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.