Miketz 5763

by Helen Bennett

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, finds us in the middle of the Joseph story. After two years in Egyptian prison, Pharaoh calls on him to interpret confusing dreams. Joseph foretells that Egypt will experience seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of food collection during the prosperous years and then food distribution during the famine to reward him.

And so, as it turns out, Jacob (Joseph’s father) is forced to send his sons (Joseph’s brothers) down to Egypt during the famine to obtain food for the family. When the brothers approach Joseph in request for food, they do not recognize him, for he has changed his clothes and appearance to that of an Egyptian prince. While the brothers don’t recognize their long lost brother, Joseph recognizes them. He makes them go back to their father in Canaan and bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin. After Jacob was convinced that his favorite son, Joseph, was killed from seeing his coat covered with blood, he took up favoring Benjamin. But, in order to attain food, the brothers told their father that Benjamin coming with them was the only way to get it. So, they return to Egypt with Benjamin.

In Egypt, the brothers get their food, but Joseph secretly put his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack, accusing them of theft. The parsha closes with Joseph holding Benjamin as a slave while letting the other brothers go free.

While looking at this parsha, I noticed how clothing had a major impact on the story. At the beginning of the Joseph story, Jacob believes that Joseph is dead based on his blood-covered clothing (a.k.a. the coat of many colors). Then, when the brothers come to Egypt for food, they totally don’t recognize their brother just because of his new Egyptian clothing.

I think this brings up a very important issue that we are still struggling with today. Look at how easily people can be deceived by clothing. Today, we shouldn’t believe that a person’s clothing means everything about them, but then we shouldn’t be so naïve and think that clothes don’t mean anything. Most of the time, people wear clothes that they like and that express their personality. Other times though, people hide behind their clothes and try to change what outsiders think of them based on their mere appearance. It is always important to not assume things based solely on a person’s exterior. At the same time, it is also important to be aware that others may be judging us on our clothing and appearance.

Miketz 5771

by Emily Mostow

Happy Chrismahanakwanzakah! USY, I’m probably not the first person to greet you this way. Although we make up a small percentage of the population, everyone seems to know that it’s Chanukah.

As a result, around Chanukah, we may especially find ourselves looked upon as representatives of the Jewish people. Anyone from our friends to teachers to dental hygienists may ask us questions about Chanukah and our traditions. What are we supposed to do if we don’t know the answers?

In this week’s parsha, Miketz, Joseph is in a similar situation. A very prominent non-Jew, the Pharaoh, asks him to interpret his dream. Joseph replies, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Bereishit 41:16, JPS translation). Joseph is humble, and recognizes that it is not his job to invent an answer, but to deliver G-d’s answer.

We can all learn from Joseph’s behavior. As tempting as it can be to appear to know everything, we should not be afraid to admit when we don’t know the answer. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (in Psalm 119:99) ‘I have gained understanding from all my teachers’” (Mishnah Avot 4:1). Joseph and Ben Zoma both teach us that wisdom doesn’t come from pride, but from being humble enough to learn.

Vayeshev 5763

by Sylvie Grossbard

Parashat Vayeshev tells the story of Yosef, his “colored” coat, his descent into Mitzraim (Egypt), and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer’s and baker’s dreams in prison. Yosef is described as being Ya’akov’s favorite son in just the third verse of the parashah: Ya’akov loved Yosef more than any of his other sons because he was the son of [Ya’akov’s] old age, and he made him a kind of tunic. (B’reshit 37:3). But what kind of tunic? And why does it matter what exactly Yosef wore? Why is it so special?

Various sources debate the nature of the k’tonet pasim. The midrash B’reshit Rabba suggests that “pasim” indicates that the cloak extended to Yosef’s wrists or ankles, or both. Whichever it was, the idea implied by this is that such a long garment would render one unable to perform manual labor. In many cultures, long clothing is a sign of wealth and status; of not having to do manual labor; and indicates importance and superiority.

The Torah does say that Yosef shepherded his father’s sheep along with his brothers (B’reshit 37:2). Yet when he wore his k’tonet pasim, Yosef would be greater than his brothers would. Thus, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 10b), Yosef’s brothers grew jealous of his elevated status and came to hate him. Their hatred drove them to sell him into slavery in Mitzraim, which led to the immigration of B’nai Yisrael and their subsequent enslavement. They fled to escape famine and settled there until a new pharaoh feared their numbers and enslaved them. God had foretold this in His blessing to Avraham, that his descendants would be strangers in a land that is not theirs. However, the Talmud suggests that God used this favoritism in the chain of events to teach a lesson by showing the disastrous effects of favoring one child over another. Because Ya’akov chose to elevate one of his sons above the others, B’nai Yisrael became slaves in Egypt, and although this story ended happily with the entrance into Eretz Yisrael, the end did not come until after numerous years of brutal slavery.

Although we are not old enough to be parents, we are old enough to consider how we treat other people. Recognize how you behave towards every individual, and remember that hurting them by favoring another is just as costly to you and everyone else around you as it is to them. Of course, we should always be considerate for the sake of respecting people, but it often takes a realization of possible bad consequences for ourselves for us to understand the implications of favoritism.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!!

Vayeshev 5771

by Scott Greenberg

Can a girl ask a guy to prom? I was having this discussion today with a group of my friends at lunch. Even though prom is months away and the issue was completely theoretical, we were split on the issue, and the discussion became heated. While some of the guys had an “over my dead body” reaction and proclaimed that they would never say yes if a girl asked them to prom, other guys seemed fine with letting the girls take the initiative.

Surprisingly, the girls were divided as well. Most argued that the concept of the male asking the female to prom was a sexist, 1950s conception of gender roles which doesn’t belong in today’s equal opportunity culture. However, some of the girls stated that they like being asked to prom and preferred not to have to take the initiative.

What would the Tanach say about this issue? Well, we know that the Tanach was given in a very male-centric culture, where women played a marginal role in the society. Thus, you’d expect that in the Tanach, men always initiate relationships with women, and not the other way around.

Surprisingly, that’s not always true. While Jacob does work 14 years for Rachel, Ruth also sneaks into Boaz’s room at night. While Shechem rapes Dinah, Delilah also pursues Samson. The relationships of the Tanach are split between those initiated by men and those initiated by women.

In fact, in this week’s parashah, Vayeshev, we see, right next to each other, two relationships that are initiated by women, in Genesis 38 and 39.

The first of these episodes is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, has three sons himself: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries a woman named Tamar, but he dies. Tamar marries Er’s brother Onan, but Onan dies as well. It’s Shelah’s turn to marry Tamar, but he isn’t grown up yet, so Judah tells Tamar to wait. But, even when Shelah is grown up, Judah holds back from letting Shelah marry Tamar (because after all, the first two had died!). So Tamar dresses up as a prostitute and waits on the side of a road for Judah to come by. Judah is tempted, so he and his daughter in law sleep together. Here is a relationship, initiated by the woman.

The second of these episodes is the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. Joseph (Judah’s brother) has been brought to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph quickly rises up to become Potiphar’s most trusted servant, the overseer of all the goings-on in Potiphar’s household. Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph, so she asked him to have sex with her. Joseph, mindful of his master and of God, refused to lie with her. In a rage, Potiphar’s wife told her husband that Joseph had tried to seduce her, and Joseph is thrown in jail. But this too is another sexual encounter initiated by a woman.

These two stories are literally right next to each other in the Torah, and it begs us to compare and contrast them. Yes, both have a woman who tries (or succeeds at) seducing a son of Jacob into having sex. But the two relationships couldn’t be more different.

What’s Tamar’s motivation in having sex with Judah? It’s plain and simple: she wants a child. Her first two husbands have died, and she can’t marry another. The midrash sees her yearning to have a child with Judah specifically, because she saw prophetically that his descendants would be the leaders of Israel someday. Tamar’s motives are pure, and she succeeds in having a relationship with Judah. And, lo and behold, one of the descendants of that relationship was… King David!

What was Potiphar’s wife’s motivation in trying to seduce Joseph? One hint is from the verse: “She cast her eyes upon Joseph.”

This implies that Potiphar’s wife was physically attracted to Joseph’s looks. She was cheating on her husband because she had found a young and good-looking slave. It’s true that a midrash says that Potiphar’s wife wanted to share in the line of Joseph just like Tamar wanted a share in the line of Judah, but there seems to be little support in the text for this. The bottom line is that Potiphar’s wife’s motives are much more base, and she fails in seducing Joseph.

What can we learn from this? The Torah seems to be cool with women starting relationships with men. But, like any relationship, it has to be started for the right reasons. Relationships occur because both partners care about each other, share the same values, and are invested in the union. Relationships that are started for the wrong reason will fail.

So yes, girls, you can ask guys to prom.

Vayishlach 5763

by Josh Sowalsky

This week’s portion is Vayishlach. Two weeks ago, we read that Jacob received the birthright blessings from Isaac, which were supposed to go to his brother Esav, thereby arousing Esav’s wrath. At the conclusion of last week’s portion, Jacob was returning from Charan to the land of Israel. In the beginning of this week’s portion, Jacob sent messengers to Esav to greet him. However, the messengers informed him that Esav was coming with 400 men, and Jacob feared that Esav’s intentions were not peaceful.

Upon hearing this, Jacob split his camp and animals into two groups, saying that, “If Esav will attack one camp, the second will be saved.” Jacob prayed to Hashem to remember His promises and to save him. Jacob then sent Esav a present. Esav accepted the present and made peace with Jacob.

Jacob’s preparations for Esav raise many questions. Why did he first divide his camp and only then pray? Also, why was he confident that if one camp were destroyed, the other would remain? Esav was approaching with 400 men, more than enough to destroy both camps.

Jacob had been told by Hashem to return to Israel and that Hashem would bless him there. He knew that the future of the Torah depended upon him and his seed. He had great faith in Hashem’s blessing. However, according to Midrash, he feared that perhaps his great wealth had interfered with his connection to Hashem. When he divided his camp, he put all of his wealth and servants in one camp and his family in the other. He prayed only for his family, and after praying, he was sure that even if Esav captured the camp with his wealth, the remaining camp with his family would be secure.

Jacob’s willingness to sacrifice his material possessions provides an example for us in our daily lives. Often our desires for status and material possessions can conflict with our values of family and religious life. We learn from Jacob that our material wealth is less important than the wealth we get from family, Jewish living and following Mitzvoth.

The Torah concludes Jacob’s encounter with Esav by saying that Jacob continued to live in peace. Rashi explains that everything that Jacob had given Esav as a present was replenished later in Jacob’s life. This teaches us that even when we place less importance upon our status and material possessions, Hashem will provide amply for us. Three times daily in Ashrei, we recite, “Poteach et Yaedcha…;” Hashem opens his hand and satisfies the needs of every living thing.

As USYer’s, we should strive to make Judaism a part of our lives as much as we can, even when it conflicts with our secular values and goals. We all resolve this conflict differently. For some, it means keeping Kosher and observing Shabbat; for others it may be an occasional Shabbat dinner, or just saying a Bracha or two. However, as long as we are mindful of Jacob’s example and his faith that Hashem will provide for him, we will find it easier to sacrifice our desires for status and material possessions to live a Jewish life.

I hope you all have a terrific Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom.

Vayishlach 5770

by David Helfand

December 5, 2009 / 18 Kislev 5770

Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yisachar, Zevulun, Dan, Naftalii, Gad, Asher, Yosef, and Benyamin. These are the twelve sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes of the people of Israel. But where are the women in this group? We all know that Jacob had 12 sons. But did you know that he also had a daughter?

In this week’s Parasha Vayishlach, Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, goes out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem the Hivite takes her and sleeps with her by force. He asks his father Hamor to arrange his marriage to Dinah. Meanwhile, Jacob waits until his sons come in from the field to tell them about what just happened to Dinah. Jacobs’s sons tell Hamor that it would be improper for their sister to marry anybody who is not circumcised. Hamor agrees that all the men of his community will be circumcised, the two communities will trade with one another, and they will marry into each other’s families. On the third day, as the Hivite men were recovering from their circumcision, Simeon and Levi took their swords and slew all the Hivites. Jacob criticizes his son’s actions, fearing an attack on him and his people. But the brothers respond harshly to their father by saying, “shall our sister be treated like a whore?”

The story of Dinah is violent and tragic. Who is the villain of this story? At first glance it appears to be Shechem, the son of Hamor, who took Dinah and forced her to sleep with him. He is considered to be a rapist who deserved a harsh punishment. Yet Dinah’s brothers exacted a punishment far beyond what we would consider fit for the crime when they killed the entire male Hivite population. But the story could also be read differently. It could be that Dinah went willingly to Shechem’s tent and was not really forced to sleep with him against her will. In that case, would Shechem really be the villain?

Just prior to the story of Dinah, Jacob brings all of his wives and his sons to greet his brother Esav. But once again Dinah is nowhere to be found. Rashi asks “But where was Dinah? Benjamin was not yet born, but Dinah should have been accounted for. Jacob put her into a chest and locked her in, so that Esau should not set eyes on her. Therefore, Jacob was punished for withholding her from his brother, because had Esav married Dinah perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways.” Jacob made a bad judgment call when it came to visiting his brother Esav. He decided what he thought would be in the best interest of his daughter Dinah. But God did not see it that way. Dinah was a good person and meant well. She just did not know the difference between right and wrong because she was never taught.

Jacob was not an ongoing presence in his daughter Dinah’s life. Could it be that the story of Dinah is a story about parenting, particularly the parenting of a daughter? Could it be that Jacob is the villain here? That Dinah went willingly to Shechem because she had not been taught by her father the difference between right and wrong? Parenting is of particular importance in the raising of children. If a child has the constant presence of a parent in her life, as an adult she will yearn for that same love and affection in a partnered relationship, and strive to provide the same commitment to others. Jacob needed to teach Dinah the fundamentals of life, but he didn’t because he wasn’t there for her. This all goes to show us the importance of a dugmah … a role model … in the life of a child. It is important for children to learn how to make choices in their lives … to know the difference between right and wrong, and to challenge their role models when they see their role models falter.

So how do we make sense out of all of this? How does all of this fit together? And what does it mean to us?

The story of Dinah tells us that each of us is responsible for his or her own actions. No matter how often someone tells you to do something or not to do something, in the end the decision lies in your own hands. At the same time it is important to remember that what we do, or don’t do, is influenced by our role models.

Think about the presence and influence you have in the lives of your family and friends – is it positive, negative, or non-existent? In every place you go, whether at school or USY, at home or just walking on the street, you can be a positive influence for others. Even without knowing it, you have the power to change someone’s life for the good. So always do your best and what you think is best, not only for you but for the benefit of others. Never give up on the opportunity to be a good dugmah. This is the lesson that Dinah’s story teaches us in her relationship, or lack of one, with her father. Dinah’s encounter with Shechem teaches Jacob about the importance of being a dugmah. And from that we learn that we also have an obligation to be a role model to others. May this Shabbat be the beginning our quest to become the future dugmaot of Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Vayishlach 5763

by Jake Altholz, 2010-11 Hagalil USY Religion/Education Vice President, 5771

“Professor, I was in the library the other night, in the Restricted section, and I came across something rather odd, about a bit of rare magic, and I thought perhaps you could illuminate me. It’s called, as I understand it … a Horcrux.”

These words have been spoken identically by perhaps two of the greatest wizards of all time. To the first of these two wizards, the professor, Professor Slughorn issues this response.

“A horcrux is an object in which a person has concealed part of their soul. One splits one’s soul and hides part of it in an object. By doing so, you are protected should you be attacked and your body destroyed.”

In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, our father, Yaakov, creates several horcruxes in preparation for his encounter with his brother and sworn enemy, Esav. He sends malachim to deal with Eisav before he will actually meet with him face to face. The word malachim has two different meanings. One is that it means agents, messengers, human beings who were sent on a particular mission to do Yaakov’s bidding. The other meaning is that the word malachim signifies angels, supernatural messengers of God who were sent to Yaakov to help him in his fateful encounter with his brother.

Rashi speaks of both possible interpretations in his commentary. When Rashi does so, he is teaching us that both interpretations are correct at differing levels of understanding the verse involved. The message here is that the encounter with Esav, in order to be successful from Yaakov’s vantage point and situation, has to have both human and supernatural help.

Yaakov has backup plans, or horcruxes, so that if one should fail, he will have a means to survive. He has created several lifelines through which his goal of survival can be attained, even if his encounter with his brother does not go well. Yaakov even went to the extent to divide his family into camps to ensure the survival of his family.

“He divided the people accompanying him into two camps, along with the sheep, cattle and camels. He said, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one camp, at least the other camp will survive.'” (Bereishit 32:8-9)

Just like Yaakov, we must place our souls in both humans, and God. If we do, we can never be harmed. Part of us will live on no matter what. So before I finish, I implore you, if you have not yet done so, put your soul into USY, and help others do the same. Make USY a horcrux through which your spirit will live on. If you do, your friends, and the people you impact during your time here, will never forget you.

To the second great wizard that asked him, Professor Horace Slughorn responded, “there can be no light without the dark. I myself strive for the light.”

So USY, strive for the light. Be like Jacob and make horcruxes to serve the forces of good. Gather your friends and things you love, put your soul into them, and they will always protect you. Just like Harry was protected by Lily Potter’s love, we are all protected by those around us and we together will always live in the light.

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