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.