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.