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.

Vayera 5771

by Alex Krule

We’ve grown up with the golden myth of Avraham. Avraham is an ideal character in the Tanach; Avraham is a figure whom we should all strive to be like; Avraham is the quintessential Jew. But this myth was taught to us by our preschool teachers and is just that: a myth. It has become apparent that this Avraham that we have come to know and love has never existed.

Rambam’s commentary on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 3 explains ten tests of Avraham. The tenth and final test is the akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – found in this week’s parsha. Rambam says that the akeidah exists to test Avraham’s faith in God. Now, according to the traditional understanding of Avraham, we would like to believe that Avraham passes this test. However, the case simply is not so. Avraham misunderstands God’s directions and fails the test.

In Genesis 22:2, God says, “v’ha’alei’hu sham l’ola.” Now, according to the preliminary understanding of the text (found in a JPS), this means that Avraham is to “offer [Isaac] there as a burnt offering” (JPS Tanach, 39). However, we must look further into the text to find the true meaning.

Rashi, a notable medieval French commentator, notes that God never said “lishchot,” to slaughter, when he tells Avraham what to do with Yitchak. Additionally, he comments on the “bringing up” or “ola” part of the action. He says that where it says “la’a lot,” to bring up, it also says “la’redet,” to bring down, later in the text. Similarly, according to Ibn Ezra, a French rabbi and commentator who specialized in a grammatical analysis of the Torah, says that “nasah,” nun-samech-hay, often translated as “he tested,” can be spelled with a sin and an aleph. How does this change the meaning of the passage? Well, “nasah” with a sin and an aleph means “lifted up” or “elevated.” This is not the only place in the Tanach where the word “nasah” (with a sin and hay) means “to elevate.” In Exodus 20:17, it says “n’sot etchem” (“God will raise you, so that the vision of God will always be upon you”). This means that, as a member of the Nation of Israel, God will raise you higher, in terms of holiness, above the other nations, and that God will always be watching over you.

I believe that the fundamental test that Rambam spoke of was a test of Avraham’s understanding of God’s will; a decision between pshat (basic understanding) and drash (in depth understanding), if you will. God was testing to see if Avraham would take God’s words at face-value (pshat) or to seriously consider the deeper meaning of God’s words (drash). I also believe that the true answer is the drash; Avraham was not supposed to kill Isaac, rather, he was supposed to lift him closer to God. Avraham obviously interprets God’s words only to the level of pshat. And so, Avraham fails that test.

What does this mean? Why does it matter if Avraham failed a test? Well, this read of the Torah is dramatically different from the traditional read. Many of us learn in Hebrew School that Avraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, but it was actually a test of faith from God. We are also taught that Avraham is a near-perfect role model to be looked up on. This is clearly not true, but it doesn’t mean that we should not respect Avraham. Avraham is not perfect, but that is what makes him an important character in our heritage. Instead of trying to be perfect, which, as humans, we can never be, we can look at Avraham and acknowledge that we have flaws; that it is okay to not be perfect. We must cease from putting our biblical heroes on a golden pedestal and think of them on the same level as us. Only then will we have a more accurate understanding of our tradition.

Lekh Lekha 5763

by Josh Dorsch

This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, deals with the beginning of the 10 tests that God gives to Abraham, all of which he passes with flying colors. In last weeks parasha, Abraham is put into a furnace because he wouldn’t denounce his beliefs of God. And wouldn’t you know it, he came out of it unharmed. This week, our portion begins with God telling Abraham:

“Lech l’cha me artzecha umemoladetche u me beit avicha el ha aretz asher arekha” (Go for you from your land and from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you).

This is the second of 10 tests which God puts Abraham through. However, being that God is all knowing, he would already know that Abraham would pass the tests. Why would he then require for Abraham to act them out? The Ohr Gedalia explains the situation to us, with “potential.” He says that everyone is born with a certain amount of potential. G-D knows what everyone’s potential is, however, it is our job reach for our potential. God may know exactly what someone is capable of doing, as well as what they should do, however, unless that person does it, he will remain the same. God knows you can talk, but you must walk the walk. Another way in which this dilemma can be viewed, is the ever so popular and controversial question, about Free choice. If God is supposed all knowing, and he knew what Abraham would choose, was Abraham actually tested in the first place? Rambam’s answer to this question, is that God controls, and knows everything, except for how much one fears God. The reason in which someone would, or would not do something is because they are scared of their possible punishment. The more someone feared God, the more one would be inclined to follow God’s commandments. Even though God may have known what Abraham was going to do, he decided to let Abraham see for himself. God bestowed upon Abraham a great responsibility. He was going to be the father of not only the Jewish People, but a lot of other nations as well. Abraham may have been unsure of him self to be able to handle such a big responsibility. These tests were not actually meant to show God how affirm to God that Abraham was the right man for the job. But, to show Abraham his potential to be the father of a great nation.

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