Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bo 5772

In this week’s parsha, G-d issues the last three of the ten plagues. During the final one, makat bechorot, G-d passes over every bechor, Jewish firstborn son, and kills every Egyptian firstborn male.  Because of this miracle, the firstborn of the Jewish people are forever sanctified. “Sanctify for Me every firstborn, those who open every womb.”

Today, the mitzvah of pidyon haben (redemption of the [firstborn] son) reminds of us the miracle. When a Jewish woman gives birth to a firstborn male, the father of the child must redeem him, for the modern equivalent of five silver shekels, from a Kohen, a Jewish man who is known to be descended from priests of the Holy Temple.  A father who is a Kohen or a Levite, descended from those who assisted the priests in the Temple service, is exempt, as is a mother whose father is a Kohen or Levite.
One of conditions for fulfilling the mitzvah of pidyon haben is that the birth must be natural (non-caesarean), and the result of a mother’s first pregnancy, i.e., not preceded by a miscarriage. What is the purpose of these conditions for pidyon haben?

Rabbi Yissocher Frand suggests that the answer can be found by examining the mitzvah of bikurim, the dedication of first fruits of the harvest to the Holy Temple. Writes Rabbi Frand: “[Bikurim reminds us that] the most natural process still requires the miraculous intervention of Hashem, that we are always dependent on Divine Providence no matter how naturally everything seems to be coming our way.” 

Rabbi Frand continues: “When people have all sorts of trouble conceiving [and delivering] a child, they turn to Hashem and plead with him.  And when the child is finally born, they know full well that it is a priceless gift from Hashem.  But when things go normally [and naturally], they may not realize that the child is just as great a gift from Hashem.” The mitzvah of pidyon haben and its condition of first pregnancy and natural birth reminds us to be thankful even when things go well, when we are most likely to forget that we are always dependent upon G-d.     

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Va'eira 5772

In this week’s parsha, Paroh continues to refuse to free the Jewish slaves. G-d sends plagues to convince Paroh to change his mind and release the Jews. Moshe warns the Egyptians before the plagues. Before the seventh plague, hail, Moshe tells them that if they want to save their livestock, they should bring them inside. “The one among Paroh’s servants that feared the word of G-d whisked his servants and livestock indoors.  But the one that paid no heed to G-d’s word left his slaves and livestock in the field.”

After six plagues, one would think that the Egyptians would heed Moshe’s warning. Why did they ignore it?

Midrash identifies “the one that feared the word of G-d” as Iyov and “the one that paid no heed to G-d’s word” as Bilam, two of Paroh’s advisors. We can read about Bilam in Parashat Balak. King Balak hires Bilam to curse the Jews. Upon encountering an angel in the road, Bilam’s donkey refuses to move and miraculously speaks to Bilam, calling attention to the extraordinary event. Rabbi Yissocher Frand sees this as Bilam’s wake-up call that he refuses to heed.

Writes Rabbi Frand: “The Chofetz Chaim points out that the entire episode of Bilam in Torah appears as one long, uninterrupted narrative…with no breaks whatsoever. Why? Because Bilam never stopped to think about what he was doing. He never stopped to take stock and consider the wisdom of his actions…When Moshe issued his warning about the impending hailstorm, Bilam could not be bothered to ‘pay heed’ to it. He was thinking about his own plans, his own agenda. His mind was made up.”

As parents, we are very busy. Despite the advent of modern appliances and new technologies designed to save time and labor -- cars, washing machines, e-mail – we still manage to fill our time and feel as if we have none to spare.  We are more rushed than ever and can barely breathe. We need to slow down, to “pay heed” and think about what is going on. We need to assess our lives to see if we have gone off track.  While this is best done daily, Shabbat is a wonderful opportunity to rest from our busyness and take time for contemplation.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shemot 5772

In this week’s parsha Moshe (Moses) is born in Egypt. Torah tells that “a man of the House of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.”

Why doesn’t Torah name Moshe’s parents at this point in the narrative, but only five chapters later (Amram and Yocheved, in next week’s parsha) when Moshe has already reached adulthood and it is established that he will lead the Jews out of Egypt?

The reason Torah does not name Moshe’s parents at this point is because Torah wants the world to know that Moshe is a regular person born to regular parents. While in other cultures and religions, leaders are believed to be descended from gods, Judaism makes it clear that our leaders are human and descended from ordinary people. All of us have the potential for greatness.

Moshe’s mother is, in fact, named in this parsha, but we only know this from the Midrash. Torah says: “Now the King of Egypt spoke with the Hebrew midwives, the one who was named Shifra and he second, Puah.” Midrash says that Shifra is Moshe’s mother and Puah is his sister, Miriam. These courageous women defy Paroh’s (Pharoah’s) orders to kill all newborn Jewish male babies. Moshe’s mother gives birth to him and hides him for three months. Then, she lovingly places him in a basket in the Nile River and Miriam watches as Paroh’s daughter retrieves him. Miriam offers her mother as Moshe’s nursemaid and Moshe’s mother raises him until he is old enough to move into Paroh’s palace.

After being raised in the Egyptian palace, Moshe goes into the field and sees an Egyptian smiting a Jew. “He looked this way and that way, and when he saw there was no man, he smote the Egyptian.”

The literal interpretation is that Moshe looks to see if anyone is watching. When he determines that there is no witness, Moshe defends the Jew. Rabbi Avi Weiss has a different explanation. He writes on; “Moshe was raised in an Egyptian home, but nursed by his biological Jewish mother. As a consequence, Moshe was unsure who he really was. When seeing an Egyptian smiting a Jew, he looked within himself to ascertain whether he should help the Egyptian or defend the Jew. When he fully grasps that he had not firmly established his identity, he makes a decision – he smites the Egyptian part of himself and declares – I am a Jew.”

Nursed by a Jewish mother, and following the example of her bold and courageous actions to protect the Jewish people, Moshe stops wavering, identifies himself and steps in to make a difference.

As parents, we must make certain that we do not waver, and that we identify ourselves boldly and clearly as Jews.  Our confidence and certainty will do much to ensure that our children are secure in their identities as Jews.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Vayechi 5772

In this week's parsha, Yaakov (Jacob) blesses his sons before he dies. His blessings relate to the sons' past deeds and describe the sons' future. When he blesses Shimon and Levi, Yaakov says: "In their afam [wrath], they killed a man…Cursed is their afam [wrath], for it is mighty." Yaakov's words refer to Shimon's and Levi's revenge killing on the inhabitants of Shechem for kidnapping and violating their sister Dina.

Why did Yaakov curse Shimon's and Levi's anger?

The Sages tell us that a person filled with anger is equivalent to an idol worshiper (Shabbos 105b.) When in the throes of uncontrollable anger, a person acts without fear of G-d. Ruled completely by anger and not by reason, a raging person is capable of transgressing the greatest prohibitions, i.e., even killing another person.

One of the Thirteen Attributes of G-d is erech apayim, literally, long nose(s), the Hebrew word for nose being af, but usually translated as slow to anger. Rashi suggests that this is because when we are angry, our nostrils flare. (Shemot 15:8) By contrast, one who is slow to anger takes a deep breath through the nose and uses the powers of intellect to subdue the anger and remain in control.

The Sages teach us that we must constantly pray for help in controlling our anger. Rabbi Akiva would pray daily that he not succumb to anger: May it be Your will, Hashem, that I not become angry, and that I not anger You.

The story is told of a father who, when his children misbehaved and he was in danger of losing his temper with them, would don a special coat. He would calmly walk to the coat closet and slowly and deliberately put on the coat, painstakingly buttoning each of the dozens of brass buttons. By the time he accomplished this, his anger had subsided.

As parents, we must maintain equanimity and remain in control of our emotions. When the juice spills, when the principal calls, when the offenses are more consequential, let calm prevail, breathe, and deal rationally with the situation.