Category Archives: Genesis

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choose your wife as you wish your children to be. -Proverb

In his old age, Abraham instructs his servant to travel to Abraham’s hometown of Haran, to his family, and find a wife for his son Isaac. He warns the servant that Isaac should not marry a local Canaanite woman. The Meshech Chochma wonders why Abraham is having this discussion with the servant and not with Isaac himself.

The Meshech Chochma answers that a son is exempt from listening to his father’s instructions when it comes to marrying. That is, if a son decides he wants to marry someone and the father doesn’t want the son to marry the woman, the son doesn’t have to obey his father, but rather can marry the woman he chooses (assuming it is someone that he is allowed to marry by Torah law).

That is the reason Abraham instructs the servant and not his son. The servant would obey Abraham. Isaac would not have to obey his father.

However, in the next generation, Isaac gives his son Jacob a similar command and instructs him not to marry any Canaanite women. What changed? Why did Abraham refrain from commanding Isaac about whom he could or couldn’t marry, but Isaac has no qualms about restricting Jacob?

The Meshech Chochma explains that in the case of Isaac commanding Jacob, the instruction was conditional. In the same meeting where Isaac commands Jacob about marriage, he also tells Jacob that he will pass on to him the blessings and inheritance of Abraham. The marriage command is conditional. In theory, Jacob could marry whoever he wants. However, if he wants to receive the blessing and inheritance of Abraham, he needs to marry according to Isaac’s instructions. If Jacob would have married a Canaanite, he would have forsaken both the blessings and the inheritance. While it seems a father can’t unilaterally force a son to marry a woman of his choice, a father can provide incentives to do so.

As we know, both Isaac and Jacob followed their father’s directives and married the type of women they wished for their sons. This led to significant blessings as well as to the creation of the nation of Israel.

May all our children marry well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Yanofsky, Reiner, Galan and Fischgrund families on their inspiring Bat and Bar-Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem. Mazal Tov!

The Cost of Missed Opportunities (Vayera)

The Cost of Missed Opportunities (Vayera)

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity. -H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

God decides he’s going to destroy the evil city of Sodom and its four other sister cities. However, He feels he needs to inform Abraham about it before He does so. What ensues is one of the most bizarre biblical bargaining sessions that were ever conducted. Abraham questions God and then suggests God should spare the cities if He finds 50 righteous people there (ten per city). God agrees. Immediately, Abraham, perhaps sensing that God knows there aren’t 50 righteous people, asks God to spare the cities if he finds just 45 people (nine per city). God agrees. Abraham pushes again and asks for 40 people to be the measure. God agrees. Abraham, on a roll, asks for 30 people. God agrees again. Abraham asks for 20 and God agrees. Finally, Abraham asks for ten, God agrees, but perhaps sensing that he can’t push his luck any further, Abraham stops.

In the end, there are less than ten righteous people in the entire Sodomite metropolis. God sends angels to extricate Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family from Sodom and proceeds to rain fire and brimstone upon Sodom in one of the more dramatic and apocalyptic scenes of the Torah.

The Meshech Chochma points out an interesting inconsistency in the progression of the bargaining. When God agrees to spare Sodom if there are 45 righteous, He says “I won’t destroy.” When he refers to the 40 and 30, He says “I won’t do.” When he refers to the 20 and 10, He reverts back to saying “I won’t destroy.”

The Meshech Chochma understands that when God says He “won’t destroy,” it means he won’t destroy, but He will punish. That makes sense for a city or a metropolis which lays claims to only 10 or 20 righteous people. When God says He “won’t do,” it means he won’t even punish, if the cities have a more substantive cadre of 30 or 40 righteous. But why does God opt for the harsher option of “won’t destroy,” meaning He will punish if there’s a more substantial 45 righteous?

The Meshech Chochma explains that the harsher punishment is because they were so close to salvation, they just needed one person for each of the five cities to complete the count of ten righteous people per city. Just one person. If one person would have decided to do the right thing, they all would have been saved. Because one person missed the opportunity, God punishes not only for the general evil and sin they’re guilty of but also for the missed opportunity.

The Meshech Chochma teaches that God doesn’t only punish for our sins. He also punishes for missing out on the positive things we could have done, spoken or even thought instead of the sin.

May we always grab and create opportunities to think, speak and do well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the people of Israel under fire. May this pass quickly and may we finally end these attacks.

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

Horoscope-Proof (Lech Lecha)

 This is the excellent foppery of the world: that when we are sick in fortune — often the surfeits of our own behavior — we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!  -William Shakespeare (King Lear: Act 1, Scene 2)

 

Jewish tradition looks negatively at astrology and those who follow horoscopes. Judaism typically views adherents of modern astrology as somewhere on the spectrum between idolatry, superstition and simple foolishness. We are meant to have a simple faith in God, to believe in our free will, to choose wisely, to make our best efforts in all we do and ultimately attribute the circumstances of our lives to God and not to His intermediaries.

However, both the Midrash and the Talmud carry a slightly more nuanced story of the power of astrology (though it’s believed that the insights of true astrology have been long lost). The Midrash recounts how Abraham was a master astrologer and read in the stars that he would remain childless. God chides him, tells him to look beyond the stars, renames him (from Abram to Abraham) and tells him that not only will he have a child but that he will be the father of a multitude of nations.

Based on this episode, the Talmud explains that the people of Israel are impervious to horoscopes, that we are beyond the laws and effects of astrology. Our free will is such that we are unbound by mundane, predictable predestination. Our destiny is so open and free that even the mighty stars and constellations have no effect on our future.

The Meshech Chochma however, fine-tunes such thinking. He explains that the Talmudic dictum is true, that the people of Israel have direct divine providence that is independent of astrological influences. However, that is only true for the entirety of the people of Israel and not necessarily for an individual Jew. A Jew, in theory, could be subject to astrological forces.

But there is an exception to that exception. Any Jew who serves the Jewish people or is needed by the Jewish people has the same inoculation, the same immunity to any arbitrary astrological influence as does the entirety of the Jewish people. A Jew who is so identified with the Jewish community, who is a resource to his brethren, has a much more direct divine influence, without any intermediary stellar intervention.

May we keep our direct divine connections.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Link Kollel and Shul, for a truly wonderful learning and davening experience.

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

The Flood Curriculum (Noah)

Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth. It is an initiation into life of spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. -Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

The biblical account of Noah’s Flood is mirrored in the literature of a number of ancient civilizations. While there is much that is unique about the Torah’s telling of the flood, one of the aspects which stands out in particular, is that the Torah relates the flood as a punishment for man’s misdeeds. The earth, its human and animal denizens had become so corrupt that God had no other option but to literally wipe them all off the map and restart almost from scratch, using Noah, his family and all the animals that he saved on his ark as the starting material for rebuilding the world.

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why Noah and the ark passengers needed to be on the ark for a year. The job of wiping the slate clean was accomplished after the first days of the deluge. In theory, the flood survivors could have gotten off the ark the next day and started the arduous and vital work of repopulating the earth without waiting a year.

The Meshech Chochma answers that the year-long confinement to the ark wasn’t because of what needed to happen to the planet outside the ark, but rather was needed by all those inside the ark. They needed a year-long curriculum to rectify themselves.

All of creation, not just humans, but even animals, had become so vile, so distorted and corrupt that God had no choice but to start over. Now even though those who made it onto the ark were the best of the best, they were still heavily influenced by their environment. They too had a measure of corruption and vileness. They needed their own cleansing, their own deprogramming, their own re-education.

That was the purpose of the twelve months on the ark. It was to educate the flood’s survivors as to how to behave. It was to curb their sexual appetite; calm their gluttony and cravings. The animals needed to be fed by the hands of humans and learn to respect humans again and not attack wildly. After twelve months of such instruction and practice, after both humans and animals had learned to control themselves, then they were allowed out to the clean air of a new world, ready to lead more correct, virtuous lives, with a second chance to start over again.

May our educational efforts lead us and those we impact to more moral and honorable lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our children on the beginning of their new educational paths.

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

Sacrificing to God (Bereshit)

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service. -John Burroughs

Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve is the first person recorded as bringing a sacrifice to God. He brings from the fruit of the land. Abel, his younger brother, follows in his brother’s footsteps but brings an animal from his flock as a sacrifice.

God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s. The question is why. What difference was there between Cain’s fruit to Abel’s animal that God should reject one and accept the other?

The Meshech Chochmah states that it had to do with each sibling’s respective efforts. To merely pluck fruit off a tree and sacrifice that to God is not truly a sacrifice. It is not a sacrifice of time, effort or resources. To sacrifice an animal that you fed and cared for is a significant sacrifice of time, effort and value.

Cain’s sacrifice was insignificant and God, therefore, rejects it. Abel’s sacrifice was significant and God accepts it. This connects to the same rationale as to why in times when sacrifices were offered there was a prohibition to offer grains or honey (date honey). Both grains and honey are unprocessed; very little human effort has gone into them. This is as opposed to bread, wine, olive oil or animals all of which require significant human work and investment and are accepted as sacrifices.

It seems that when we offer something to God, even if it’s voluntary, God wants us to make a serious effort. He doesn’t want a shallow display. It shouldn’t be just marking off a box to say “we did it,” just to get some onus off our backs. He wants us to mean it. He wants our sacrifices to be meaningful. He wants us to pour our heart and soul as well as our hands and our wallets into anything we offer to Heaven. It shouldn’t be cheap or superficial. It should be deep, valuable and meaningful. It should be an investment of thought, time and effort.

God accepts real sacrifice. He values and cherishes it. And He reciprocates in multiples of whatever we ourselves invest.

May we make correct and worthy sacrifices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Ronald Joseph Sassoon z”l, who passed away on Tuesday; and in honor of his great-grandson, Eitan Aryeh Eliezer Gilat, whose Brit Mila was on Wednesday. Condolences and Mazal Tov to the entire family.

Soul Song (Vayechi)

Soul Song (Vayechi)

If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me it’s good. But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. Because that’s what soul is all about. -Aretha Franklin

On his deathbed, our Patriarch Jacob bestows prophetic last words upon his sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. His final oration is given in poetic and often hard-to-decipher language.

To his first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, he gives what appears to be harsh criticism. To Reuven, he castigates him for his impetuousness. Shimon and Levi are cursed for their violence.

Judah and Joseph receive long and expansive blessings. The other sons get short, cryptic, prophetic blessings. This includes the blessing to his son Naftali, which can be loosely translated as follows:

“Naftali is a doe let loose; he giveth goodly words.”

The Berdichever explains that Naftali is compared to a doe, for a doe has very strong legs and can move quickly and lightly. This hints at the fact that he had extremely strong faith in God, for there is some connection here between the concept of “legs” and God.

Because of Naftali’s great faith he then gives “goodly words,” namely, song. Naftali would sing to and praise God from the very depths of his being, based on his steadfast faith in God.

He goes on to quote the ancient translator Yonatan ben Uziel, who states that the tribe of Naftali went on to produce beautiful singers, because the tribe possessed great faith in God. This great faith compelled them to always sing beautifully to God. The faith, the soul, caused the beautiful singing.

The Berdichever highlights that when a person achieves faith in God, they too will break out into song and praise of God.

May our songs be full of soul, faith, praise and joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Shira and Amichai IshRan who survived the terrorist attack last week. Their strength, their courage and their song are inspiring. And to the memory of their son who was killed, Amiad Israel hy”d.

Spiritual Food Chain (Vayigash)

Spiritual Food Chain (Vayigash)

The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth. -Frances Moore Lappe

The end of this week’s Torah reading describes Joseph’s economic efforts, how he singlehandedly saved the Egyptian people from starvation, redistributed the land and imposed a tax rate of 20% on the Egyptian farmers.

The Berdichever explores the unusual phraseology “You will give a fifth to Pharaoh and four hands will go to you to eat and for your household.” (which means Pharaoh gets twenty percent of your produce, you get to keep the remaining 80%). Expounding on the verse and the “four hands,” the Berdichver explains that God established four different levels of creation in our world:

  1. “Inanimate”: earth, water, stones, minerals (“Domem” in Hebrew);
  2. “Grows”: vegetables, plants, trees (“Tzomeach” in Hebrew);
  3. “Alive”: animals (“Chai” in Hebrew);
  4. “Speaks”: man (“Medaber” in Hebrew).

He quotes from Kabalistic sources that detail God’s plan and desire for each element to be elevated and raised to the next level:

  1. When earth, water, minerals and other nutrients are converted from their base state into some type of vegetation, they are somehow elevated to a higher spiritual level. They have moved from the lowly “Domem/Inanimate” state to the slightly more elevated “Tzomeach/Grows” state.
  2. When plants, in turn, are consumed by animals, they are now elevated from the “Tzomeach/Grows” state to the even higher “Chai/Alive” state.
  3. Finally, when man consumes the flesh of an animal, be it fish, poultry or beef, that person is elevating those molecules from the “Chai/Alive” state to the highest terrestrial level of “Medaber/Speaks.”

Man’s God-given ability to somehow convert the matter around him, be it mineral, vegetable or animal into a part of his very self, is nothing less than a form of creation. It relates to a Talmudic discussion as to the phraseology of the blessings we recite when we eat. We bless God, who “creates” these products. We say “creates” in the present tense, as opposed to “created” in the past tense, because it is a current, ongoing, creative act by God.

The quarks, atoms and molecules that make up our reality are constantly given life and existence by God. It is that divine aspect that also allows us to absorb these elements into our being and in some fashion that we have trouble comprehending, elevate the spiritual sparks of these items by consuming them.

May all our consumptions be for divine purposes and may we succeed in elevating them and ourselves higher.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the speedy recovery of the victims of the terror shooting in Ofra. Especially to the young pregnant mother who was shot and had the baby delivered by emergency C-section. As of this writing, the mother is currently stable, but the baby is in critical condition.