Jan 05 2017

There’s No (Real) Excuse

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Special Opportunity: we have an extension on the Early Bird offer in this year’s raffle! You must get your entry in by January 10, at which point a lucky winner will receive two tickets to Israel (or $2500 Cash), and still be in the running for the $100,000 grand prize! This is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and we truly need your participation. Would you please take a moment to join the raffle?


In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!

Dec 23 2016

Points of Light

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candles-hanukkahchanukah-2012-hd-wallpapersThe holiday of Chanukah is often misunderstood. People imagine that it was a fight of military prowess and for political liberty. Yet neither of these is true. Chanukah, rather, tells us that we can accomplish miracles when we truly dedicate ourselves to G-d.

The Greeks of that time glorified the external. They celebrated physical prowess and great works of art, all in the service of their idols. Olympia was the site of the games, because it had a “sanctuary site” for their gods, and sculptors and poets would gather there during the Olympiads as well.

When they invaded Judea, they did not expel the Jews or enslave them. Rather, they attempted to eliminate Judaism, to make the Jews no different than other, idolatrous nations. They targeted three Jewish practices in particular, because each of these differentiated the Jews from other nations: Circumcision, Sabbath Observance, and Sanctification of the New Moon. The first two of these differentiate Jews physically and in their practices. The third is tied to the Jewish belief that we ourselves can impact the spiritual realms, by determining the times of our holidays.

Many Jews went along with the Greeks and even participated in idolatrous practices, but the Maccabees refused. And as we say in our prayers, G-d “gave the strong into the hands of the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, those who provoke to those who involve themselves with Your Torah.”

Each of these phrases is important in our understanding of the true nature of Chanukah. The Jews of that time did not win political independence — they did not become the dominant force in a turbulent region, and continued as a vassal state. But they secured religious liberty and freedom to practice as Jews.

Physically, it denies logic to imagine that a small band of Jewish priests should be able to overcome the mighty, well-trained and well-armed Greek army. Spiritually, it also makes no sense. The entire world of that day was pagan, devoted to idolatrous gods. Rather than persisting with their unique ideas and study of Torah, the few, persecuted Jews should have succumbed to the popular ideas of the day.

And yet, of course, what happened is the very opposite. The Greeks and their gods are gone, while the Jewish ideals of ethical monotheism and morality have spread. On Chanukah, we celebrate the ability of small points of light to push back a world of darkness.

Dec 09 2016

The Recurring Lies of Laban

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pinocchio-595732_640The story of Laban and Jacob is critical to our understanding of anti-Semitism, the pernicious hatred of Jews. We know this from the Passover Haggadah — we learn briefly about Pharoah, read that this hatred happens in every generation, and then continue, “go and learn what Laban the Aramite want to do to our father.”

Why is Laban important here? Rabbi Naftali Berlin (the Netzi”v), famed dean of the Yeshiva in Volozhin, explains: because Yaakov is the father of all Jews, and Laban is the paradigm of the anti-Semite.

Laban is fundamentally dishonest. We see this multiple times.

He and Yaakov make a deal: Yaakov offers to work for Laban for seven years, simply for the privilege of marrying Rachel, his younger daughter. And Laban deceives him, setting him up. Laban puts a veil over the face of his older daughter Leah, and brings her to him.

When Yaakov realizes that he has been deceived and confronts Laban, what does Laban do? Blame Yaakov! “We don’t do things that way here, to marry off the younger daughter first.” In other words, “Yaakov, this is all your fault.”

Yaakov faithfully works another seven years, and then says he should go back to his own land. Laban recognizes that he has been blessed by Yaakov’s presence, and asks him to stay. So they make a deal, again, regarding which of the flock would belong to Yaakov in return for working as a shepherd. Laban repeatedly changes the deal, to make the terms more favorable to himself — the verse says he did so ten times, but the Medrash says that this means tens of times, totaling 100.

Despite Laban’s dishonesty, Yaakov performs his work faithfully — and becomes wealthy. What is the reaction? Yaakov overhears Laban’s sons claiming that all that Yaakov has is “taken” from their father! Later, when Yaakov shows Laban that he has been scrupulously honest, above and beyond what was required of him, Laban’s response is “everything you see, is mine.”

It has always been this way: that at the core of anti-Semitism is the belief that everything the Jews have, they have stolen, rather than acquired honestly. And it is projection, coming from dishonest people who want the wealth of others for themselves.

Of course there is more to it: Laban wants to do away with Judaism itself, claiming that he could harm all of them were it not for G-d instructing him to leave them alone. And that, of course, is a core element of anti-Semitism as well.

Our response must be like Yaakov’s — to be so honest and ethical that we know the charges are silly. When we do this, it becomes obvious to all neutral parties that it is simply baseless hatred. This is our best response to the lies of Laban!

Nov 17 2016

Don’t Follow the Herd

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follow-herdLast week we learned that Avraham and Lot had separated. Lot moved to the fertile land surrounding the city of S’dom, yet he retained some of the traits of his holy and generous uncle. So when two disguised angels came to the gates of the city, he rose to greet them and to bring them into his house as his guests.

To the evil residents of S’dom, this was nothing less than a crime. The Torah tells us that the men of the city gathered around Lot’s house, intending to assault and brutalize his visitors. They came “young and old, all the people from every quarter” [19:4] — and Rashi explains that this meant that no one, not a single person, objected. That was the nature of the city.

The angels warned Lot to escape for his life, and he obeyed — but they told him not to look back, and when his wife did so she became “a pillar of salt” [19:26]. What does this mean? Because she was curious and looked over her shoulder, she was killed, turned into a salt lick?

The Medrash, quoted by Rashi, explains that we must look deeper. She became a pillar of salt because she had sinned with salt. What was her crime? Lot asked her to give a little salt to their guests, and she responded, “even this evil custom, you want to make the custom of this place?”

She was so influenced by the Sodomite culture that she, too, looked upon welcoming guests as evil. She had internalized S’dom’s inversion of morality.

Thus when they were escaping, and Lot was rushing as fast as he could to escape, she was not merely curious. She was not simply rubbernecking over her shoulder to see what had happened. Rather, she did not want to leave. She longed to return to S’dom’s culture.

This is the power of groupthink. When Hitler came to power in Germany, he encouraged ruthless, cruel barbarity as “strength” — and dismissed conscience as “a Jewish blemish.” And millions of people followed him as he turned morality to weakness and evil into good.

In the very same verse that the Torah tells us to follow majority rule, it also says to not follow the majority to do evil [Exodus 23:2]. The Medrash tells us that this verse is speaking to judges, telling them that the majority decides a case, but for a capital crime a majority of one is insufficient to pronounce guilt.

Yet in the simple words of the verse, we can find a lesson for ourselves as well. If someone tells you that you should follow the herd, as even the Bible says… then you are given your response: we must not follow the majority to do evil. Only when holy people discuss the correct path do we follow the majority of those holy people. Otherwise, we are enjoined to stand against the majority in defense of the good.

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