Thursday, November 28, 2013

Miketz 5774

“‘You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you.’ So Pharaoh said to Yosef (Joseph), ‘Look, I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.’”  (Beresishit/Genesis 41:40-41) 

In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and Pharaoh appoints him to the highest position in Egypt. This is expressed in verse 40. Rabbi Yissocher Frand on notes that verse 41 appears redundant and asks why Pharaoh seems to reiterate the obvious.

Rav Frand explains: “Without subtleties, without social grace, Pharaoh is clobbering it over his [Yosef’s] head: ‘Don’t forget: I am the one who made you who you are – always remember that!’” The Rav continues: “Normally, even the best of human beings feel the need to remind people of the fact that they have done them a favor. However, the less one reminds a person of a favor he has done for him in the past, the closer he is to being angel-like.”

Citing an insight from Rav Shalom Schwadron, Rav Frand relates an incident from Shoftim/Judges 13. An angel visits a barren woman and her husband, Manoach, to announce that they will have a baby. When the baby is born, the angel feels no need to reappear to remind the couple of the debt they owe him for his role in the joyous event.

Writes Rav Frand: “We may never reach the scale of the Angel of G-d; nonetheless, we should not be Pharaohs either! When we do a person a favor – get him a job, help him find a shidduch (match), give him a loan – do not go looking for gratitude. It is hard enough to be the recipient of a favor; we should avoid constantly ‘rubbing it in.’”

As parents, it is tempting to remind our children of all the “favors” we have done for them – spending hours in labor before delivering them, quitting a promising career to stay at home, or foregoing luxuries to send them to summer camp. These actions are not favors – they simply are the choices we have made as parents. We should never hold these actions over the heads of our children in order to get them to do something for us, to thank us, or to “repay” us. As they mature, they will understand and perform the mitzvah (commandment) of kibud av v’em (honoring parents) and we will receive our “payment.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vayeishev 5774

And the chief wine butler did not remember Yosef (Joseph), and he forgot him.” (Bereishit/Genesis 40:23)

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Yosef still is unjustly imprisoned in Egypt and shares his incarceration with the chief wine butler. Yosef interprets the butler’s dream and foresees that the butler soon will be released. Yosef asks the butler for a favor upon his release:  to remind Pharaoh that Yosef remains in prison.

Rashi comments based on the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah: “Because Yosef relied on him [the butler] to remember him, he [Yosef] was compelled to be confined for two [additional] years, as it is said (in Tehillim/Psalms 40:5), ‘Praiseworthy is the man who makes the L-rd his trust.’” In other words, the Midrash faults Yosef for relying on the butler, rather than solely on Hashem.

Rabbi Yisrael Bronstein in A Shabbos Vort writes that The Maharam of Amshinov notes the redundancy in the verse: “did not remember” and “forgot.” The Maharam explains that as soon as he petitions the butler, Yosef realizes his mistake and he immediately prays to G-d that the butler will forget his request.

Rabbi Yaakov Beasley on considers the balance required between having bitachon (faith) and hishtadlut (taking steps to influence results.) He explains that the requirements for tzadikim (righteous people) differ from those demanded of average people: “The average person must use every human means possible to save himself from a difficult situation. For a tzadik such as Yosef, however, this is considered lacking in his reliance upon Hashem.”

True story: A boy comes home from his first semester in high school with failing grades in every subject but gym. The boy has always struggled with academics and his mother has always helped him with homework or found tutors for more challenging material. Now it seems that this effort, this hishtadlut, is insufficient. The desperate mother turns to G-d, first thanking Him for giving her such a “good boy” and then asking Him for help. Within a day (!), she receives a phone call from someone who is able to help her find a learning specialist she would not have been able to locate without this person’s intervention.

As parents, we must by all means do everything humanly possible to ensure our children’s health, safety and well being. While this may mean turning to other people, such as doctors, teachers, rabbis or trusted relatives or friends, we must never forget to first turn to G-d to ask for assistance. After all, it is He Who looks out for our well being, guides our lives and ensures that we encounter people who can help us.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Vayishlach 5774

I have ox and donkey, [a] sheep, and servant and maidservant…” (Bereishit/Genesis 32:6)

I have become small from all the kindnesses…” (Bereishit 32:11)

In this week’s Torah portion, after twenty years working for his father-in-law Lavan (Laban) and becoming very wealthy, Yaakov (Jacob) takes his wives, children, servants and animals and heads toward Canaan.  It is time to reunite with his estranged brother, Esav (Esau). Although Yaakov has heard that Esav’s wrath has subsided, he nevertheless prepares for a less than cordial welcome. He sends ahead messengers offering gifts from Yaakov’s substantial herds and flocks.

Why is the text rendered in the singular (an ox, a donkey, etc.), when Yaakov actually has become quite prosperous, owns many animals and has many servants?

Rabbi Yisroel and Rabbi Osher Anshel Jungreis explain that this verse teaches humility and modesty. They write in Torah for Your Table: “From Jacob we learn that the material gifts that we possess should not be flaunted…Once again we find a lesson that is so important for our generation in which people feel compelled to ostentatiously display their wealth, or worse still, inflate it. Who among us does not know individuals with the constant need to brag about their latest acquisitions, be they real or imaginary?”

The Rabbis Jungreis explain why braggarts show off: they believe their worth is judged only through their possessions. They write: “Such people are spiritually and morally bankrupt. They lack self esteem and inner peace. Their entire lives revolve around trying to keep up with the latest, and topping it. But there is always someone they cannot top.”

Yaakov understates his wealth because he understands that all his possessions are gifts from G-d; he therefore takes no credit for their acquisition. In fact, he says k’tonti (I have become small) -- he is humbled by G-d’s kindness towards him.

Talmud (Sotah 5a) discusses at length the destructive power of the trait of arrogance and the importance of avoiding it. “Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi in the name of the Rav states a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) must have one eighth of an eighth of arrogance.” If arrogance is such a contemptible trait, why should a person have any amount of it? And why specifically “one eighth of an eighth”?

Rabbi Yisrael Bronstein in A Shabbos Vort cites the explanation of the Vilna Gaon, who connects this statement to the verse in this week’s Torah portion. “The term one eighth of an eighth is not a reference to a particular measure. Rather it is hinting at the eighth verse (32:11) of the eighth portion of the Torah, Vayishlach. While a talmid chacham must possess a certain amount of arrogance, it must be a very small amount.” In other words, one should have just enough pride to have self esteem; above and beyond that leads to haughtiness.

As parents, we must cultivate self-esteem in our children. We cannot do this solely by furnishing them with material possessions, for this provides only a false sense of security. Our generosity may also cause our children to believe they are more worthy than others who have less than they do. From experience, we know that acquisitions are temporary – what is here one day may be gone tomorrow.  We must teach our children that life is not about having more, but about being more. What one has may disappear; what one is, remains forever.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Vayeitzei 5774

And Yaakov saw Lavan’s (Laban’s) face, that he was not disposed toward him as [he had been] yesterday and the day before.” (Bereishit/Genesis 31:2)

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in Growth Through Torah notes that Lavan does not say anything unkind to Yaakov;  in fact, he says nothing at all that would imply resentment or animosity. Even so, by reading his uncle’s facial expression, Yaakov is able to determine that something is bothering Lavan. (The previous verse hints that Lavan might be upset because Yaakov has become wealthy.)

Rabbi Pliskin writes that from this verse we learn the importance of noticing the facial expressions of people we regularly see. Becoming sensitive to the way people look when they are pleased or displeased enables us to recognize when our actions or words have been perceived as hurtful or offensive.

By extension, Rabbi Pliskin teaches that we must be careful with our own facial expressions. If we are thinking of something unrelated but unpleasant while speaking to someone overly sensitive, the person might wrongly imagine that we are upset or angry with him. So as not to inadvertently cause emotional pain, we should monitor our own facial expressions.

Today’s reliance on brief, written electronic communication – e-mail, texting and tweeting – poses an unprecedented communication challenge. As parents, we must ensure that our children understand the limitations of such communication. The inability to read facial expressions (or to interpret vocal inflections) may cause misunderstandings, offense and hurt feelings.

With greater opportunities for electronic communication, our children are at risk of becoming insensitive to the subtleties of facial expressions and other non-verbal communication such as body language.  As parents, we therefore must encourage our children to interact as much as possible in person with both peers and adults. We must insist that electronic devices do not distract our children, and that children focus and make eye contact during face-to-face interactions.