Thursday, December 30, 2010

Va’eira 5771

In this week's parsha, G-d tells Moshe (Moses) to speak to B'nai Yisrael (the children of Israel), who are enslaved in Egypt. Moshe speaks to B'nai Yisrael, but they do not listen. Moshe asks G-d, "If B'nai Yisrael did not listen to me, then how will Pharoah listen to me?"

The Torah says that B'nai Yisrael do not listen due to "shortness of breath and hard labor." Why would these conditions keep B'nai Yisrael from listening?

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis explains that people who are suffering and in pain cannot see past their misery to imagine the future, even if the promise of future salvation is delivered by a prophet.

The Satmar Rebbe has a different interpretation. He explains that "hard labor" does not refer to slave labor. Rather, "hard labor" refers to how hard it is for B'nai Yisrael to leave the idolatrous ways of Egypt.

When Moshe asks G-d how he can get B'nai Yisrael to change their ways and listen, G-d teaches Moshe how. The Torah says, "G-d commanded them [Moshe and his brother Aharon (Aaron)] about B'nai Yisrael."

The Midrash (explanation of the Torah) Shemos Rabbah, elaborates on what G-d commands Moshe and Aharon. "My children are often stubborn and recalcitrant. They are quick to anger and are troublesome. It is under these conditions that you should accept leadership over them." G-d instructs Moshe to be gentle and patient with B'nai Yisrael. Moshe should deliver his message without anger or frustration, but with compassion until B'nai Yisrael finally are ready to listen.

As parents, we all have been in situations in which our children wouldn't, or couldn't, listen to us: a four-year-old having a temper tantrum in the cereal aisle of the grocery store; a teenager arguing for permission to attend an unsupervised party. It is at these frustrating times that Moshe's experience can be helpful. We can be compassionate, trying to understand how our children feel, as irrational as those feelings may be. We can exercise self-control, responding calmly, speaking gently and never raising our voices. We can refrain from making long speeches or long-term promises that our children are not ready or willing to hear. Finally, we can be patient, knowing that eventually our children will listen and will understand.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shemot 5771

This week's parsha is set in Egypt. The Jews are enslaved there and Pharoah orders the midwives to kill all Jewish male newborns. Yocheved, a Jewish midwife, courageously defies Pharoah's order, continues to deliver and save Jewish babies, and hides her own newborn son. Pharoah's daughter finds the baby, names him Moshe (Moses) and takes him to be her son. She hires Yocheved to nurse him. The Torah narrative then fast-forwards to when Moshe matures.

"Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens." Moshe witnesses an Egyptian striking a Jew. He looks around and determines that no one will see him. He then strikes the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The next day, Moshe sees two Jews quarreling. He asks, "Why would you strike your friend?" The man answers, "Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?" Moshe realizes that if these people are aware of what he has done, then Pharoah, too, must know. Fearing for his life, Moshe runs away and settles in Midian. There he observes shepherds harassing women as they try to draw water from a well. Moshe rescues the women and helps them water their flock.

What do these three incidents in Moshe's young adulthood reveal about Moshe and his suitability to lead the Jewish people?

In all of these situations, Moshe stands up for what he believes in. In doing so, he demonstrates an extreme intolerance of injustice; a natural empathy for the oppressed and a deep desire to help them; a passion to promote peace; and a profound love for all people, particularly his fellow Jew. Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum in Peninim on the Torah writes: "A leader is one whose love for his fellow man and his sense of equity impel him to fight against any form of injustice, regardless of the personal consequences."

As parents, how can we cultivate leadership qualities in our children?

We can show our children that like Moshe, we care deeply about other people. We feel their pain when they are hurt and share their sorrow when they lose; we console them and help them heal with kind words and deeds. Likewise, we share in their joy and celebrate with them when they succeed and when they win. We can take our children with us when we pay a shiva (condolence) call and let them see how we comfort the bereaved; we can take them with us to a bris (ritual circumcision) and let them see how happy we are for the new parents.

Just as Yocheved takes a courageous stand against Pharoah's orders, and instills this value in Moshe, we, too, can show our children that we do not stand by idly when we see something that goes against what we believe to be right. We can point out injustice to our children – bullying, stealing, cheating -- and discuss the proper action to right the wrong. Then, we must follow through in a safe and productive manner. We must speak out or take action even if it means risking the disapproval of our friends, damaging our reputation, or diminishing our status in the community.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Vayechi 5771

This week's parsha is called Vayechi, which means "and he lived." This seems like a misnomer, since the parsha deals with the death of Yakov (Jacob.) On his deathbed, Yakov blesses all of his children, including the sons of Yosef (Joseph), Ephraim and Menashe, whom he adopts as his own. When Yakov blesses the boys, he says, "[The children of] Israel will bless [their sons] saying, 'may G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.'"

Why does Yakov choose his grandsons' names to be used as a blessing for future generations?

Yakov understands that each succeeding generation will be farther from the spiritual purity of the generations of the Patriarchs. Ephraim and Menashe, however, defy this trend. The boys manage to retain their spiritual purity despite having grown up in Egypt among non-Jews. In addition, Ephraim and Menashe are the first brothers in Torah who get along with one another. Yakov directs parents of future generations to pray that our children, like Ephraim and Menashe, will continue to embrace a Jewish way of life no matter where life takes them, and will always get along with one other. The ancient blessing links the current generation to the generations of the Patriarchs.

Today, thankfully, there is no need for parents to wait until we are on our deathbed to bless our children. Today, it is customary for parents to bless our children before sitting down to the Friday evening dinner. For boys, we say: "May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe." For girls, we say: "May G-d make you like Sarah, Rivka (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah." These Matriarchs exemplify compassion, modesty, fortitude and wisdom, traits we wish our daughters to emulate.

We parents can also take advantage of the calm and quiet of bedtime to bless our children. The verses following the bedtime recital of the Shema (Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One) include the blessing Yakov gives Ephraim and Menashe: "May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Yitzchak (Isaac), and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land."

It is reassuring for children to hear our blessings said aloud, or at least whispered in their ears. The blessing creates a special moment of intimacy and mindfulness in an otherwise busy and disjointed day. We don't necessarily need to use words of Torah for these blessings. And we don't have to wait until Friday night or bedtime. We can say a quick blessing on the way out the door in the morning. "Learn well today" means "May G-d help you to be a good student today."

In blessing our children, we simply are telling them that we love them and are proud of them, and we are sharing with them our hopes and dreams for their future. The blessing serves to petition G-d to bring these hopes and dreams to fruition.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Vayigash 5771

In this week's parsha, Yosef (Joseph) reveals his identity to his brothers, who have come to Egypt because there is a famine in their homeland. Yosef says, "I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?" Astounded to find the brother they had abandoned 22 years ago, the brothers are unable to answer.

Why did Yosef ask such a simple question when he had the opportunity to criticize his brothers for mistreating him?

When Yosef asks if his father is alive, he does not expect or require an answer. Yosef already knows that his father, Yakov (Jacob), is alive. In the previous parsha, the brothers tell Yosef that they are concerned that leaving their youngest brother Binyamin (Benjamin) behind in Egypt will distress their father.

The Sages explain that Yosef's statement "I am Yosef" and his subsequent question, is actually a rebuke. Yosef knows his brothers will not be able to defend their actions. Any answer they give will appear hypocritical: Today, they are worried about their father's well being; years ago, when they abandoned Yosef, they did not consider the effect on their father's health.

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz in his Sichos Mussar says that the essence of a reproof is not criticizing a person, but simply making the person see the mistake he has made.

When Yosef says to his brothers, "I am Yosef," he means: "I am your younger brother, whom you sold into slavery. And now I stand before you as ruler of Egypt, in fulfillment of all of the dreams that I dreamed. You sold me so the dreams would not materialize. And yet, precisely because you sold me into slavery, the dreams came true. I did not bear you ill will when I related those dreams. You misjudged me! Now you must judge yourselves."

As parents, what can we learn from Yosef's subtle but effective admonishment? How can we use this strategy when we discipline our children?

From Yosef, we learn that criticism can only be useful if it helps our children to look in the mirror and see the truth of their wrongful action. To be effective, we must give criticism gently and lovingly, without shouting, name-calling or cynicism. We don't want to make our child feel badly about herself, or give her the impression that we think she can't change her behavior, or that she is a lost cause.

Rabbi Jacob Israel Twerski of blessed memory succeeded in correcting his five exceptional sons' errant behavior simply by looking them in the eye and saying "Es past nisht." Loosely translated from the Yiddish, it means, "This behavior doesn't suit you. I expect more from you." The message is, "You are too good, your potential is too great, and you have too much to offer to stoop to this type of behavior." In responding to poor behavior in a loving and non-judgmental manner, we parents are able to convey our disapproval, but still preserve our children's dignity and self-esteem.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Miketz 5771

In this week's parsha, Pharaoh appoints Yosef (Joseph) a ruler of Egypt and gives him an Egyptian name that Yosef never uses. Yosef marries and has two sons. He gives them Hebrew names: Menashe and Ephraim. The name Menashe derives from the Hebrew verb that means "to forget." When Yosef names Menashe he says, "G-d has caused me to forget all my hardships and all that was in my father's house." The name Ephraim derives from the Hebrew word that means "fruitful." Yosef explains, "G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my subjugation."

Why does Yosef insist on giving his sons Hebrew names, and why does he reject the Egyptian name he is given?

In modern times, it is customary to name one's children after loved ones. A baby called Yosef may be named for his Grandpa Joe and for his Biblical ancestor Yosef, both of whom his parents wish for the child to remember and to emulate. Modern-day Yosef grows up with a constant reminder of where he comes from, and what his parents expect from him. With his name, he inherits a sense of history as well as the obligations that stem from that history.

Before he ends up in Egypt, the Biblical Yosef learns Torah at his father Yakov's (Jacob's) house. Yosef is a gifted scholar and Yakov teaches him the entire Torah. This prepares Yosef well for his life in Egypt, where despite many hardships he maintains his faith in G-d and is able to resist many temptations. It also prepares him to teach his sons Torah, and to raise them as Jews in a country where there are no other Jews.

We learn from Menashe's name that Yosef is pained to find himself in a place that makes him forget his father's house, and he longs to return home. We learn from Ephraim's name that Yosef is thankful that G-d has enabled him to succeed – to maintain his values and Jewish identity – even though he is far from his family and fellow Jews.

Today, most of us live like Yosef and his sons, far from our Jewish homeland, surrounded by people who do not share our heritage. It is challenging to raise children as Jews in such an environment. It is tempting to forget who we are; it is all too easy to assimilate and to blend in with our non-Jewish neighbors.

It is no coincidence that we always read this parsha during Chanukah. During the eight days of Chanukah, we remember a post-Biblical time in our history when our ancestors live among the Greeks. In order to keep the right to perform Jewish rituals and observe the Sabbath, a small group of Jews called the Maccabees fight victoriously against the large and powerful army of King Antiochus.

As parents, how can we ensure that our children retain a strong and positive Jewish identity? How can we equip them to be Maccabees in a world that seeks to separate us from our rightful heritage?

The word Chanukah shares its root with the Hebrew word chinuch, which means "education" or "upbringing." The word Chanukah means "dedication." When the Maccabees find that the Greeks desecrated their Temple, they cleanse it and re-dedicate it. This Chanukah, let us rededicate ourselves to the chinuch of our children. This Chanukah, let us give our children the gift of a Jewish upbringing and education.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vayeshev 5771

In this week's parsha, we learn that Yakov (Jacob) loves Yosef (Joseph) more than he loves his other sons, because he was elderly when Yosef was born. To show his love, Yakov gives Yosef a robe made of fine wool. When the brothers see that their father favors Yosef, they hate Yosef and are unable to speak to him with civility. When the opportunity arises, they sell Yosef to a caravan of Arabs bound for Egypt, and tell Yakov that he has died.

Yakov may have valid reasons for favoring Yosef. Yosef is the first-born son of his favorite wife, Rachel, born after many years of marriage. Yosef even resembles Yakov. Yosef is highly intelligent and Yakov is able to teach him everything he knows about Torah. Nevertheless, our Sages blame Yakov and strongly caution us. "As a result of the favoritism that Yakov showed to Yosef by purchasing him fine wool, his brothers were jealous of him, and this resulted in our forefathers descending into [slavery in] Egypt." (Talmud, Shabbat 10b) You don't have to be a Torah scholar to recognize that showing favoritism never has a positive outcome.

As parents, how can we ensure that we do not favor one child over another?

Torah teaches that each of us is created in the image of G-d. This means that each of us has an intrinsic value, and no one of us is worth more than another. Furthermore, our worth is unrelated to what or how much we accomplish, as each one of us has a unique mission in life to fulfill.

It is incumbent upon us as parents to get to know each of our children, help them find and develop their G-d-given talents and abilities, and allow them to reach their unique potentials. We must value and appreciate each of our children's individual personalities and character traits equally, as each child is uniquely equipped to accomplish his life's tasks.

As parents, we don't get to choose the personality, character traits, or talents our children have. G-d has a reason for giving us the children He has. Sometimes our children have different personalities than our own; sometimes they give us a hard time; sometimes they struggle with things that come easily to us. No matter how different our child is from us, we have to learn to appreciate the child's special and unique qualities. Only then will we be able to give that child the unconditional love she needs from us to fulfill her true potential.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Vayishlach 5771

In this week's parsha, Yakov (Jacob) reunites with his twin brother, Esav (Esau), whose birthright he has stolen. Fearing that Esav still will be angry and unwilling to reconcile, Yakov comes to him bearing gifts. At first Esav refuses the gifts, telling Yakov, "Yesh li rav." (I have plenty.) Yakov urges Esav to accept the gifts. He says, "G-d has favored me, and yesh li kol." (I have everything.)

What does Esav really mean when he says, "Yesh li rav" (I have plenty)? How does Esav's characterization of his possessions differ from Yakov's statement, "Yesh li kol." (I have everything)?

When Esav says he has plenty, he means to say, "I recognize that I have many valuable possessions, but I could always have more!" He is not satisfied with what he has, no matter how much he already has. He looks around him to see what others have and he is jealous. He feels he is entitled to have more. He is never at peace or content; there is always something he longs to acquire. And once he has gotten something, he finds it difficult to part with it, or to give it away.

By contrast, when Yakov says he has everything, he means to say, "Everything I have is a gift from G-d, and G-d has given me everything I need. " Because he perceives of his possessions as gifts from G-d, Yakov is thankful for what he has been given. Moreover, he is more than willing to share his bounty with others.

What a materialistic society we live in today! Esav would be very comfortable here. It's all I-pod, I-phone, I-pad, I want.

How can we keep our children centered in a world obsessed with acquiring the trappings of success? We can begin by teaching them to be grateful, and to be giving.

In Hebrew, Jews are called Yehudim, a word whose root is the Hebrew word for "thanks." Gratitude to G-d is built into Jewish daily practice. We are supposed to thank G-d when we wake up, before and after we eat, when we wear a new item of clothing for the first time, when we hear good news, and even when we hear bad news. This trains us to see that G-d is involved in every aspect of our lives; all that we have or don't have is in His hands because He knows what and how much we need. This makes us feel content with what we have, and we don't covet what we don't have.

Sometimes we are blessed to have more than we need. When G-d puts us in this fortunate situation, He requires something from us in return. He wants us to share our good fortune with others. He expects us to say "yesh li kol" – I have everything, and G-d wants me to share it.

Friday, November 12, 2010


"Vayetze" means "departed."  In this week's parsha, Yakov (Jacob) departs from his home in Be'er Sheva to travel towards Charan, the home of his Uncle Lavan (Laban.) The purpose of his journey is to find a suitable wife.

Why does Yakov have to leave his home to find a wife?

Yakov's twin brother, Esav (Esau), marries two Chittite (non-Jewish) women. Their marriages greatly trouble his parents, Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebecca.)  Rivka tells Yitzchak that she is afraid that Yakov, too, will marry a woman from among the Canaanites instead of someone from their ancestral home, their own tribal family. We see that the issue of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews has been a concern since the beginning of Jewish history.

The traditional request when a Jewish baby is born is that we should merit to see the child stand under the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy.  From birth, before the infant can stand on her own two feet, or speak intelligibly, we are already thinking about whom she will marry!  We don't picture her first birthday party, her bat mitzvah or her high school graduation.  We jump immediately to the critical moment when the grown child will guarantee that her own children will be Jewish. The chain that links us to our ancestors will not be broken, and the character traits they possess will be transmitted to the next generation.

It's hard to look at a chubby-cheeked toddler and think about whom he will marry.  But that is exactly when we should begin talking to our children about the importance of marrying someone Jewish. We should convey our expectations firmly, so that from an early age our children understand that no other option is acceptable.  When the children are school-age, we can begin to explain to them our complicated history, so they can begin to comprehend why they must not intermarry.

We must give our children a Jewish education that will foster their pride in being Jewish, but more importantly, an understanding of what it means to be Jewish in a largely non-Jewish world. This education cannot end at the tender age of 12 or 13, for this is exactly when children are old enough to begin independent thinking.

We cannot leave this education in the hands of the professionals. We, parents, must become informed and passionate enough about our heritage to convey it to our children. Our homes, our actions and our words must serve as living testimony that being Jewish, and ultimately marrying Jewish, is of paramount importance.

Many of us live in communities in which there aren't many Jews, or where Jews are highly assimilated or intermarried. There are few opportunities for our children to socialize with Jewish children in a Jewish environment. Yitzchak and Rivka knew that there was little possibility of Yakov marrying a Jewish woman if he remained in the community in which he was raised. They send him away to give him the chance to meet a suitable spouse. We, parents, are obligated to seek out Jewish educational and social opportunities for our children, whether they are in our own community, or far from home.