah, yet God gives him 10 chances to repair himself. Sometimes, we put our trust into people time after time, and they fail us with each task. However, we should continue to give them the benefit of the doubt. On the other side of situation, we should strive to repair the trust that we might have lost with an acquaintance.

Vaera 5770

by Charlene Thrope

January 16, 2010/1 Tevet 5770

At the beginning of Parashat Vaera, Moses tells the Israelites of God’s five promises &8211; to free them, to deliver them, to redeem them, to take them, and to bring them to the land of Israel. Although this message is powerful, the Israelites do not listen to Moses. In order to deliver God’s message more effectively, both Aaron and Moses go to speak to Pharaoh, asking him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. When Pharaoh doesn’t grant God’s request, Aaron and Moses demonstrate God’s power with signs, including the ten plagues.

God alone cannot save the Israelites. The Israelites do not always listen to Moses, God’s messenger, perhaps due to his speech impediment. To compensate for Moses’s weakness, Aaron speaks for Moses. But even when Aaron and Moses work together, they need to prove God’s power to others, especially Pharaoh. God, Moses, and Aaron all knew they needed help in order to accomplish their goals. God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God tells Moses “lo nodati lahem (I did not make Myself known to them).” God relies on Moses, and this dependency shows a whole new aspect of God, including God’s weaknesses.

Knowing our weaknesses allows us the opportunity to ask others for help. The amount of resources we have is overwhelming &8211; our family, our friends, our teachers, our rabbis &8211; but they are useless if we choose not to embrace them. We cannot and should not try to do everything by ourselves. We may not be able to overcome our weaknesses alone, but with help from others, we can bring out our true strength.

Shemot 5769

by Judah Kerbel, 2009 USY International Religion/Education VP, 5769

January 17, 2009/21 Tevet 5769

In Parashat Shemot, Moses was out shepherding Jethro’s flock when he received a call. No, not on his cell phone, but through a phenomenon even greater than cell phones:

Va-yeirah Malach Adonai eilav b’labat eish mitoch ha-sneh va-yar v’hinei ha-sneh bo’er ba-eish v’ha-sneh einenu u’kal (Shemot 3:2).An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all a flame, yet the bush was not consumed (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 327).

The burning bush catches Moses’ eye, and bearing the human trait of curiosity, he merely intends to check out this supernatural phenomenon of bush that burns but does not turn to ashes. God then calls out to Moses, he cries out the famous “hineini,” I am here [at your service], and the rest is history. The appearance of God through a bush seems to bear significance. The medieval commentator Chizkuni analogizes the burning bush to the Jewish people, explaining that “it is a sign comparing Egypt and Israel, as the enemy is compared to the fire and Israel to the bush. And like the fire did not consume the bush, in this fashion the enemy could not defeat Israel.” Philo, the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher from 1st century Egypt, comments that “the bush that burns but is not consumed symbolizes the Jewish people, perpetually attacked and endangered but perpetually surviving” (327).

Davka today, I came across an Israeli scientist named Isaac Berzin, who has developed a method for utilizing algae to produce biofuel and to consume carbon dioxide (no pun intended). He was named one of the Top 100 people of 2008 in Time Magazine, and in the profile of his work, Time includes an analogy he made to the burning bush. “What can you burn without consuming it,” he asks. “Renewable fuels.”

What is our renewable fuel that has prevented our enemies from annihilating us over a span of over 3000 years? The answer, in my opinion, is our covenant with God – adherence to Torah. Going back to Chanukah, which feels like so long ago already, the Jews’ victory against Antiochus & Co. was a military victory vital for the spiritual success of the Jewish people. All wars that the Jewish people have fought, whether physically or spiritually, have been fought for the sake of keeping alive God’s covenant. Our observance of Torah is not merely a luxury &@8211; it is necessary for our survival. As the saying goes, “water for fish is like Torah for the Jews.” So long as our commitment to Judaism remains a priority for the Jewish people, we can thrive. We have the willpower, evident in our constant survival as our enemies still attempt to destroy us, as well as our faith and our principles. A comment in our Humash: “to see that a bush is on fire is easy; to see that it is not consumed takes time and patience ….” (327). We must continue to struggle to add sanctity to our lives and keep the faith alive even when times make it hard to do so.

As I discuss our enemies’ inabilities to destroy us, I add in a prayer that as our brave soldiers fight Hamas, an organization committed to eradicating Israel and Jews, we hope for their safety and well-being, and that their courage will send a message to a cynical world that the Jewish people do not let up when their legacy is at stake.

Shemot 5770

by Charlene Thrope

This week we begin the book of Shemot with Parashat Shemot. If you have ever gone to a Passover seder, attended Religious School, or watched The Prince of Egypt, you know the basics of the book this book. You also probably have a general idea of what happened in the book of Torah we concluded last week, Bereishit. The transition between these two books – from stories of individuals to the story of a nation – is abrupt. Throughout the book of Bereishit, the term b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, refers the actual children of Israel, or Jacob. However, within the first few verses of Shemot, this term comes to mean the entire Israelite people.

The emphasis on nationhood found in Shemot becomes clear from early in Moses’s life. Initially, we do not know the names of Moses’s parents – we only know that they are Levites – and although his mother nurses him, Moses spends much of his childhood living in the palace with Pharaoh’s daughter. When Moses goes out into the world and sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, the Israelite is called echav, his brother. Although Moses and the Israelite are not actually brothers, they are part of the same nation. This bond is strong enough for Moses to call the Israelite a member of his family.

We usually focus on our own lives and the lives of our family and friends before we look into what is happening in the rest of the world, and it certainly makes sense to try to solve problems on a small scale before tackling global issues. However, as sudden or overwhelming as it may be, we must remember to make the transition from people to peoples, from Bereishit to Shemot. We learn from the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” but we cannot settle for saving a world – we must strive to save the world.

Vayehi 5763

by Josh Nason

Parshat Vayechi deals with some very interesting issues regarding the ancient connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. At the beginning of the Parsha, Jacob is living out his last years in Egypt. He has been settled peacefully for 17 years there, but he calls upon Joseph for one last wish. Jacob makes Joseph take a solemn swear that he will bury him in the land of Israel, and not in Egypt. This connection to the land inspires Joseph so much that he not only buries his father in Israel, but upon his own death, Joseph also makes the request that he be carried out of Egypt and in to Israel.

Parshat Vayechi deals with some very interesting issues regarding the ancient connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. At the beginning of the Parsha, Jacob is living out his last years in Egypt. He has been settled peacefully for 17 years there, but he calls upon Joseph for one last wish. Jacob makes Joseph take a solemn swear that he will bury him in the land of Israel, and not in Egypt. This connection to the land inspires Joseph so much that he not only buries his father in Israel, but upon his own death, Joseph also makes the request that he be carried out of Egypt and in to Israel.

The major part of the Parsha recounts Jacob’s commands to each of his son’s. Most notable are his words on Simeon and Levi. Simeon and Levi are most known for their aggresive warlike tendencies. Jacob says, “my will must not enter into their council, my glory must not join in their assembly, for in their anger they murdered men.” (Bereshit 49:6) This sets up a precedent among the Jewish people for Sanctity of Human Life. In Judaism, it is of the utmost importance to do whatever it takes to preserve human life. It is one of the primary pillars of the IDF Doctrine: “Human Life – The IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life. During combat they will endanger themselves and their comrades only to the extent required to carry out their mission.” While it may be difficult to keep this in mind at times, during the heat of the current violence, we must remember that in every IDF action, they are striving to preserve life. In Judaism, we cannot get caught up in an ends justify the means style of living. It is our duty to not allow people to hurt the sanctity of human life. Even in the time of Jacob, this was a pillar of our people’s belief system.

The Parsha ends with the death of Jacob, and subsequent burial in the Cave of Machpelah in Israel, and then skips ahead many years to the death of Joseph, who also requests burial in Israel (although not immediately, Joseph would rather have his coffin buried in Egypt, and then brought to Israel at a later time, possibly during the Exodus). This then ends the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and prepares us for the story of the Israelites slavery in Egypt during the upcoming book of Shemoth (Exodus).

Vayehi 5769

by Judah Kerbel, 2009 USY International Religion/Education VP, 5769

January 10, 2009/14 Tevet, 5769

This week, we read Parashat Vayechi – the last of the Book of Genesis. Perhaps the name vayechi – and he lived – is ironic, for this parasha focuses on the last moments of Jacob’s life, and we will also see Joseph move on towards the end of the parasha. In this parasha, Jacob falls ill and summons his children to bless them. He forces Joseph to swear that he will not be buried in Egypt, but rather in the Cave of Machpelah, where his wife Leah, his parents, and his grandparents rest. Jacob is embalmed when he dies, and Joseph carries his remains back to Canaan. After Jacob dies, the brothers worry that Joseph will kill them, wary that he holds a grudge against them for their evildoings; yet Joseph assures his brothers that it all happened for a reason and that he does not bear a grudge against them.

The words hamalach ha-go’el oti mikol ra, the words to the popular Abie Rotenberg melody that we love to sing on Shabbat afternoons, appear in this parasha as Jacob blesses Joseph. Let’s take a look at what we are singing. The text reads:

Hamalach ha-go’el oti mikol ra yevareich et ha-ne’arim; v’yikarei bahem sh’mi, v’sheim avotai, Avraham v’Yitzchak, v’yigdu la-rov b’kerev ha-aretz. (Breishit 48:16) The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name by recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth. (Etz Hayim Chumash, p. 297)

This is a blessing from Jacob in hopes of a bright future for the Jewish people. When God appeared to Jacob at Beit El further back, Jacob vowed to serve God as long as God protects him wherever he goes. Indeed, Jacob endured many hard times between his uncle Lavan constantly deceiving him, running a querulous family, and practically losing his favorite son; yet God was there to help Jacob. Jacob hopes for the best for his descendents, that God will be with them in all their journeys and to guide them.

A kushya (difficulty) on this blessing: what does it mean for the lads to be recalled in his and Isaac and Abraham’s names? Shneur Zalman, as quoted in the Etz Hayim chumash, explains: “May God bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional, biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that sustained us” (p. 297). Three things prevented Jews from assimilating in Egypt: preserving their dress, language, and names. What Shneur Zalman is emphasizing is that the way in which we call ourselves reflects the way we approach our connection to Judaism; by giving our descendents Jewish names, we assert the prominence of Jewish identity in our everyday lives. If we do not identify as Jews, how can we serve God? Sforno, an Italian scholar, comments that “Abraham and Isaac … but not Terach or Nachor, because righteous men are not called by their fathers’ names when these are wicked, nor vice versa … hence his blessing was a prayer that they might be prepared to serve the Almighty so that they will be worth to be called after Abraham and Isaac …” (Art Scroll translation). Names serve as a symbol to the Jewish legacy we carry, and names reflect what we value in life.

This would be the expected time for me to say that if you have a secular name, your value of Judaism is worthless – if that was really the case. We all, in fact, do have Hebrew names, even if in the secular world we have an additional name. The fact that many of us do have both secular and Jewish names is very significant, that we still care about having Jewish names. As we continue to combat assimilation and stay true to our Jewish roots, let us not forget our names. It is those names that link us to the grandeur of Torah and of our ancestors, all the way back to Abraham.

Vayigash 5763

by Hadar Schwartz, IGB Rel/Ed Committee 2002, 5763

Now, I must admit that, though I love my siblings dearly, I have fought with them many times. I know that everyone else with siblings would agree with me. Brothers always choose to take the head off of your favorite Barbie doll and sisters seem to keep yelling for hours, keeping you at that same task for just as long (this is, of course, my own female bias). But, as I said before, you gotta love ‘em.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with Torah? Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers — the Torah loves sibling rivalry. In every generation this nasty habit that got one patriarch in trouble, propels that patriarch to favor one of his sons and to revive the tradition. Sadly, this sibling hatred causes Joseph’s brothers to betray their brother by selling him into slavery.

I see, in Parashat Vayigash, a glimpse of a brighter future though. In vs. 14-15 of Ch. 45, the JPS narrative reads,

“With that he embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”

After years apart and so much heartache, Joseph and his brothers can reconnect but they had to reach rock bottom first (or whatever the bottom of pyramids was made of). Maybe it took this experience to bring the brothers of the Bible back together and to finally get them to speak. Now I am not preaching sibling love and harmony. If it didn’t work FOR the patriarchs, it sure ain’t working on me. And no hugging and kissing required. However, I could feel in these verses such regret. Joseph’s brothers didn’t know him; they didn’t recognize him. I could almost hear Joseph telling me to call my sibs, find out about their week. Why wait, right? I don’t want to be thirty and in charge of a bustling country before I give them a call. Funny thing though, Joseph also told me not to forgive my brother for the Barbies or the broken carriages. I guess you can only go so far.

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