Toldot 5770

by Tyler Dratch

November 21, 2009/4 Kislev 5770

As I started thinking about the torah portion this week, I realized that life is full of choices. Sometimes our choices will affect the rest of our lives, while others have no meaning whatsoever after the choice is made. Regardless, it is clear that choices should be made with care. Judaism teaches us to live in moderation and to think carefully before making an extreme choice.

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, deals with the idea of making choices. Rebecca was blessed with the birth of twins, Jacob and Esau. The twins are very different, and the midrash says that even before they were born they were fighting. The climax of the parasha comes with Jacob, the second born, steals Esau’s birthright given by their father Issac to the first born son. Early in the portion Esau is very hungry and “trades” the birthright for some soup Jacob had been preparing. This instance brings up an important lesson about choices.

We live in a society full of instant gratification. Everything in our society is meant to be as fast as possible. Highways offer EZPass at toll booths, restaurants offer fast food, and cell phones with the internet allow us access whatever we want whenever we want at very fast speeds. Sometimes we do not have time to slow down and make the right choices. As Jews we learn from Esau’s mistake. Esau expected the instant gratification of eating the soup over the long-term gratification of the birthright. We learn not only that choices are important, but also how easy it can be to make the right choice if one is conscious about it.

As USYers we make important decisions every day. Post bar and bat mitzvah age we are now responsible for our own actions. How will you behave? Will you go for the instant gratification, or will you wait for the right choice? How will you choose?

Seventh-Day Stretch:
#8: The Talmud requires us to eat three meals on Shabbat: one Friday night, one after prayers in the morning, and one in the afternoon. Shabbat in the Book of Isaiah is called oneg (literally “delight”), and therefore not only do we refrain from fasting, but we also bring our meals up a notch by serving a menu that is not typical during the week. People also set their tables to look nicer than would normally be during the week. Shabbat meals are made holier through singing zemirot and talking about the parasha and general words of Torah. We begin the first two of our Shabbat meals with Kiddush. We are commanded twice in the Torah to sanctify the Shabbat, and we do so using wine (or grape juice). The two reasons for doing so go back to Shamor v’Zakhor in the Ten Commandments that I talked about at the very beginning, where we commemorate the Exodus in the former and Creation in the latter.

There is no doubt that Shabbat meals are quintessential to observing the holy day. It is our easiest time to sit down with family and friends and to not be in a rush to eat and return to daily activity. Much emphasis has been placed on observance in the home, and the Shabbat table is the place to sanctify Shabbat.

#9: I recently read a quote in A Treasury of Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg about the pertinence of using the word “Shabbat” in describing the day. In Summary, when one calls this day Saturday, it is easy to forget about the primary nature of Shabbat and overlook it as just any day to do something. When we call it Yom Ha-Shabbat, however, we emphasize that Shabbat is a holy day for the Jewish people, and we do not engage in our secular activities. Even if one were to go to the mall on Shabbat, one would be reminded that it is a special day when one says Shabbat than “I’m going to the mall on Saturday.”

Rather, we go to synagogue on Shabbat. Because we’re not under the pressures of the normal week, we add more psalms, increase our singing, have Divrei Torah, and read more of the parasha than we do during the week. Of course, this can get very long, so I’d like to suggest a couple of things to make your Shabbat morning worthwhile:

  • Times that you don’t find engaging in the service, study a Jewish text – even Pirkei Avot in the back of the siddur.
  • Read the commentary of the Etz Hayim Humash during the Torah reading – you’ll learn a lot more.
  • Look out for special references to Shabbatin the Shabbat liturgy and think about how you relate to them throughout Shabbat.
  • Less is more – it’s often better to say less prayers and concentrate and connect to them more than to rush through and feel the rote nature of prayers.

Toldot 5771

by Charlene Thrope

Although I won’t always admit it, I love my family. And although we are all very different individuals, from our religious observance to our academic interests, we are extremely close. In fact, I think our diversity is what allows us to be so close. Because I went to a different high school than my brother and sisters, I never had to deal with a teacher liking me more – or less – than an older sibling. Because my sisters are much older than I am, we never fought over clothes. Because we are all so different, it is almost impossible for my parents to compare us.

Likewise, Jacob and Esau are very different: Esau is red and hairy, and Jacob is not; Esau loves the outdoors, and Esau prefers to stay inside. Jacob and Esau have different appearances, professions, and priorities. Instead of embracing their differences, these brothers are in constant conflict. Their fighting is encourages by their parents, who clearly play favorites. Rebekah helps Jacob trick Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, and Esau chooses an additional wife that he knows he parents will approve of. Jacob and Esau are seriously lacking in brotherly love.

Before they are even born, God tells Rebekah, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Rebekah knew her children would be different, and she chooses to favor the younger son. God never predicts that Esau and Jacob will become rivals and their descendants will form rival nations. The nations of Esau and Jacob could have become brother nations – separate, yet still friendly. Instead, they fight for years and are not reunited for many years.

We, like Rebekah, often assume that differences – between siblings, friends, or fellow board members – will result in conflict. But if we embrace this diversity, we can use it to strengthen our relationships and create a society that values tolerance, understanding, and pluralism.

Chaye Sarah 5763

by Ariella Rosen

Parashat Chayei Sarah focuses mainly on the glory of Sarah’s life after her death, Avraham’s quest to bury her, and his efforts to find his son Yitzchak a wife. Though the way Avraham bought Sarah’s burial place was well described, not many know the significance of his purchase to the Jewish homeland Israel, today.

When Avraham bought Ma’arat Hamachpelah (the cave of Machpelah) from Ephron the Hittite, he made the sale clear and public, stressing the fact that he was doing business in the presence of many witnesses. “Ve’Ephron yoshev b’toch b’nei Chet vaya’an Ephron haChiti et Avraham b’oznei b’nei Chet lechol ba’ei sha’ar iro leimor.” (Breishit 23:10. Ephron was present among the Hittites; so Ephron the Hittite answered Avraham in the hearing of the Hittites, all who entered his town saying…) The language itself the Torah used to describe the scene can tell us a lot about the importance of the sale to Avraham.

The Torah uses as few words as possible. In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote whole books on the notion that “every letter, stroke, sign or ornamentation of a letter in the Torah may be the basis of ‘mounds of mounds of law’”. This means that every word written that may seem extra really has a specific meaning not clear at first glance. With this in mind, the repetition of Avraham’s request to buy Ma’arat Hamachpelah only further demonstrated his desire to have claim to the land, and how much he wanted the deal to be recognized as legal.

The buying process Avraham went through to acquire this land can parallel what the Zionist movement had to deal with in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when buying land in Israel, then Palestine. Most of the land bought for the Jewish homeland came from absentee landlords (owners from outside the country), and the early Jewish settlers wanted to make it clear that they had legal claims to this land, that they hadn’t just come in and taken it. They made the sales formal and public, calling in big-name philanthropists like Rothschild and Montefiore to make it clear that the transactions took place.

Today, Hebron (the location of the cave of Machpelah) is one of the most debated locations in all of Israel, and the entire country is trying to prove its validity. Avraham and the early Jewish settlers recognized this as an issue, which is why they took the extra steps to physically buy the land. We, as Jews, know that the land of Israel was promised to us by God. We understood our claim to the land. However, the other nations weren’t buying it (in a metaphorical sense). The purpose of the transactions that took place between Avraham and Ephron and the Zionist settlers and absentee landlords were to prove to the world that even if they didn’t recognize our religious ties to Israel, they would have to understand that we owned it.

Now, during today’s controversy, we have both religious and political ties to our homeland. And still, the conflict goes on…

May peace come soon to our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Chaye Sarah 5771

by Emily Mostow

This week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah (Life of Sarah), ironically begins with Sarah’s death. Abraham makes arrangements to bury her by purchasing the Cave of Machpelah. He approaches the owner of the cave and says, “I am a stranger and resident amongst you” (Bereshit 23:4). One interpretation of this is that Jews are residents in the world on a physical level, but strangers in the world on a spiritual level. We are supposed to bring the two together by sanctifying the physical world. Most mitzvot, including keeping kosher, kissing a mezuza, and having a seder, are rules about physical things. By treating the physical world in the way that God wants us to, we bring our “residential” existence closer to our “stranger” existence–that is, closer to the less familiar spiritual existence.

Later on in the parsha, Abraham sends Eliezer away from Canaan to find a wife for his son, Isaac. He makes Eliezer swear not to pick a Canaanite to be Isaac’s wife: “I will make you swear by God, God of heaven and God of the earth (Bereshit 24:3). Later on, he refers to God as “the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house” (Bereshit 24:7). Rashi interprets this to mean that before Abraham began to follow God, God was the God of the heavens but not of the earth. People on earth did not consciously obey God. However, ever since God spoke to Abraham, people on earth recognize God as God. Since then, God is God in both heaven and earth.

As human beings and as Jews, we are responsible for making sure God is not only in heaven, but that He is also on earth. We can do this by making God a part of our everyday, physical lives. Whether it’s in the food you eat, the way you dress, doing tikun olam, or fetching water for someone’s camels, letting God into your life lets God into the world.

Vayera 5763

by Shai Romirowsky

This upcoming week marks the beginning of a new year. Not so much in the sense that it is really the beginning of the school year, but more in the sense that after all of the Chaggim, the school year really begins to take its toll. Getting back into a routine is certainly a good thing, but where there is a routine, there’s always a problem. This problem is what Agatha Christie likes to call, “the unforgivable error.”

In one of her mystery stories Detective Hercule Poirot says to Captain Hastings, “It is your destiny to prevent me from committing the unforgivable error.”

The captain replies, “What do you call this unforgivable error?”

Poirot answers: “Overlooking the obvious.”

In a day and age complicated with long commutes, heavy workloads, schedule conflicts, cell phones, traffic and other daily activities that shape the mold of our routine, we frequently overlook what remains so close at hand. However, this “unforgivable error” which Christie speaks of isn’t just a byproduct of the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. In fact, this weeks Torah portion contains the parable of Hagar and Ishmael dying of thirst in the desert. Hagar places her son under a nearby shrub and sits some distance away. “For she thought: ‘I cannot look on as my child dies.’ And sitting thus at a distance she wept loudly…Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the child drink.”

Let us note carefully what the Lord did for Hagar in her child’s time of need. He “opened her eyes” to the obvious well that she had overlooked. In truth the key to her son’s survival and salvation lay close at hand. Yet in the midst of her hysteria she had neglected to notice the treasures that lay within her grasp.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God could do for us what He did for Hagar in the wilderness. If He could open our eyes to the multitudes of blessings that lay before us, to the vast sea of opportunity and the everyday miracles that we so often neglect and overlook. If we could only see the obvious, what a solution that would be to the trivial grievances that accompany our everyday routine.

By overlooking the obvious we not only deprive ourselves of the potential gifts that lay so close at hand, but we also dilute ourselves of the innate talents and gifts that we already possess. Maybe then we would rid ourselves of the awful conviction of “what if” and “had not.” Then, when we get into the mindset of “if only” we would be able to remind ourselves that we should not make the unforgivable error.

So, as we each embark upon the beginning of a new year and as we re-establish the routine within our lives, let us not forget to stop and smell the roses. May we have the ability to see what we may not ordinarily see; and may we appreciate the little things in life, that so oftentimes make the difference between routine, and the beauty of a new day.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Vayera 5764

by Marissa Shragg, EMTZA, 5764

Most Torah portions discuss one main theme, a certain mitzvah or an event. There are few which discuss a variety of these: Va-Yera is one of the few portions which covers many of these concepts. The first is the birth and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the second is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the third is the story of Hagar and Ishmael. The one story, out of the three, which relates most to our society today is, actually, the preface to the story of Isaac; the story of Abraham, Sarah and the strangers.

Sarah and Abraham were both very old when they found out that they would conceive and bear a child. It was a year after the couple had welcomed three apparent strangers into their tent. It is said that one of these strangers was actually G-d. It was the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah which helped Him to decide to help the couple have a child. When Abraham saw the strangers approaching, he quickly invited them in, to sit down, and asked them to soak their feet in water: Sarah dropped everything that she was doing, as well, and began to cook a feast for the three men. These actions portray the mitzvah of Hakh’nasat or’him, or hospitality. This is one of the most highly valued mitzvot within the entire Torah.

It is so interesting, how our society has changed so drastically over the centuries. We still put a high value on donating food, blood or tzdakah to different organizations, but this contributing is not universal. Much of society relies on soup kitchens to feed the hungry, shelters to give a home, and even “welcome wagons” to greet new arrivals. Although the problems are on their way to being managed, everything is anonymous. The thought is there, but I think that this is societies way of “making the mitzvot work for them”. Instead, we should try to go “out of our way”, and we should reach out to a new family within the community – we should make them feel like they belong; that is, truly feel accepted – people remember a friendly face, a smile, and compassion more than they do a tray of brownies, or a casserole.

Instead of waiting for the hungry to be fed at soup kitchens, donate food and go donate your time to help serve them. In place of letting the homeless stay on the streets, or in crowded shelters, volunteer, with an organization, to help build homes for families who can’t afford to buy a place to live.

Donated clothes can keep a person warm. Food can keep someone from being hungry. A house can make someone feel safe. But, only reaching out with love and compassion can truly touch a person’s heart. “Give a man a fish, and he will be fed: Teach a man how to fish, and he will never go hungry.”

Vayera 5770

by Judah Kerbel

November 7, 2009/20 Heshvan 5770

Who is your best friend? Think about one person who you define as your best friend. A “friend” in this case does not have to mean a “comrade” or a peer of any sort, but rather someone who is your closest confidant. How did that person earn your trust? What motives might you have for such a friendship?

In Chapter 18 of Bereishit, we have two stories: the birth of Yitzchak and God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (and Avraham’s plead against it). In between the two stories – before God reveals his plans to Avraham – we hear God’s thought process through the decision to reveal those plans to Avraham. The Torah says:

“And the Lord said, shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing? Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have know[n] him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He hath spoken to him” (Leibowitz translation).

Nehama Leibowitz, one of the most essential contemporary scholars of Torah, understands this verse to serve as a bridge between the first and second stories. Yitzchak, who was born in the first part, is the first of many descendents of Avraham who will be responsible for carrying out a certain mission that is brought in the second story – that of justice. Through Rashi, Leibowitz explains that God chose to reveal his plans to Avraham because God knows him – meaning that God has an intimate relationship with Avraham – and expects Avraham and especially his children to carry out the mission of righteousness and justice. Indeed, the idea of knowledge of God is explained to be doing what is righteous and just. This is Leibowitz al regel echad (that’s an expression in Hebrew meaning ‘on one foot,’ or in summary).

After we hear God think to himself, we immediately see Avraham act to fulfill God’s mission. Even though their wickedness was despicable, Avraham wrestles with the justice in wiping out two entire towns. He cannot conceive of the idea that there is not at least ten* righteous people in each of these two towns and feels uncomfortable or anxious that God would completely obliterate these towns.

As descendents of Avraham and inheritors of the tradition, we bear equal responsibility for fulfilling justice. There are people who assert that we have a lesser obligation to help non-Jews versus helping Jews. But my read of this episode based on what we established above is that we have an equal obligation of spreading justice throughout the world wherever needed. I’m preaching to the choir here, but I see this to further emphasize the necessary role Jews should take in speaking out against genocide in Darfur, and to speak out against justice in your own communities just as much. But I also see this as a command to be justice – that the very essence of who you are should be justice. The inscription on the front of my favorite siddur is da lifnei ata omed – know before whom you stand. Wherever you are, you stand before God in your obligation as a Jew to lead a righteous life and create a world of justice. When you look back on your life, will God have known you for your contributions of justice and righteousness?

*As a sidenote, I want to mention that the ten people that would have been required to save Sodom and Gomorrah can be seen in light of the minyan. We do not do d’varim bikdusha, matters of holiness (i.e. Kaddish, k’dusha, barchu) without a community of ten people. Enough people to create a minyan to bring holiness in Sodom and Gomorroh was not to be found.

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