Thursday, October 31, 2013

Toldot 5774

And the youths grew up, and Esav (Esau) was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov (Jacob) was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. And Yitzchak (Isaac) loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rivka (Rebecca) loves Yaakov.” (Bereishit/Genesis 25:27-28)

In this week’s Torah portion, after 20 years of infertility, Yitzchak and Rivka have twin sons, Esav and Yaakov. By the time the boys are 13, differences emerge in their personalities, with Esav turning to idols and Yaakov going to the study hall. Commentators note that these distinctions cause each parent to love each son differently, or to appear to favor one over the other.

How can parents, especially those on such exalted levels as our matriarch and patriarch, favor one child over another?   

“Esav became a hunter, but not only in the literal sense. He became adept at trapping his father by asking questions that would make him appear to be unusually pious…and he gained his father’s love by serving him conscientiously; for example, by hunting game to put in his mouth, so that Yitzchak could eat fresh and tasty meat. Yaakov, however, was morally wholesome, saying what he thought and never being duplicitous, and spending all his time in the study tents of Shem and Ever.” (Artscroll’s Stone Chumash, citing Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah 63:10)  

Mrs. Shira Smiles on notes that when Torah describes Esav, the word ish (man) is used twice, whereas the word ish is used only once when Yaakov is described. She teaches that the double usage of ish signifies that Esav has two distinct personalities; he is able to appear righteous when required, such as when Esav is with Yitzchak and does not want to upset his father by revealing his true personality.

While some commentators contend that Yitzchak is too pure to comprehend Esav’s manipulation and deceit, others credit Yitzchak with possessing a deep understanding of Esav’s personality. Mrs. Dina Coopersmith on writes that Rivka, too, easily is able to recognize Esav’s deceit because she comes from a family of manipulators.

R. Shlomo Katz on cites the Krystonopol Rav’s explanation for Yitzchak’s seemingly blind love for Esav:  In order to influence Esav and to prevent him from entirely abandoning his parents’ ways, Yitzchak has to love Esav. He remarks that the verb used in the verse is in the causative tense rather than the simple past tense: “Yitzchak caused love to Esav” rather than “Yitzchak loved Esav.” In other words, Yitzchak struggles to love Esav.

Mrs. Smiles puts forth that Yitzchak is aware of Esav’s negative traits but goes out of his way to find a positive trait that he can praise. He pours out his love, hoping to win over Esav, and Esav responds accordingly. By contrast, Yaakov does not require outright demonstrations of parental love. He studies Torah with his father and this is how they become endeared to one another.

Rav Yissocher Frand on also writes about the grammar of the verse, noting that Yitzchak “loved” while Rivka “loves.” He writes: “The Dubno Maggid suggests a solution based on a keen observation of the world. In non-Jewish society, people define themselves and are defined by others according to what they do. In Jewish society, people are defined by what they are.”

Writes Rav Frand: “Judaism values all people for what they are, for their tzelem Elokim (being created in G-d’s image), for their character, their integrity, their goodness, their ethical standards, their menschlichkeit (how decent, upright, mature and responsible they are), their spiritual accomplishments.”

Rav Frand explains that Esav represents non-Jewish values because he wants to be known as athlete, warrior and hunter and to be valued for his past achievements. Therefore, Yitzchak loved Esav (in the past tense) for the game he put in Yitzchak’s mouth, a past accomplishment.

On the other hand, Yaakov represents Jewish values, defined by what he is rather than what he does. Rivka loves Yaakov (in the present tense) because the love continues uninterrupted and is independent of his latest achievement.

As parents, we must never to give up on a child. We must find at least one positive quality and help the child to develop it. We must invest extra energy in the child who does not mirror ourselves or our values. We must love our children for what they are, rather than for what they accomplish.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chaye Sarah 5774

She [Rivka/Rebecca] said, ‘I will also draw [water] for your camels, until they will have finished drinking.’” (Bereishit/Genesis 24:19)

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak (Isaac). Eliezer meets Rivka by a well where she is drawing water. Demonstrating sensitivity and compassion for animals, Rivka insists that Eliezer’s camels receive water. This display of concern and caring for animals is one of the determining factors for Eliezer to choose her as a wife for Yitzchak.

Kindness to animals and the prevention of cruelty (suffering) to animals, tza’ar ba’alei chayim, are important obligations in Judaism. Jewish wisdom recognizes a parallel between the way a person treats animals and the way he or she treats people.

Torah has many laws that emphasize kindness to animals. For example, an ox and a donkey may not be yoked together for plowing because the ox is stronger than the donkey (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:10). Torah prohibits killing an animal the same day as its young (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:8) and a mother bird must be shooed away from her nest before her eggs are taken (Devarim 22:6). The Talmud (Berachot 40) exhorts that a person may not eat until all of his or her animals have been fed.

Specific laws apply to animals on Shabbat, the Sabbath. Just as people refrain from work on Shabbat, animals, too, must rest (Shemot/Exodus 20:10).  Certain caretaking tasks must not be done, or must be done differently, so that one does not violate Shabbat. For example, animals must be milked by hand on Shabbat so they will be comfortable, but a Jew may not benefit from or use the milk collected on Shabbat. (It can be given to baby animals.)

If an animal is in pain or in danger of dying, it is permissible to perform certain acts that would normally not be allowed on the Sabbath. For example, an animal may be moved and medicated. To alleviate an animal’s suffering or to save its life, it is permissible to ask a non-Jew to do things that Jews are not permitted to do on the Sabbath.  

Parents, if your household includes pets, then you know that having animals at home is an excellent opportunity to train your children to be kind to animals, and by extension, to other people. Pet ownership also teaches children to take responsibility and to think of others’ needs before their own. Children benefit from taking charge of feeding, watering, walking and cleaning up after their pets.   

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vayeira 5774

And she [Sarah] said to Avraham (Abraham), ‘Drive out this handmaid with her son [Yishmael/Ishmael], for the son of that handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak (Isaac).’ (Bereishit/Genesis 21:10)

"And G-d said to Avraham,...'Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice.'” (Bereishit 21:12)

Why is Sarah concerned that Yishmael and Yitzchak might share an inheritance? Harav Elyakim Schlesinger explains that as long as the half-brothers' relationship does not involve finances, Sarah is not concerned that Yishmael may negatively influence Yitzchak. However, she fears that if they were to share an inheritance, they would have to spend more time together to make joint decisions about their holdings. Writes Rabbi A.L.Scheinbaum in Peninim on the Torah: “This increased fraternizing between the two would have created a climate that would be spiritually detrimental to Yitzchak.”

Regarding Sarah’s perceptiveness, foresight and sensitivity, our Sages comment that Sarah’s prophetic powers rival those of Avraham. Writes Rabbi Scheinbaum: “Whether we attribute her keen perception to experience or intuition, Sarah was able to sense what Avraham did not. Therefore, Hashem told Avraham to heed Sarah’s voice.”

As parents, it is important to follow our intuition when it comes to our children’s welfare. If we sense that an environment or one of our children’s friends might have a negative influence on our child, we must remove our child from the environment and limit contact with the child’s peer. In this way, we will benefit from foresight rather than hindsight.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lech Lecha 5774

 And your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”  (Bereishit/Genesis 17:5)

 And G-d said to Avraham, ‘Your wife Sarai – you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name.’”  (Bereishit 17:15)

Our patriarch Avraham (Abraham) and our matriarch Sarah were not always known by these names. In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham is called Avram until G-d changes his name; similarly Sarah is called Sarai. Our Sages also tell us that Sarah’s given name is Yiskah. (This name appears at the end of last week’s Torah portion, Noach.)

Mrs. Chana Weisberg on explains that names are considered very significant in Judaism. She writes: “The Kabbalists say that when parents name a child, they experience minor prophecy – because, somehow, that child’s destiny is wrapped up in the combination of Hebrew letters that make up his or her name.” She adds that the Midrash (Tanhuma Haazinu 7) says that sometimes the name influences the person’s behavior and destiny.

Judaism has a tradition of changing a name to change a person’s fate. For example, sometimes an additional name is given to someone who is extremely ill. The names generally used are Chaim or Chaya, meaning life, or Refael or Refaela, meaning cure.

According to the Talmud (Brachot 13a), the change in Avram’s and Sarai’s names alters their mission. Avram means “father to Aram” because Avram comes from a city called Aram Naharayim. The change to Avraham means av hamon goyim, father of many nations.

Sarai means “[G-d is] my Master.” Sarah now means G-d is not only Sarah’s personal Master, but Master in general. Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit 47:1) says, “In the past Sarai was to herself; now Sarah will be to all those who enter the world.”  

To achieve these name changes, the letter yud, whose gematria (numeric value) is 10, is taken from Sarai’s name and replaced with the letter heh, whose gematria is 5. Avram then receives a letter heh for his new name.

The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 19:2) explains that the yud taken from Sarai’s name is later added to the name of Hoshea to make it Yehoshua (Joshua). Moshe (Moses) sends him with 11 other men to spy out the land of Canaan. Yehoshua and only one other man, Calev, bring back a truthful, positive report. (Bamidbar/Numbers 13, Parashat Shelach) Our Sages attribute Yehoshua’s courage and foresight to the letter yud, which gives him an extra dose of spirituality and perhaps some of Sarah's courage and determination.

As Jewish parents, one of our first responsibilities is to find fitting Hebrew names for our newborn children. Naming is an opportunity to imbue in our children a connection to their past (by naming in honor of a relative or ancestor) and also to convey our vision for their future (by naming using a character trait or quality we wish them to have.) We should teach our children from an early age the meaning of their names and the reasons we have given them these names.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Noach 5774

Noach was a righteous man; he was perfect in his generations.” (Bereishit/Genesis 6:9)

Our Sages debate whether or not Noach would have been considered a tzadik, a righteous man, had he lived in a generation other than the sinful one that exists before G-d wipes out the world with a flood. Regardless, surrounded by corrupt and unethical people, Noach lives a moral, upright life and G-d chooses Noach, his wife Naama, and their sons and daughters-in-law to be the progenitors of a new world.

Naama is a direct descendant of the murderous Cain. Her father Lemech typifies the generation of the flood by having two wives, one for procreation and the other for recreation. Despite her less than righteous roots, Naama, too, is chosen to survive the flood.

It is a common misconception that all of the descendants of Cain perish in the flood. The children of Noach and Naama are the descendants of Cain on their mother’s side. Since all of humanity comes from them, this means that all of us have in us a little bit of Cain.

Writes Rabbi Yaacov Haber on “We often feel guilty about our deep inner struggles. We idealize our spiritual heroes as perfectly righteous men and women. We assume that they are not even capable of having the thoughts we are thinking.”

“This is not so. Our ancestors and role models were not made of plastic. They were men and women who inherited the forces of Seth [Shet, Noach’s progenitor, son of Adam and Chava] and the forces of Cain. They struggled…To struggle is to be human.”

Rabbi Ari Kahn on writes: “We learn from Naama that despite the violent, oppressive nature of the surrounding society, despite the extremely challenging family history, despite the genetic and genealogical challenges with which we are born, we are all capable of making choices for our own lives…G-d does not despair of our capacity to rise above, to connect with the divine breath with which He has endowed each and every one of us.”

As parents raising children in a less than perfect world, we must struggle against the pressures to conform to the negative values and attitudes that pervade our society. We must strive to be tzadikim, righteous people, in our own generation, and teach our children to make choices that are firmly rooted in Torah values.