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.