Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mishpatim 5771

The name of this week's parsha, Mishpatim, means "laws." It contains many civil and criminal laws that expand upon the laws given in the Ten Commandments. The parsha begins: "And these are the laws which you should place before them."

Why does G-d direct Moshe to place the laws "before" the Jewish people?

The Hebrew word lifnay means before, as "in an earlier time," as well as "in front of." HaRav Moshe Swift of blessed memory explains that Torah was placed before the Jewish people as an advance guard. The Torah predates man; it existed before G-d created man. Therefore, we have no right to decide for ourselves what is ethical, appropriate or just; G-d has already determined this. We must follow the laws, not just because they make sense to us intellectually and logically, but because G-d has legislated them.

Furthermore, the Torah is constantly in front of us as a guide as we go through life. It is in the forefront of our minds as we make decisions, conduct our business and our personal lives. In all of these situations, we are held to the standard of ethical conduct that G-d has set before us; we must follow His directives to navigate our way through the issues we confront daily at home, at work and along the way.

As parents, it is necessary for us to place these laws before our children. The foremost Torah commentator, Rashi, writes: "You should place [it] before them like a set table." HaRav haGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis explains. When we bring our children to the table, they see how beautifully it is set, and they notice the food that has been lovingly prepared especially for them. They cannot help being drawn to the table and tasting the food. Similarly, if we place the beautiful precepts of Torah before our children, the Torah teaching will reach their hearts.

HaRav Swift notes that in the same manner in which ordinary stones inscribed with the Ten Commandments have been consecrated, a table can become an altar, food can be elevated to a meal offering and a house can become a sanctuary. So, too, can children become holy by infusing them with Torah laws.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Yitro 5771

In this week's parsha, the entire Jewish nation stands at Mount Sinai as Moshe (Moses) brings down the Ten Commandments. The Commandments are written on two tablets, five mitzvot (commandments) on each. The first tablet contains laws regarding the relationship between people and G-d; the second, laws that regulate the relationship between people. On the first tablet, we find "do not worship other gods"; "do not take G-d's name in vain"; "remember the Sabbath." The second tablet includes "do not steal" and "do not murder." The mitzvah "honor your father and mother" appears as the fifth mitzvah on the first tablet, even though it pertains to a relationship between people.

Why does the mitzvah of honoring parents appear on the first tablet with the laws pertaining to the relationship between people and G-d?

There is a close correlation between the relationship between parents and children and the relationship between people and G-d. The way we parents relate to our children is the same way G-d relates to us. We love our children, care for them and protect them. Our love is constant, unselfish and unconditional. We provide them with a sense of security so that when they find themselves in difficult situations, they know they can count on us – they do not have to weather the storm alone.

The loving way we relate to our children forms the foundation for their relationship with G-d. Lori Palatnik writes on "The all encompassing devotion we get from our parents and transmit to our children gives us just an inkling of what it means to have the same love from G-d." We must teach our children to honor us because it is the only way they can develop a relationship with G-d. Further, we must show gratitude to our parents, and teach our children to be grateful to us, because then they will learn to be thankful to G-d.

How can we parents teach our children to honor us?

If we are fortunate enough to have living parents, our children can learn by observing our behavior. We can honor our children's grandparents by treating them like VIPs, calling them by their rightful names ("Mom" or "Dad" or the equivalent), speaking to them respectfully with a pleasant tone of voice, welcoming them to our home and escorting them out. If our parents are no longer with us, we can continue to honor them through Torah learning, acts of loving-kindness and prayers.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Beshalach 5771

Beshalach means "sent away." In this week's parsha, Pharaoh finally sends away the Israelites from Egypt. The opening of the parsha reads: "When Pharaoh sent away the people, G-d did not lead them through the land of the Philistines…This is because G-d said, 'When the people see a war, they may regret [leaving] and return to Egypt.' G-d turned the people [in the opposite direction] toward the desert [and] the Sea of Reeds."

Why does Moshe (Moses) lead the Israelites on a roundabout route, and not directly to the Land of Israel?

No, the answer is not because Moshe refuses to ask for directions. And no, it is not because Moshe does not have GPS! All joking aside, Moshe knows that if he simply heads north and takes a direct route, within a few days he will arrive in the Promised Land. However, he is also aware that this shortcut will take him and the Israelites directly though enemy territory. He understands that the Israelites are weary and dispirited from their years of slavery in Egypt. He fears that if the Israelites immediately confront the Philistine army, they will become discouraged and will want to return to Egypt. The Israelites do not yet possess the faith in G-d and in Moshe to face the Philistines. Nor are they in the proper spiritual frame of mind to arrive in the Land of Israel and accept the Torah.

As they wander through the desert, where food, water, and shade are not readily available, the Israelites witness firsthand how G-d makes miracles that enable them to survive. G-d provides manna for them to eat, a well full of water, and a cloud above them that constantly protects them from the elements. They learn that their very existence is in the hands of G-d, for surely without Divine intervention, they would perish.

As parents, we often feel as if we are wandering in the desert, as far away as possible from the Promised Land of well adjusted adult children and wonderful grandchildren. Sadly, there are no shortcuts to reaching this goal. In any worthwhile endeavor we must invest much time and effort. We will doubtless encounter many challenges, hardships and obstacles along the way. Each setback will provide invaluable experience. As long as we face these situations with the faith that G-d will help us overcome them, surely He will.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bo 5771

"This month shall be the head of the months for you. It shall be the first of the months of the year for you." (Shemot 12:2)

In this week's parsha, B'nai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) finally are granted freedom from Egyptian slavery. Before this occurs, G-d instructs Moshe (Moses) and Aharon (Aaron) to institute a new calendar to replace the one the Egyptians use. The new calendar, still in use today, is based on the cycle of the moon and begins with Nisan, the month in which B'nai Yisrael leave Egypt, and the month in which Passover is observed.

What is the significance of the new lunar calendar? What can we learn from the timing of its institution?

The declaration of a new calendar to replace the Egyptian method of counting time marks Israel's final break with Egypt. While enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites do not have control of how they spend their time. They must do only what their Egyptian taskmasters force them to do; they work so hard that they have no energy or desire to achieve anything else. Each day is the same as the one before, painful and monotonous, with no opportunity to choose a different path. They cannot even dream of, or hope for, a different future.

With liberation from slavery, everything changes. As free people, we can choose how to use our time. This does not mean that we can waste time or fill our time with meaningless activities. Nor does it mean that we can do whatever we want. The "free" time we have is a gift from G-d that we are entrusted with for a limited time. Our time on Earth is short; we must make the most of every moment. The time we "lose", or squander on mindless pursuits, can never be replaced.

As busy parents living in a 24/7 world, how can we make the most of our limited time? How can we help our children to develop an appreciation of, and respect for, time?

The Jewish calendar is full of opportunities to transform ordinary time into sacred time. We have Shabbat (the weekly Sabbath), Rosh Chodesh (the new month), Rosh HaShana (the new year), and many Y'mai Tovim (holy days.) Each of these is an opportunity to remember that we are no longer enslaved; we can stop work and take time to rest and renew ourselves, to spend time with our loved ones, and to give thanks and praise to the One who gave us the ultimate freedom, the gift of time.