Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vayigash 5772

In this week's parsha, Yaakov (Jacob) and his family travel from the famine-plagued Canaan to Egypt to resettle there and to reunite Yosef (Joseph) with his father Yaakov. As the family approaches the section of Egypt called Goshen, Yaakov instructs his son Yehuda (Judah): "He [Yaakov] sent Yehuda before him to Yosef l'horot l'fanav in Goshen."

Why does Yaakov send Yehuda ahead? What is the meaning of l'horot l'fanav?

We see several different but related English translations of l'horot l'fanav: to instruct ahead of him; to show the way before him; to direct him. Rashi writes: "L'horot l'fanav – [This is to be understood as] to clear a place for him and to instruct how he will settle in it. L'fanav [means] before he would arrive there, and l'horot l'fanav [means] to prepare for him a house of study from which instruction shall go forth.''

Based on Rashi's interpretation, the Shelah HaKadosh explains how Yaakov's actions demonstrate his priorities. Yaakov makes sure that his spiritual needs are in place before he takes care of his physical needs. From this, we learn that it is a priority to establish Torah education systems in our communities, especially if we live outside the Land of Israel.

We also learn that it is a priority to transmit Torah to our children. Writes Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on "Yaakov was worried about the spirituality of his descendants in Egypt. He knew that his grandchildren would be raised in a foreign society, one with a strong and attractive culture of its own. Therefore, he wanted to be certain that they would still maintain their separate identity…Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead to set up a house of study which was to provide a strong Jewish education for the children who would grow up in Egyptian society. It would give them both firm Torah values and a firm Jewish identity."

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum remarks that Yaakov wants Yehuda to prepare a house of study "for him [Yaakov]" meaning, "one that would adhere to the 'old world' precepts and perspectives that characterized his home…[and] that would foster and perpetuate the Patriarchal legacy and its unique characteristic form of Jewishness."

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew language seems to have something to say about the role of parents. The Hebrew word for parents, horim, shares its root with l'horot. The word Torah (literally, instruction) and the Hebrew word for teacher, morah, also are related. Embedded within lashon kodesh (the holy tongue, Hebrew) is the message that we parents are responsible for educating our children in the ways of Torah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mikeitz 5772

In this week’s parsha, Paroh asks Yosef (Joseph) to interpret his dreams.  Yosef answers: “[The wisdom to interpret dreams] is not from me. G-d will provide an answer [that will be for] Paroh’s welfare/[that will bring] Paroh peace.

Because this parsha is read during Chanukah, commentators find many hints within the parsha relating to Chanukah.  How do Paroh's dreams and Yosef’s answer in this verse connect to Chanukah?
Rav Shimon Schwab explains why Paroh’s “spirit was agitated” when he awoke from his dream.  Paroh dreamed of lean cows and thin sheaves devouring robust cows and thick sheaves, symbolizing – to borrow from the Chanukah liturgy – giborim be-yad chalashim, rabim be-yad me'atim – the strong in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few.

Writes Rav David Silverberg on “The Egyptian king had all along relied on his country's military might and economic prowess as the source of his nation's security and the stability of his monarchy.  Now he was suddenly shown the prospect of even the mightiest and most secure suffering defeat at the hands of the feeble.  This image shook the foundations of his sense of security, and he understandably responded with horror and an urgent need to discover the true meaning underlying this dream.”  Had King Antiochus had similar dreams before the Maccabee revolt, he, too, might have been shaken by the possibility of the defeat of his large army by a small group of G-d-revering, Jewish farmer-soldiers. 

Rabbi Boruch Leff on notes that Yosef’s response to Paroh’s request echoes the attitude of the Maccabee warriors upon their victory over the Syrian-Greek army. “They could have easily looked at their stunning and unlikely military victory over the Greeks as a reflection of their prowess and brilliant strategy.  But [just as Yosef understood the source of his ability to interpret dreams,] the Maccabees understood the true source of their strength and military successes. They didn't react by establishing an annual victory parade, in which they would display their latest technology in weapons. Rather, they reacted by establishing the holiday of Chanukah. They lit the Menorah which publicized G-d's control over the world (in making the miracle of the oil lasting eight days) and that only He could allow them to defeat the Greeks in battle.”  Today, the Al HaNissim (For the Miracles) Chanukah liturgy reflects the festival’s focus of praise and thanks to G-d.

As parents, it is easy to take credit for our children’s triumphs and successes. After all, we must have done something right for them to have turned out so well and to have achieved so much!  We must never forget that G-d is our partner in parenting.  It is Him we must thank and credit when things go well; likewise, it is to Him we must appeal when it appears that all is not well and we need His miracle to turn things around.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vayeishev 5772

This week’s parsha begins: “Vayeishev Yaakov (Jacob settled.)” After years of living outside Canaan, Yaakov and his large family finally establish themselves in Canaan.  Rashi writes that vayeishev means that Yaakov seeks to live in Canaan b’shalvah, which means “in tranquility.” With his travails behind him -- the problems with his brother Esav, his daughter Dina, and his deceitful father-in-law Lavan -- all Yaakov wants is to be able to study, pray and live in peace. But this is not to be. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller so eloquently writes: “The response from Above was that this world is not the place where the righteous can have the quietude that we all yearn for.” 

The parsha continues: “[Yaakov] loved Yosef (Joseph) more than his [other ten] sons…[Yosef’s] brothers saw that it was he [Yosef] whom their father loved most of all his brothers, so they hated him and were not able to speak to him l’shalom (peaceably.)”

The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, usually is spelled with a vav, but in this case, the vav is missing. Why?  And why does the text read l’shalom, literally “towards peace” rather than b’shalom, in peace? 

Rebbi Levi bar Chaisa teaches that when one parts with the deceased, one should not say, "Lech l'shalom" (go towards peace), but rather, "Lech b'shalom" (go in peace.)  In contrast, when one parts with one’s friend, one should not say to him, "Lech b'shalom," but rather, "Lech l'shalom." The Vilna Gaon points out that Rebbi Levi bar Chaisa's teaching  explains the verse that describes the brothers' enmity towards Yosef. Out of their contempt for Yosef they cannot bring themselves to bless Yosef with the words l'shalom as one speaks to the living, but rather they prefer to treat him like a dead person.

Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis explain the meaning of the missing vav: without the vav, the gematria (numerical value) of l’shalom is 400, which is equal to the value of ayin ra, “evil eye.” They write: “The brothers looked upon Yosef with an evil eye, unable to see the good in him or to interpret his actions favorably.

A few verses later, Yaakov sends Yosef to find his brothers: “Look into sh’lom achecha (the welfare of your brothers.)”  Here, the spelling of sh’lom includes the letter vav. Rav Simcha Bunim of P’shischa explains:  Since Torah relates that Yosef brings “evil reports of them [his brothers] to their father,” i.e., he sees them with an evil eye, Yaakov instructs Yosef to look into their sh’lom, that is, to try to see a complete or whole (in Hebrew, shalem) picture of his brothers – to judge them favorably, give them the benefit of the doubt, and seek out their positive attributes rather than their flaws.

After finally reconciling with his brother Esav, Yaakov knows a thing or two about seeking peace with one’s brother.  Although he seeks shalvah when he “settles” in Canaan, Yaakov soon is reminded that while we are alive, we must go l’shalom, towards peace/spiritual wholeness or completion, for it is only when we die and go to the Olam Haba (World to Come) that we truly can go b’shalom, in peace.

As parents, much as we desire it, we know it is impossible to have complete peace and tranquility in our relationships and in our homes. Nevertheless, we must never stop striving for it. We must take all steps necessary to move towards shalom, including judging others favorably and teaching our children to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Vayishlach 5772

In this week's parsha, Yaakov (Jacob) returns to Canaan after a 20-year stay in Charan. He brings with him an entourage -- two wives, two handmaids, eleven sons, one daughter, animals and belongings. "And he took them, and brought them across the stream, and he brought across that which was his. And Yaakov was left alone…"

Why is Yaakov left alone?

Rashi explains that Yaakov is alone because he has forgotten some small jars, and he goes back to retrieve them. (The Hebrew word for "alone" is l'vado and the Hebrew word for "his jar" is l'kado.) He writes: "From here we see that the righteous treat their property with care, so that they should not send forth their hands in theft."

We learn from this that Yaakov places a high value on all his belongings, even small jars that might seem insignificant to others. Yaakov is grateful for all that he has because he understands that everything he possesses is a blessing from G-d and is meant to serve a purpose. Therefore he comprehends that none of his belongings, even little jars, should be abused, misused or wasted. Further, since Yaakov appreciates that everyone else's property is given to them as a gift from G-d, he cannot even think about taking something G-d has meant for someone else to have. With this attitude, Yaakov never feels deprived or lacking; G-d has provided all he needs and Yaakov has no desire to take what is not his.

As parents, how can we counter the effects of living in a world obsessed with acquiring the latest model of material goods, and discarding older items that are functional but no longer fashionable? How can we keep our children from desiring what others have?

We can begin by teaching our children to be grateful for what they have and to acknowledge that everything they have is a gift from G-d. In Hebrew, Jews are called Yehudim, a word rooted in the Hebrew word for thanks. Gratitude to G-d is built into Jewish practice. We thank G-d 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 we have or don't have is in His hands, because only He knows what and how much we need. This makes us feel content with what we have, so we don't covet what we don't have. Finally, we take special care of what we do have because it was given to us by G-d.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vayetze 5772

In this week’s parsha, eleven of Yaakov’s sons are born.  The parsha contains each of their names and the reasons Rachel and Leah, their mothers, give the children their names.  Each name reflects the emotions of the moment, and also directs the children’s destinies.  
Reuven: from the Hebrew re’eh, to see, meaning “G-d has seen my affliction.” [Leah]
Shimon: from the Hebrew shama, heard, meaning “G-d has heard that I am hated.” [Leah]
Levi:  from the Hebrew liva, attach, meaning “My husband will be attached to me.” [Leah]
Yehuda: from the Hebrew hoda’a, thanks, meaning “I will thank G-d.” [Leah]
Dan: from the Hebrew dan, judging, meaning “G-d has judged me.” [Born to Bilha, named by Rachel]
Naftali: from the Hebrew tefilla, prayer, meaning “My prayers were accepted.”  [Born to Bilha, named by Rachel]
Gad: from the Hebrew gad, luck, meaning “Good fortune has come.”  [Born to Zilpa, named by Leah]
Asher: from the Hebrew ashrai, fortunate or praised, meaning “I am praised/fortunate.” [Born to Zilpa, named by Leah]
Yissachar: from the Hebrew s’char, reward, meaning “G-d has given [me] my reward.” [Leah]
Zevulun: from the Hebrew zevul, dwelling place, meaning “My husband’s home will be with me.” [Leah]
Yosef: from the Hebrew hosif, add, meaning “May G-d add another son for me.” [Rachel]

Why did the matriarchs, rather than Yaakov, name the children?
Our Sages teach that each of Yaakov’s sons, who later become heads and namesakes of the Twelve Tribes, have their own distinct spiritual qualities, so the text must detail the origins of their names.  According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is the matriarchs who provide the names because “just like it is the mother who nurtures the specific features of the child in her womb, so too the more detailed spiritual features of the Jewish nation were defined by our matriarchs.”

As parents, we should carefully consider the names we give our children.  Writes Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb on “Rather than choose a name because [you] like the way it sounds or because of its popularity, [you] should select a name of a real person, someone who stood for something, someone your child could eventually emulate.” Not surprisingly, many names from Torah have withstood the test of time.  Bearers of these names have a meaningful and enduring connection to their forebears.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Toldot 5772

In this week's parsha, Rivka (Rebecca) is pregnant with twins, Yaakov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau.)  "The children struggled within her; and she said 'If so, why am I thus?'...and the L-rd said to her, 'Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards...'"  Rashi cites the Midrash that explains whenever Rivka approached Torah academies, Yaakov would struggle to exit her womb, and when she passed by idolatrous places, Esav would struggle to exit.

The Midrash implies that Yaakov's and Esav's natures are predestined from the womb. How can we explain their inborn opposing natures given that the twins share the same righteous parentage?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Esav's natural inclination toward idolatry should not be viewed negatively.  It simply means that Esav's life mission is to conquer evil rather than to cultivate good.  From birth, Esav has the potential to do evil, but he also has the potential to channel his inclinations in a positive way, as all character traits can be directed for good or bad by free will choices.  The reason G-d gave Esav his particular disposition was so that Esav could rise to the challenge and overcome his natural tendencies.  Unfortunately, Esav succumbs to his innate nature, choosing to do evil rather than good.

As parents, we must recognize that our children are born with distinct character traits.  These traits, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. They are shaped by the choices our children make. We must teach our children that their choices have consequences, and we must encourage them to make good choices, even if making them is a struggle.     

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chayei Sarah 5772

In this week’s parsha, Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Avraham’s son, Yitzchak (Isaac.)  Eliezer prays for G-d to give him a sign that he has found the right girl, and he immediately sees Rivka (Rebecca.) Eliezer believes so strongly in G-d that he immediately presents Rivka with the jewelry intended for Yitzchak’s bride, without even asking Rivka her father’s name.  When Eliezer later tells Rivka’s family about their meeting, he tells them that he asked Rivka, “Whose daughter are you?” before he “placed the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her hands.”

Why does Eliezer reverse the order of the events when he relates them to Rivka’s family?

Rashi explains that Eliezer has to do this because Rivka’s family would not have understood how he could have given jewelry to a girl without knowing who she was.  In other words, they could not have understood that Eliezer has such a deep trust in G-d that he unquestionably accepted that Rivka was the right girl for Yitzchak.  To Rivka’s family, Eliezer’s actions were irrational.  Their failure to understand his actions would have made them find his story false and label him a liar.  Sensing this, Eliezer edits his story to make it believable to people who would not accept a story about a sign from G-d.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum comments that in his communication, Eliezer demonstrates perceptiveness and sensitivity.  “We must be cognizant whom we are addressing, recognizing each individual’s level of maturity, understanding and proficiency.  Once we know with whom we are speaking, we must now determine how to speak to them.  Sensitive communication is necessary in any type of relationship, be it between husband and wife, parents and children, teachers and students, or teachers and parents.  To be understood and appreciated, we must be open and sympathetic to [others’] perspectives, not just our own.”

Eliezer uses a similar sensitive and perceptive approach when he attempts to convince Rivka’s father to allow her to return with him to Avraham’s house.  “If you will do…emet (truth) with my master, tell me.”  Seforno explains that Eliezer is asking Rivka’s family “to desire the benefit and honor that was appropriate for their daughter, by allowing her to enter the house of Avraham Avinu."  Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg on notes that Eliezer asks Rivka’s father to do what the father knows is emet for the future of his daughter -- to allow her to pursue her true destiny, even at the cost of the father’s personal desires.

As parents, we must learn to put aside our egos and make selfless decisions that befit our children.  Only then will our children be able to pursue their unique and true destinies.

Published in honor of the bar mitzvah of Alexander Taub.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vayeira 5772

In this week's parsha, Avraham welcomes three guest-angels. "And he [Avraham] lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and he prostrated himself to the ground...'Please let a little water be taken and bathe your feet and recline under the tree.
And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts'…" Later in the parsha, Avraham's nephew Lot welcomes two guest-angels into his home in Sodom, even though Sodom's laws prohibit hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests/hospitality.) "Lot saw and arose toward them, and he prostrated himself on his face to the ground. And he [Lot] said, 'Behold now my lords, please turn to your servant's house and stay overnight and wash your feet'…"

Why did Lot feel compelled to welcome guests even though the laws of Sodom prohibited hospitality?

Rashi writes: "[Lot] learned from the house of Avraham to seek out guests." Lot lived with his uncle Avraham for forty years, and in that time he learned from Avraham how to be a good host. Despite living in a city where evil was the law, Lot could not keep himself from offering hospitality. Even after Lot left Avraham, hospitality was so ingrained in him that he couldn't act differently.

Writes Rabbi Mordechai Rhine on, "Lot's story provides a great lesson to the field of parenting. The study of one's youth plays an enormous role in a child's behavior later on in life. Even if a child chooses to chart out a different type of life than his or her parents, things that were properly role modeled and ingrained in the child will rarely be forgotten. A child who witnessed great personal integrity will find it difficult to act in a way that is less than honest. A child who experienced a reverence for mentors will retain a respect for mentors (including his own parents) no matter how far he or she may stray. A child who grew up in a house of hospitality will find a natural predisposition to doing kindness even if the environment in which he is does not value such behavior."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lech Lecha 5772

In the beginning of this week's parsha, G-d tells Avram (later in the parsha he is renamed Avraham), "Lech lecha (go forth [for yourself]) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." For Rambam and many other commentators, when Avram follows G-d's instructions, he makes a complete break from his father Terach and from Terach's idolatrous ways.

Why, then, does the previous parsha end with Avram leaving with his father? "And Terah took Avram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Avram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Charan and settled there. And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years, and Terach died in Charan." The implication seems to be that far from breaking with his father, Avram was continuing a journey Terach had already begun. How can we reconcile these two passages?

Most commentators, including Rashi, give a simple answer: the two passages are not in chronological order. The passage recording Terach's death is placed before G-d's call to Avram to protect Avram from the accusation that in leaving Terach, Avram failed to honor his elderly father.

Chief Rabbi Sacks provides another possibility. He writes: "Abraham's spiritual insight did not come from nowhere. Terach had already made the first tentative move toward monotheism. Children complete what their parents begin…[Terach] had set out on the long walk to the land which would eventually become holy, but stopped half way. Abraham completed the journey his father began."

As parents, we will watch our children break away from us and chart paths of their own. We can feel more secure knowing that even when our children feel they are breaking new ground, they are, in fact, living out the ideals and aspirations they learned from us. We must, however, wait until they are adults for them to realize how much of their journey they owe to us.

Excerpted from an article by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Read the article in its entirety at

Published in honor of the bat mitzvah of Jane Laurel Friedman.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Noach 5772

This week's parsha tells the well known story of Noach (Noah), the great flood that destroyed the earth, and the ark Noach built to save his family and the animals. The parsha begins: "These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man. He was perfect in his generations. Noach walked with G-d."

The world Noach was born into was so corrupt that G-d decided to destroy it. How did Noach manage to become a righteous man in such an environment?

Rabbi Shimon Felix attributes Noach's character to his father Lemech's foresight. Near the end of last week's parsha, Lemech names Noach, saying "This one will give us rest/comfort from our work/actions and from the toil/sorrow of our hands, from the earth which G-d has cursed." The Hebrew word for comfort and rest is nach, spelled the same way (without vowels) as Noach.

Rashi, Radak and other commentators see Lemech as a prophet, foreseeing a special role for his newborn son. According to them, the prophecy contained in the naming of Noach was that Noach would invent ploughs and farming implements that would help man deal with G-d's curse on the earth and ease man's workload. Ibn Ezra, in a different approach, says that Lemech prophesized that the flood would soon destroy the sinful world and that Noach would be its salvation.

Other commentators see Lemech's naming Noach as prayer rather than prophecy. S'forno writes: "[Lemech] prayed that he would bring comfort [to the world] from its [evil] actions." Rashbam notes that Noach was the first child born after the death of Adam. Lemech prayed that this new life would somehow change the sorry state of the world.

An interesting midrash tells that Noach was the first person born with opposable thumbs. Until his birth, mankind had not evolved sufficiently to make, hold, and use tools and, instead, dug the earth with paw-like hands. Perhaps Lemech saw something special in his newborn son's thumbs and appreciated this difference as something that could transform and improve the world.

All of these interpretations of Noach's naming share an important insight into parenting and parental expectations. Writes Rabbi Felix: "Lemech saw in his newborn child the possibility of greatness…Lemech saw in this new life, the engine for change, for possibility, for evolution, for salvation. And, by naming him Noach - comfort - he passed his vision, his hope for a better world, and his appreciation of Noach's ability to effect this change, on to his son…It may be that Noach grew to greatness, to stand above the rest of his generation and, literally, save the world, because he was Lemech's son, because he
was the child of a parent who imagined, prayed for, and saw in Noach the possibility of greatness, and who told Noach, by naming him, how he felt about him, and what he saw in him. This, perhaps, is how parents can try to encourage greatness in their children: by imagining it, believing it, seeing and celebrating it when it is there, and naming it."

Excerpted from the writings of Rabbi Shimon Felix, Executive Director Emeritus, Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. Read the entire article at

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bereishit 5772

In this week’s parsha, Adam and his wife eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. G-d calls to Adam and asks, “Where are you (Ayeka)?” Adam answers: “I was afraid…so I hidThe woman whom You gave [to be] with me gave me from the tree and I ate…The woman said [to G-d],‘The serpent misled me and I ate.’” 

If G-d is all-knowing, why does He ask where Adam is?  What is G-d really asking when He says ayeka?

This parsha teaches that we cannot hide from G-d.  G-d knows exactly where we are – not only what we are doing, but what we are thinking.  With His question ayeka, G-d challenges Adam to accept responsibility for his actions.  Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis note that the Hebrew word ayeka can be read another way, as eicha, meaning “how?”  G-d is asking Adam how he could have sinned, how he could have ignored the first and only commandment that G-d gave.  G-d is asking Adam to examine his life, his thoughts and his actions and to be accountable for them.

Instead, Adam shifts the blame to his wife, and his wife blames the serpent. Neither is willing to accept responsibility.  Neither one has the courage to say, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Let me redress this wrong."

"'Where are you?'" explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, "is G-d's perpetual call to every man. Where are you in the world? What have you accomplished? You have been allotted a certain number of days, hours, and minutes in which to fulfill your mission in life. You have lived so many years and so many days. Where are you? What have you attained?"

As parents, we must teach our children to take responsibility for their actions.  We cannot allow them to blame others for their mistakes.  We must teach them from the earliest ages that their actions have consequences, and they should not make excuses.  And when they admit their wrongdoings, we should emulate G-d -- embrace them and forgive them.      

V'zot HaBracha 5772

V’zot Habracha is the last parsha of the Torah and the only parsha not read on Shabbat.  It is always read on Simchat Torah, which will be observed this year (in the Diaspora outside of Israel) on Friday, October 21. (In Israel it is observed the previous day, this year on Thursday, October 20.) The parsha contains the verse that is the first one a parent teaches a child: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a morasha (heritage) for the kehilla (congregation) of Yaakov (Jacob.)” 
Why does Torah use the Hebrew word morasha for heritage when it could have used the word nachala?  What is the significance of the word kehilla (congregation)?

Rabbi Yisroel Jungreis and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis note that nachala is an inheritance that belongs solely to the heir to use as he sees fit.  By contrast, morasha is a legacy that has been given in trust and cannot be tampered with.  It must be preserved intact and passed from generation to generation.

They write: “It becomes obvious why our Sages chose this to be the first to be engraved upon a child’s heart.  Even as a parent has responsibility to pass on this heritage to his children, so the children should know that one day, they, too, will be charged with the same responsibility: to pass on the same heritage in the same manner in which they received it.”

The Rambam in Hilchot Talmud Torah (3:1) explains that morasha means that Torah belongs to and is accessible to every Jew, regardless of age, background or ability. "Israel was crowned with three crowns: The crown of Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty. The crown of the priest went to Aharon and his sons… the crown of royalty was won by David…The Crown of Torah stands before all Israel, open and ready, as it states: Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha kehillat Yaakov – anyone who wishes to take it may come along and take!"  Torah is for the entire kehilla -- young and old, rich and poor, learned and unschooled.

Rav Alex Israel writes: “And maybe this is precisely the reason that we dance together with the Torah on Simchat Torah. We dance in a circle. A circle never ends. Its end is its beginning, and then it starts again. With whom do we dance this unending circle? With other Jews, and with the Torah. This is a simple and concentrated image of our national identity card: morasha and kehilla. On Simchat Torah you know very simply that you are connected in an unending circle with Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) and with the Torah.”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Haazinu 5772

In this week's parsha, Moshe's farewell song to his people, Moshe urges us to "Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you."

What is the purpose of Moshe's advice?

Rashi explains that we should remember what G-d did to our ancestors. He cites Noah's generation "whom He washed away" with a great flood because they did not change their behavior, even after many pleas and warnings to return to the ways of G-d. Rashi suggests that we should remember history in order to be conscious of what may happen in the future: "Set your heart upon the past and learn its lessons…to be able to recognize for the future." If we study history and remember it, we can impact future events so that we will not repeat past disasters.

We can also look to the past to explain our present. If we are confused, if we cannot understand what is occurring in our world today, if we cannot make sense of what happens to us, we should look back to our history and study the lives of those who came before us.

As parents, we should share our family histories with our children so they can learn from our experience. We should recount our struggles and failures, as well as our successes in overcoming difficult situations. Hopefully, our children will listen, absorb the lessons, and not repeat our mistakes. This time of year is an especially opportune time to explain that everyone makes mistakes, even our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, even Mommy and Daddy. If we do make mistakes, we should admit them, seek forgiveness and make every effort to change our behavior and not make the same mistake twice. We should assure our children that no matter what mistakes they may have made, we still love them and forgive them, as does G-d.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nitzavim-Vayelech 5771

This week's double parsha begins: "You are standing (nitzavim) this day before the L-rd your G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women...that you may enter the covenant of the L-rd your G-d..."  The second of this week's parshiot contains the mitzvah of Hakhel, a public reading of Torah during the shmittah (sabbatical) year, during the Sukkot festival. "Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the young children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the L-rd your G-d, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. And their children, who do not know, will hear and learn to fear G-d..."

What is the purpose of bringing young children to enter the covenant, and obligating young children to hear Torah at Hakhel?

Ramban explains that Torah refers to young children who are of an age approaching chinuch, the age when they must begin to learn the mitzvot.  They are old enough that when they hear Torah read at Hakhel, they will ask their parents what it means. According to Kli Yakar and Ohr haChaim, the children "who do not know" refers to those who have reached the age of chinuch.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Yevamot 1:6) relates that Rabbi Dosan ben Horkinas saw Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya and proclaimed: "'Whom to teach knowledge?...those weaned of milk' (Isaiah 28:9.) I remember his mother bringing round his cradle to the study hall, so that his ears should pick up words of Torah."  The Kleinman edition of Limud Yomi notes: "[From this we learn] that a lasting impression may be etched in the soul and brain of a child that will influence his entire life, though he has no discernible knowledge or memory of that stimulus."

Rashi comments that the purpose of obligating children to hear Torah at Hakhel is "to give reward to those who brought them."   In other words, writes Likud Yomi: "It is an assurance to parents who take an interest and work diligently to promote the wisdom of Torah and fear of G-d in their children even at an early age, that in good time their toil will be rewarded by having children who are true bnei Torah (Children of Torah.)"

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 5772, begins Wednesday evening, September 28.  Make sure you take your children, the young and the older, to synagogue to hear the shofar, to hear Torah and to impress upon them the significance of these holy days.    


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ki Tavo 5771

In this week's parsha, Moshe continues to instruct the Israelites on how to behave when they enter (ki tavo) the Land of Israel. Moshe enumerates blessings and curses, and tells what will happen if his people fulfill the Torah, and if they do not. A reason for the curses is given: "All these curses will befall you…because you did not serve G-d, your G-d, with joy and with gladness of heart..."

Why is it that even when we fulfill Torah by performing mitzvot (commandments), if we lack this "extra" attribute of joy, we deserve such dire consequences?

The Maggid Mishneh explains that when we perform a mitzvah b'simcha (with joy), it proves that we understand that there is no greater happiness in this world than to serve our Creator, for the true purpose of creation is to serve Him. Simcha is the key factor in determining if we really are serving G-d. If we merely follow the laws and perform the mitzvot by rote and out of habit, without appreciating what we are doing, it can be said that we are not serving G-d at all, and therefore we deserve punishment. Simcha is the basic intention that must underlie avodah (service) of G-d.

As parents, we must show our children that we are happy to perform mitzvot, and that doing so, i.e., fulfilling the laws of Torah and living Jewishly, is meaningful to us and brings us joy. We cannot just go through the motions, without awareness and understanding. Further, we should be careful not to complain if we find that Torah laws are difficult to adhere to, lest our children adopt an attitude that Torah observance is a chore. Our children need to see that we have a relationship with G-d and that we perform mitzvot because we love, and are grateful, to G-d.

Published in the merit of a refua shlema (complete healing) for Nesha bat Freda Leah.




Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ki Tetze 5771

This week's parsha contains instructions for dealing with a ben sorer u'moreh (wayward and rebellious son.) "If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey [literally, "hear the voice of"] his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them, his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place. And they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us [literally, "hear our voices"]; [he is] a glutton and a guzzler.'"

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) says that there never was a case of a wayward son. Why then does Torah include instructions on how to deal with one?

Rabbi Shimon answers: "So that it should be studied and we should be rewarded [for studying it]." Even if there never was a rebellious son, we can learn about raising children from studying Torah's description of the rebellious son.

The law of the rebellious son applies only when the child is age 13 and for the next three months, that is, immediately upon his bar mitzvah, the beginning of his adulthood. This shows how important it is to provide children with a proper educational foundation. As Chiddushei HaRim says, we must put the words of Torah on the heart of the child so that when the heart opens up, the Torah found on it will sink into the receptive heart.

Rabbi Zev Leff, spiritual leader of Moshav Matisyahu, explains that Torah describes the rebellious son as not heeding the voice (kol) of his father and mother. Maharal points out that kol denotes a voice or noise, something not necessarily intelligible. The rebellious son listens to his parents when their words make sense to him, but when he does not understand their directives, he ignores them.

Writes Rabbi Leff on "A child must be taught to rely on his parents' instructions and trust in their desire and ability to guide him on the proper path, even though he may not understand or grasp the wisdom of their directions. Though a parent should try to explain to the child the reasons for his directions and instructions, the child must be taught that in the end, whether he understands or not, he must accept his parents' authority."

Further, Talmud learns from the phrase, "he does not listen to our voices," that to be deemed a rebellious son, both parents must have similar voices. Both parents' guidance must reflect the same values, and they must be consistent in their instruction. If we parents do not speak with one voice, our child cannot be deemed rebellious, because the blame for his rebellious behavior is not his alone.

(Excerpted from an article by Rabbi Zev Leff. Read the article in its entirety at

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shoftim 5771

This week's parsha contains the laws for waging war as the Israelites prepare to conquer and settle the Land of Israel. When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down; is, then, the tree of the field a man that it should enter the siege before you?

Why does Torah compare man to a tree?

The Vilna Gaon notes that the word etz (tree) and the word tzelem (image), as in "man was created in G-d's image," have the identical gematria (numerical value) of 160. We are considered to be in G-d's image when we are as fruitful as a fruit tree, that is, when we are productive. We must enrich the world, increase its knowledge and behave morally in order to deserve to be called the image of G-d. Even when we engage in a destructive act such as war, we are enjoined against wanton destruction. The Sages apply this principle, known as bal tashchit, globally, forbidding us from ever destroying or wasting resources.

G-d gave us the world and appointed us its caretaker. While G-d created nature for us, we are part of nature, "for man is as a tree of the field." When we harm a tree, or any natural resource, we hurt ourselves. Rabbi Ari Kahn writes on, "The natural world was given as a gift to humankind, to be enjoyed and cherished. Mankind is expected to appreciate the value and importance of this gift, and to safeguard it, taking great care when making use of precious resources, and being careful about waste and conspicuous consumption."

As parents, we have many opportunities to avoid wastefulness and to prevent the destruction of useful items. For example, we can plan menus so that leftovers become tasty side dishes; we can hand down outgrown clothing or give it to the needy; and we can save money by sticking to shopping lists and avoiding impulse buys. Likewise, we can teach children to take smaller portions and ask for seconds if still hungry; to take care of their clothing so it lasts longer; and to spend money judiciously.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Re’eh 5771

This week's parsha begins "See, I give you today a blessing and a curse." The word re'eh (see) is in the singular, while the word lifanechem (before you) is in the plural.

If Moshe is addressing all of Klal Yisrael, why doesn't he use the plural?

What is a blessing? Each person will have a different answer depending on personal experience, values and individual outlook. To some, the answer is health; to others, wealth. To many, the most significant blessing is having children and grandchildren. Interestingly, some may find a blessing in illness. A heart attack, for example, might inspire someone to eat better and to exercise.

By using the singular form of re'eh, Moshe acknowledges that we each see blessings through our own eyes. Therefore, each of us will receive whatever we consider a blessing. However, Moshe juxtaposes blessing with curse to remind us that what we consider a blessing might actually be a curse. Winning the lottery, for example, can change people and their priorities. Getting a promotion at work can mean longer hours at the office and a changed relationship with co-workers.

Likewise, what we perceive to be bad for us may actually turn out to be good -- a blessing in disguise. Being delayed, for example, may cause someone to miss being in an accident. Losing a job may mean finding an even better one. We may not be able to see it right away, but if we are patient and trust in G-d, we will ultimately see the blessing.

As parents, we face many challenges. While we are in the midst of dealing with them, they may appear to be curses. We must train our eyes to see these troubles as merely temporary setbacks that ultimately will be revealed as blessings.

Published in the merit of a refua shlema (complete healing) for Chana bas Rochel.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eikev 5771

In this week’s parsha, Moshe continues his discourse to Bnei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), telling them what to expect and how to behave when they enter the Land of Israel. He reminds them: “It is not by bread alone that man makes a life for himself; by everything that comes out from the mouth of G-d, man lives.”
Most of us are familiar with the beginning of this well known statement (man cannot live by bread alone), but its ending is not as well known.  What does it mean?
With these words, Moshe points out the importance of acknowledging the Source of our sustenance.  Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum notes that the Hebrew word for bread is lechem, but lechem also has another meaning, “to wage war.”  Horav S.R. Hirsch, z.l., explains that man, using intelligence and creativity, wages war with nature and competes with his fellow man in order to harness nature and wrest nourishment from it.
Rabbi Scheinbaum writes: “The tragedy of man begins when he thinks that his ability and creative power are the sole ingredients of his material success.  The prime factor in man’s sustenance is G-d’s Providence.  Every morsel of bread in which we are fortunate to partake is due solely to G-d’s beneficence.  To forget or disregard this fact is to fall prey to man’s greatest delusion.”
To stave off this inclination, we begin each meal that includes bread with a blessing that acknowledges the One Who “brings forth bread from the earth.”  The Hebrew for “brings forth” is motzi, which is a form of the word motza used in the above passage to mean “comes out.”
It is no coincidence that several verses later in this parsha, we find the commandment to say a blessing after we eat. “You will eat and be satisfied. You must [then] bless G-d...” Moshe composed the blessing while Bnei Yisrael were in the desert and G-d provided manna, heavenly bread.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes: “Moshe’s words are applicable now as well [as during the time in the desert] because it is not the physical efforts of working the land alone that causes the land to yield produce.  Rather, man’s efforts merely create a ‘vehicle’ into which G-d places His blessings, and it is the Divine blessing which provides us with sustenance.  Therefore, even the food which grows from the ground is in fact ‘food from heaven’ so it is indeed appropriate – even nowadays -- to thank G-d for one’s nourishment with a text which was composed in praise of ‘bread from heaven.’”
As parents, we must nourish our children’s souls as well as their bodies. We should cultivate in them the habit of verbalizing gratitude to G-d for the food placed before them, as well as thankfulness to Him after they have eaten their fill.  Here is a link to the full English and transliterated Hebrew text of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals, known in Yiddish as bentching):

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Vaetchanan 5771

This week's parsha contains the mitzvah (commandment) of talmud Torah, to transmit the Torah's teachings. "You shall teach them diligently to your children. Speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way."

How does Torah instruct us to transmit Torah to our children?

Sefer haChinuch says: "From what time is a father to start teaching his son Torah? From the time he begins to speak, he is to teach him 'Moshe commanded us the Torah, it is a heritage of the congregation of Yaakov' [from Devarim/Deuteronomy 33:4, the final parsha in Torah] and the first verse of Shema [found in this week's parsha, Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:1] 'Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.' Sefer HaChinuch continues, "If someone was not taught by his fathers [father and/or grandfather], he is obligated to teach himself when he is grown and becomes aware of the matter."

What about mothers and daughters? The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes in Sichos Kodesh: "While in times gone by, women and girls were not taught Torah at all, nowadays it is not only permissible to teach women even the deepest parts of the Torah, but it is an absolute necessity to do so. For in the modern world, women are no longer confined to home and they are highly exposed to the marketplace of secular ideas. Thus, if the policy of not teaching women Torah at an advanced level will be upheld, the result will be that a girl's sophisticated worldly knowledge – which is likely to harbor many ideas that are antithetical to Torah – will be insubstantially compensated for by her rudimentary Torah knowledge."

This week's parsha teaches that we parents are our children's primary Torah teachers. We cannot shift the burden to our synagogues or to our schools. Torah must be taught "when you sit in your house" and the lessons and examples must continue outside the home "when you walk on the way." We don't become different people with different values when we leave our homes to go outside. The principles we uphold inside our homes strengthen us when we navigate the many highways of life outside the home.

It is no coincidence that this week's parsha also contains the commandment to affix a mezuzah "on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates." The mezuzah contains a parchment on which the Shema and two additional Torah passages are written. Upon entering and leaving the house, we see the mezuzah and remember that we are bound to study and teach Torah, and fulfill G-d's commandments, both inside the house and outside of it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Devarim 5771

With this week's parsha, we begin the fifth book of Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy.) The book also is known as Mishnah Torah, a review of the Torah. Knowing that he soon will die, Moshe reviews the Torah with his people, beginning with subtle words of rebuke alluding to their past sins. He reminds them that when the spies returned with a falsely negative account of the Land of Israel (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:1, Parashat Shelach) "you returned and wept."

What were the tragic results of the people's weeping? What did Moshe hope to achieve by reminding them of their tearful reaction?

This parsha always is read the Shabbat before Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) because that is the day the spies returned with their report. Today, Tisha B'Av is one of the most solemn fast days on the Jewish calendar. It coincides with many historic tragedies affecting the Jewish people, including the destruction of both of our Holy Temples.

The Talmud refers to the tears shed when the spies returned as "without cause." G-d declared, "They indulged in weeping without a cause; I will establish [this night] for them as a time of weeping throughout the generations."

Moshe, and G-d before him, reminds the people that tears serve a purpose and should not be wasted. Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt writes on "In Jewish thinking, crying is usually considered an important expression of emotion. If you cry to express pain, be it physical or emotional, that's healthy. If you cry in frustration at being unable to achieve what you want, that's also healthy. But crying in self-pity, at your hopeless situation in life, can only be destructive. It undermines your resolve to face the challenges of this world. And so, if you must cry, better that you have good reason to do so. This is what G-d said to the generation of the spies: If you are going to cry anyway, I will give you a reason to do so - so that your crying can at least be productive."

As parents, all too often, when we are confronted with transitory problems, we become emotional. We are grief-stricken when our children are not doing well academically or socially; we are overcome when too many demands are made on our time or our money. We cry for such foolishness, for such trivial reasons.

The Shabbat preceding Tisha B'Av is known as Shabbat Chazon (Shabbat of Vision), and takes its name from the first word of the Haftorah read that Shabbat. On Shabbat Chazon, teaches Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, each soul is granted a vision of the third and final Temple, and a time when we will no longer have reasons to weep (unless it is for joy.) Let us wipe our eyes free of useless tears that cloud our vision, and let us eliminate any thoughts of self-pity. Instead, let us reach out to help those who have reason to cry. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her returnees with tzedekah (righteousness.)"

Friday, July 29, 2011

Masei 5771

This week's parsha begins with a recapitulation of the journeys of the Israelites in the desert wilderness. "These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the Land of Egypt…" Forty-two times the parsha reiterates "and they journeyed…and they camped."

Why does Torah use the plural form of the word "journey" and then reiterate 42 seemingly separate journeys and encampments?

It took forty-two stages for the Israelites to get from Egypt to Israel, over a period of forty years. Each stage of the journey was determined exclusively by Divine decree—42 times, the cloud which hovered over the Jewish camp began to move on when they were required to relocate. Sforno explains that G-d wanted to record in Torah all of the stops and starts in the wilderness to demonstrate the Israelites' faith in G-d and their readiness to travel at His direction regardless of the difficulties, or their lack of understanding the route.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the forty-two stages from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of each Jew, as our soul journeys from birth, to its return to its Source at death. Until we arrive at the ultimate goal, we are always in the process of leaving Egypt.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. Its root is tzar, which means "narrow" or "constricted" and it is related to the Hebrew word meitzar, which means "strait." Life is a succession of tight and narrow spots followed by relief and expansion. At every stage in our life's journeys, we face obstacles and tests. Through overcoming these difficulties and learning from their lessons, we become strengthened, and our awareness of G-d is expanded.

This parsha is always read during the three weeks of mourning that mark the tragic period of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Babylonians and Romans thousands of years ago (the 17th day of the Hebrew month Tammuz, this year July 19), to the destruction of our Temples on Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, this year August 9.) This period also is known as bein ha-meitzar, which means "between the tragedies" or "between the straits or narrow confines."

As parents, when our journeys become difficult, when we are tested and challenged, especially when we face tragedy, we should remember that our journeys have a purpose. G-d directs us and leads us to an ultimate destination. In Torah (Exodus/Shemot 3:8), the Land of Israel is described as eretz tova u'rachava, a good and spacious land. The psalmist writes: "From the straits I call out to G-d and He answers me from the wide open spaces." (Psalms/Tehillim 118) Eventually, we all will arrive in the Land of Israel. Each of us will experience a personal redemption, and the entire Jewish nation also will be redeemed. May it be speedily in our days.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Matot 5771

In this week's parsha, the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel. The tribes of Reuven and Gad, who are wealthy and own lots of livestock, request to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River (just outside the land of Israel) where they see ample grazing ground for their livestock. "We will build sheep enclosures for our livestock here and cities for our children," they tell Moshe. When Moshe finally acquiesces to their request, he tells them, "Build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep."

What is the significance of Reuven's and Gad's descendants mentioning livestock before children in their request, and of Moshe reversing the order in his response?

The Midrash says that Moshe's reversal is a rebuke. It is his way of pointing out that the two tribes seem to attach more importance to their possessions than to their children. Moshe warns that since they are so concerned with their material possessions, they ultimately will not be blessed. As it says in Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:21 about Reuven and Gad, "An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end."

The descendants of Reuven and Gad give up living in the Land of Israel to settle in a place less holy. There are many mitzvot (commandments) that can only be performed within the Land of Israel. The two tribes separate themselves from the rest of the Children of Israel and live surrounded by foreign nations. The Midrash says that as a result of this separation, their connection to Torah weakens and their Torah observance decreases. Hundreds of years later, the tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan are punished by being exiled before those living in the Land of Israel. (I Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles 5:26.)

As parents, we need to get our priorities in order – family first and foremost. Longer hours at the office may indeed bring home extra money, but it means time away from our precious families. How will we use this money? Do we really need to buy and maintain all of this stuff? Must we have the bragging rights to the latest model, the most expensive name brand, the fanciest neighborhood? How quickly these material goods can all disappear! We should instead invest in things that last – for example, our children's Torah education, a family trip to Israel, or a home in a neighborhood that will strengthen our children's connection to Torah.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinchas 5771

In this week's parsha, G-d recognizes Pinchas for his zealous action (related at the end of last week's parsha.) Enraged that the Israelites turned to harlotry and idolatry, Pinchas kills Zimri, an Israelite who, in a flagrant breach of Torah law, takes a Midianite woman into his tent. "Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aharon the Kohen has turned My anger away from the Children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them...Therefore, say, 'I hereby give him My covenant of peace.'"

What is the significance of the covenant of peace?

The Midrash says that because Pinchas brought peace between the Jewish people and G-d, Pinchas will be the harbinger of peace in the future.  He will live extraordinarily long and appear as the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah.)  it is perhaps with this understanding of shalom (peace) in in the sense of well being and longevity, that when a baby boy is brought for his b'rit milah (ritual circumcision), it is customary to recite the first three verses of this week's parsha.  Furthermore, it is customary to to place an honorary seat for Eliyahu at every b'rit milah because in Eliyahu's time, Israel stopped observing b'rit milah, and unable to bear this, Eliyahu left.  The Midrash says that G-d promised Eliyahu that Israel will not perform b'rit milah until Eliyahu sees it with his own eyes. Eliyahu is thus considered the messenger of the covenant.

Milah, known as b'rit kodesh (a sign of the holy covenant) is a sign of the morality in intimate affairs by which we are obligated to abide. By killing Zimri, who blatantly displayed immorality, Pinchas was able to end this wanton behavior and save the nation of Israel. At every b'rit milah, we renew our b'rit (covenant) with G-d and ensure the preservation of morality and modesty.  As parents who live in a world in which what once was X-rated is R-rated, it is critical to keep our interactions G-rated and transmit to our children values of morality and modesty.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Balak 5771

In this week's parsha, Balak, king of Moab, sends Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. G-d prevents Bilaam from uttering curses and instead causes him to issue blessings. "Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes...[and he said] How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

What is the significance of Bilaam's blessing?

Rashi explains what Bilaam witnesses when he comes to the Israelites' encampment. "He saw that their entrances [the entrances to their tents] were not aligned opposite one another, so that one should not peer into the tent of his friend." Bilaam sees how the Israelites value the sanctity and modesty of Jewish life, and how they protect their family's privacy and are sensitive to the privacy of others. Moreover, the strategic placement of the tents' doorways ensures that the Israelites do not look into their neighbors' tents and become envious of their neighbors' possessions. Awed by their virtues, Bilaam can only praise the Israelites.

The world we live in does not value privacy, modesty or discretion. The media compete to reveal the juiciest gossip; underwear is outerwear; and people post their most private thoughts and intimate photos. Popular culture tells us "if you've got it, flaunt it" and we spend a great deal of time eyeing what others have, and making sure that we have it, too.

How can we, as parents, resist and counter the social pressures to see all, tell all and have all? We can take our cue from the Israelites, who with the positioning of their tent flaps drew clear boundaries between public and private life. They built strong homes, and within them inculcated critical values of privacy and modesty. As modern-day parents, we, too, must create a home environment in which our children can develop into decent and caring adults. As Bilaam found, the sanctity of our home life is the key to bringing down blessings.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chukat 5771

In this week's parsha, Miriam dies and the miraculous travelling well of water (which G-d provides in her merit) disappears. The people complain to Moshe that there is no water to drink. G-d instructs Moshe: "Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aharon, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.  Moshe took the staff from before the L-rd as He had commanded him. Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, 'Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?' Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.  The L-rd said to Moshe and Aharon, 'Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them.'"

What is the nature of Moshe and Aharon's sin that they receive the severe punishment of not entering the Land of Israel?

The precise nature of Moshe and Aharon's sin, for which G-d charges them with not believing in Him, is enigmatic, and is addressed by nearly all commentators. According to Rashi, the sin is that Moshe strikes the stone instead of only speaking to it, as G-d had instructed; according to Maimonides, it is that Moshe gets angry, and says, "Hear now, you rebels."

Chassidic Master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev sees Maimonides' and Rashi's explanations as two sides of the same coin. If a leader's influence on the community is achieved through harsh words of rebuke, then his relationship with the environment is likewise: he will have to forcefully impose his will on it to get it to serve his people's needs and their mission in life. If, however, he influences his community by lovingly uplifting them to a higher place so that they, on their own, will desire to improve themselves, the world will likewise willingly yield its resources to the furtherance of his goals. (See

As a leader, Moshe should never have harshly admonished the people or used physical force to emphasize a point. He would have been more effective, and indeed been able to penetrate stubborn hearts of stone, had he employed calm, non-abusive verbal communication rather than anger and physical force.

As parents, we must carefully choose the words and actions we use to rebuke our non-compliant children. There should be no name-calling, no demeaning, and under no circumstances must we ever substitute or accompany these words with physical force.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Korach 5771

In this week's parsha, Korach stages a rebellion and tries to overthrow Moshe and Aharon. The parsha opens "And Korach took…" Korach "took" the people with lies and manipulation and persuaded 250 men to follow him. Moshe's reaction to this confrontation is revealing: "Moshe heard and fell on his face [in prayer.] He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, 'In the morning, the L-rd will make known who is His…'"

What can we learn from Moshe's response to confrontation? What is the deeper meaning of the wait for morning?

Instead of expressing anger and lashing out against his attackers, Moshe tries to reason with them. The Hebrew word for "morning" is boker. Rabbis Yisroel and Osher Anshel Jungreis note that boker is closely related to the Hebrew word bikoret, which means "to clarify" or "to investigate." They conclude that Moshe hopes his adversaries will "sleep on it" before they act – that they will examine their motivation and reconsider their evil plans. From this, we learn that we should not act rashly to counter our opponents. We should try to make peace by asking them to investigate, find clarity and hopefully they will abandon their opposition plans overnight.

As parents, we should take Moshe's approach to avoid strife and achieve reconciliation within our families. Instead of speaking in anger, instead of acting impetuously, instead of condemning, we should bite our tongues, swallow our false pride and fight our impulse to engage in altercation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 110A) proclaims: "Anyone who engages in divisiveness transgresses a Divine prohibition, as it is written [in this week's parsha]: 'And he shall not be as Korach and his company.'" Rather, we should emulate Moshe and do as the psalmist recommends: "Seek peace and pursue it."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shelach 5771

This week's parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe to send men who "will explore the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel." The parsha ends with the passage we recite every morning and evening in the Shema: "they shall make for themselves tzitzit (fringes) on the corners of their garments…This shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the L-rd to perform them, and you shall not explore after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray."

Why does the same word for "explore" (v'yaturu/lo taturo) occur in the opening and closing verses of the parsha?

Rashi comments on the latter verse: "The heart and the eyes are 'spies' for the body, and they act as the body's agents in sinning. The eye sees, the heart desires and the body carries out the sins." The fringes of the tzitzit surrounding us on all four sides are a visual reminder of G-d's presence everywhere.

In this week's parsha, twelve men are sent to explore the Land of Israel. Ten of the explorers (the commentators call them meraglim—spies) reject the report that that G-d promised to take them to a land "flowing with milk and honey." They cannot take it on trust. They want to check out the land with their own eyes and decide for themselves. They see exactly what they want to see: a land governed by natural laws, where people live and die (there are many funerals); a beautiful land, but one that goes against all the laws of nature (the produce and the people are unnaturally large.) They wrongly conclude that they will not be able to conquer the land. "We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes."

The sin of the spies is a failure of faith. They allow themselves to be misled by the external appearance of the natural world into a colossal failure of nerve, despite all the promises given by G-d that He would bring them to the land. They then conduct an ingenious operation of public opinion manipulation, using skillfully chosen words to implant in the people's minds a vision of the impossibility of achieving their natural destiny. The people should have focused their vision on that which is beyond nature -- the miracles that had been performed for them. This should have given them the faith that G-d has the power to fulfill His promises.

Faith does not depend upon what the eyes see. We declare our faith wrapped in the tallit (prayer shawl), clutching the tzitzit by our hearts, closing our eyes to the visual world around us and covering them with our hand: "Shema Yisrael, HaShem is our G-d!"
The tzitzit are the remedy for faulty and sinful vision.

Being a parent demands this kind of faith. Each of our children represents a promise from G-d. Only we, as parents, can see each of our children's potential. We need to focus on the vision we have for our children and not be swayed by competing attempts to distract us and confuse our hearts. It is up to us as parents to recognize that with G-d's help, all is possible for our children.

Excerpted from an article by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum. Read it in its entirety at