Dec 24 2015

A Labor of Love

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Gemara-LearningIn this week’s reading, Yaakov parcels out blessings to his sons, based upon his prophetic understanding of their futures. He describes Yissachar as a strong-boned donkey, who saw that “rest” was good, yet “bent his shoulder to bear, and became a servant to tasks” [49:14-15].

The commentators universally understand that the tribe of Yissachar devoted itself to Torah study to an extraordinary extent: Rashi derives from a verse in Chronicles that the tribe produced 200 heads of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Rabbinic Court located in the Temple in Jerusalem.

That is but the first of three common threads in the understanding of these two verses. The second is that Torah study is seen as a burden, a monumental task. Rashi says that Yissachar received a fruitful portion of the Land of Israel, yet burdened himself with Torah. The Ohr HaChaim writes that the verse refers to the ultimate rest in the World to Come, leading Yissachar to toil in this one. And the Kli Yakar says that Yissachar was like a donkey tied to its load — his burden was always there.

And third, this task of Yissachar’s performed a critical service for the Jewish Nation. The verse referenced by Rashi (I Chronicles 12:33) is describing King David gathering military troops, yet says: “And of the children of Yissachar, men who understood the times, who knew what Israel should do; their heads were 200, and all their brothers acted on their words.” Torah guides Israel in all its affairs, so Israel’s best strategists were those who studied constantly.

Torah study is not meant to be a relaxing activity — enjoyable, yes, but not easy. Mort Zuckerman, the real estate magnate and editor-in-chief of US News and World Report, visited the famous yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ and called it “the single most intellectually active, energetic, fascinating environment I had ever witnessed.” He even said that Harvard Law School (which he attended) paled by comparison! When we study Torah, this must be our goal — to immerse ourselves, for our minds to be completely engaged with the material.

The phrase “became a servant to tasks” actually refers to “mas,” a tax. The Ohr HaChaim reads “servant to tasks” as applying to the rest of the Jewish nation, rather than Yissachar — meaning that everyone had to “tax themselves” to support those studying Torah, as the tribe of Zevulun did for Yissachar. “And so in every generation,” the Ohr HaChaim concludes, the rest of us claim a portion in the continuation of Torah scholarship, ensuring the Jewish future, by supporting schools and scholars.

Dec 18 2015

Leaving Our Land

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luggageIn this week’s reading, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers as second-in-command over all of Egypt. Due to the famine, he encourages the entire family to join him, but does so with unusual language: “Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘so says your son, Yosef: G-d has placed me as Master over all of Egypt; come down to me, do not stand still'” [45:9]. Go up to my father, he says, and tell him to come down to me.

When they do, in fact, come to join him, the Torah tells us that “Yosef settled his father and brothers, and gave them a holding in the Land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ramses, in accordance with Pharaoh’s command” [47:11].

Consider, then, what the brothers say to Pharaoh: “we have come to dwell in the land, because there is no grazing for the flocks that belong to your servants, for the hunger is heavy in the Land of Canaan; and now let your servants please settle in the Land of Goshen” [47:4]. The word for “to dwell,” lagur, comes from the root Ger, the word for stranger. The brothers are telling Pharaoh: we come simply to be strangers, to dwell here temporarily. We know this is not our home.

Remember that at the time, the Jewish Family comprised all of 70 people (see 46:27). All of them moved to Egypt, none were left behind in Canaan. They built new houses on the most valuable real estate. They built a House of Study (see Rashi on 46:28). One of them was the Viceroy of the entire country, which was, at the time, arguably the most powerful in the world. They had a new home, away from the famine — why would they plan to move back? Why would they want to move anywhere at all — and why would the tell Pharoah? It would be like Senator Marco Rubio announcing future plans to move his family back to Cuba: it seems to make no sense, and to be bad politics as well.

From the brothers, we learn two things. First of all, the connection of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel is unlike any other. G-d made a promise to Abraham: this, Canaan, will be your permanent Land. I am giving it to you. No matter where else in the world you may find yourself, you only have one homeland.

And second, the brothers knew that Pharaoh wanted to hear this. It wasn’t bad politics, it was good politics. “We’re Jews. We know we’re different. And despite current circumstances, we know we’re not going to settle here permanently, and simply be part of you, the Egyptian nation.”

Even as belief in the G-d of the Jews has spread around the world, other nations still regard the Jews as a different people. Whether given welcome or oppressed, we are different. And to that extent, we are not truly home in any other land. The brothers tell us: we must always look forward to going home.

Dec 03 2015

It Only Looks Like a Snake Pit

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In this week’s reading, the sons of Yaakov sell their brother Yosef into slavery. First, they take him and throw him into a pit, intending to kill him. But seeing a caravan approaching, Yehudah suggests that they sell him instead, keeping the money while sending him down to Egypt.

Bilma-Salzkarawane1Rashi points to two interesting details found in the Medrash. First of all, the Torah describes the pit as “empty, there was no water in it.” [37:24] Rav Tanchum asks, “it says the pit is empty. Don’t I know that it doesn’t have water in it? Rather, what the Torah is saying is that it didn’t have water in it, but it had snakes and scorpions in it!” [Talmud Shabbos 22a]

Then, the approaching caravan is described as carrying various fragrant spices. [37:25] Rashi explains that the Torah is telling us this in order to point out the merits of a righteous person like Yosef. Ordinarily, these caravans would be carrying petroleum products with bad smells. But for Yosef’s sake, this particular caravan carried aromatic cargo.

I remember Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l asking, what difference did the smell make? Why would Yosef care, in the middle of his brothers’ betrayal, being separated from his family and sold into slavery, about the odor of the camels’ burdens?

The Torah is telling us that everything is according to plan, even when we can’t see it. Dumped into a pit with snakes and scorpions, why wasn’t Yosef bitten? Because he wasn’t supposed to be. Rather, he was supposed to go to Egypt, and rise from slavery to be second to Pharaoh.

If so, why wasn’t the pit empty, instead? Yosef was shown that even at that moment, he was surrounded by miracles. An empty pit would not have shown him that G-d was still watching over him, as the dangerous creatures did. And in that context, he might indeed have noticed the fragrant smell of spices. Whatever it was that he was supposed to go through, he wasn’t supposed to have to endure a bad smell — and so he didn’t have to. These small signs carried a powerful message.

The story of Chanukah, which begins on Sunday night this year, teaches this same lesson. In the history of Chanukah, the fact that the oil lasted for eight days could seem like a trivial detail. The Cohanim could have used impure oil instead, because both the people and the oil were impure. And how was it even relevant? There was a war raging, and they’re making a big deal about oil?

It’s not about the oil itself; it is what the small miracle represented. By continuing to burn, the oil delivered the message that G-d was with us, during a battle between — quite literally — the forces of light and those of darkness. However things looked at the time, we were surrounded by miracles.

And so it remains. We all struggle with difficult situations, and sometimes we wonder why bad events have happened. The Torah is telling us that G-d watches over each of us, and makes certain that our circumstances match our individual needs precisely.

Sometimes we see that small glimmer of light, be it a fragrant smell coming from the camels, or the oil burning far longer than it should. Even when we cannot see it, everything happens for a reason, and that reason is ultimately to our benefit. That is the encouragement the Torah gives us, to enable us to withstand hardships great and small.

Nov 26 2015

You Can Save a Life

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wailing-wall-776369_1920What if I told you there was something you could do, right now, that could save a life in Israel? Would you do it?

In this week’s reading, Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel, only to meet his brother Esav — who years earlier tried to kill him. Yaakov prepared for this event, Rashi tells us, in three ways: with gifts, prayer, and preparation for war. All three were necessary.

Our Sages tell us that “maaseh avos siman l’banim” — the actions of the Fathers are signs for the children. Much of what we learn from the detailed accounts in Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, are principles derived from the accounts of the lives of our forebears, the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people.

Hatred of the children of Yaakov by the children of Esav and Yishmael is hardly new — it has been with us for thousands of years. The modern state of Israel is not facing a new challenge, but an ancient one; the children of Ishmael have aimed to destroy it since before it was created, simply because it is a state run by Jews. Today Ishmael is waging war with guns, knives, and “diplomacy” to gain world support against the Jews (as if that were difficult to garner).

Yes, we have to prepare for war, and fight back with diplomacy as well. But the Jews have a secret weapon: the Creator of Heaven and Earth is ready to help us.

Recently someone called my attention to a webpage (anti-Semitic, of course) purporting to translate content of the Talmud, to the effect that Judaism teaches that a non-Jew is not a human being, but rather a beast. It was a complete inversion of reality; the Talmud states that “the Righteous of all Nations have a share in the World to Come” [Sanhedrin 105a]. An animal cannot choose to be righteous; the Talmud is telling us that every human being has free will, and will be rewarded for making the right choices — and that this applies to every person, whether Jewish or not.

Of course, the “translation” was fictional. The part about non-Jews being beasts was whole-cloth fabrication; the rest, a distortion built upon a mistranslation. The Talmud does not use “Ish,” the word for man. Rather, it says that non-Jews are not called “Adam;” only Jews are called “Adam” [Bava Metziah 114b].

This is not a new anti-Semitic claim; it was used at the Dreyfus trial, when an innocent and loyal French Jewish soldier was accused of treason (in order to cover up the guilt of a pure-blood Frenchman). Several rabbis came from other European countries to support the defense, and they were confronted with this misrepresentation of Jewish teachings.

They explained as follows: Adam is not all of humanity. We are all the Children of Adam, and it is the Jews who brought the message that we are all brothers, all created in the Image of G-d, to the world. But Adam is one person, one body. We, the Jews, are all called “Israel,” the name given by G-d to Jacob — immediately prior to his family reunion with Esau. That is the meaning of being called “Adam” in the singular.

If a French person is hurt, a person of French descent living in another country is unlikely to be affected more than any other human being. But because a Jew was falsely accused, the rabbis explained, we were willing to come from other countries just to support him. That is what is different — all Jews are one. We are one unified body to an extent not shared by other nations, even in our dispersal. This is why the actions of Yaakov, one man, are taken as signs to guide all of his children, thousands of years later.

Like our forefather Yaakov, we have to fight in three ways: with diplomacy and offers of gifts, with preparation for war to defend ourselves, and with prayer and Torah study. As important as the first two of these are, only the third leverages our secret weapon, the key to our national defense.

Current events are a call to prayer and study. There is indeed something we can do right now, that can save lives.

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