By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Sometimes the last step is also a first step.
The Book of Genesis concludes this week describing Joseph’s passing and being placed “in a coffin in Egypt” (Gn. 50:26). How appropriate, because it sets the stage for what follows.
Here is the Etz Hayim Humash commentary: “The last words of the Book of Genesis, ‘a coffin in Egypt,’ foreshadow the events of the opening chapter of Exodus, the enslavement of the Hebrews, the killing of the Hebrew babies, and the birth of Moses who will be placed in a coffin-like basket on the Nile.”
Indeed, we turn the column in the Torah and suddenly the Israelites are slaves. We learn here that the “last word” is never truly the last word. Sometimes it can be the first word of a new conversation. Inertia can’t simply be stopped.
Just a few days ago, we concluded the year 2022. We take down last year’s calendar and put up an entirely new one – 2023. But how different are the final days of December from the first days in January?
Let’s each identify some momentum from the end of 2022 – maybe it was vacation with your family, lighting Hanukkah candles with family and friends, or something else that ended the year on a positive note. Let’s keep that positive vibe rolling in these first days of January, much like the sweetness of Shabbat ends one week and kickstarts another.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
What’s the greatest love story ever told? I imagine most people would think first about romantic love, the passionate feelings that bring two people from different families into one relationship. Maybe they think of a movie or a book.
It might then surprise people to learn that the Torah’s greatest expression of love is not between “lovers” at all. Rather it describes the connection among family.
At the beginning of our Torah reading, Vayigash, Judah passionately appeals to (his brother) Joseph to release their brother Benjamin from captivity. Part of Judah’s desperate plea invokes what Joseph’s action would do to their father Jacob. Quite simply, it would kill him because of Jacob’s limitless attachment to his youngest son Benjamin. The Torah says “Vnafsho Keshura Vnafsho – (Jacob’s) soul is bound up with (Benjamin’s) soul” (Gn. 44:30). This love transcends the body, transcends the physical. It speaks of the soul, the deepest part of oneself. Ever since Benjamin was born, Jacob loved him endlessly and unconditionally. All parents can identify with this unparalleled unconditional love, loving a child not because of what they do but simply because they are.
In this passage we see another ultimate “love story.” Judah steps up and takes responsibility for his younger brother in the ultimate way. Judah tells Joseph to lock him up instead of his younger brother. The mouth is capable of uttering beautiful expressions of love, but only actions can verify their truth. Here Judah does not merely say he will be responsible for his younger sibling, but he takes the hit when his brother is in trouble. It is this act of brotherly love that unlocks Joseph’s heart, that convinces him to reveal to the others that he is Joseph, their brother.
Stories of romantic love feed the Hollywood movie cycle. But the Torah reminds us that the deepest love within us may be for our family.
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this week and speak about the miraculous victory of the few Maccabees over the powerful Assyrian Greeks. Or when we recount the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasted for 8 days, we are confronted with the question, do we believe in miracles? And if so, in what way?
Jewish texts and sources are filled with narratives describing miracles and wonders, from the story of Hanukkah to the most famous miracles: the plagues and the splitting of the sea in the Passover story. Further, the Torah tells us of manna from heaven and a shofar blast that brought down the walls of Jericho. Each miracle announces the presence and power of Gd. In fact the word, miracle, comes from the root word of “a sign” – a sign of Gd’s existence and providence.
For a Biblical Jew (and probably any ancient person), it would be inconceivable that Gd could not act outside of nature to perform such acts, but over time this concept has been more challenging to certain Jews, especially in the modern era. During the Talmudic era, miracles were reported less frequently but stories were still passed down of certain Sages who were able to call upon Gd to do extraordinary things, usually to help the community during a challenging time.
During the Middle Ages Jewish attitudes towards miracles became more diverse. While many continued to believe in miracles as supernatural acts performed by an immanent Gd, others began to describe miracles as the purposeful extensions of natural events. Rambam, or Maimonides, represented this line of thinking best. As he wrote, “ . . . all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were foreordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation . . .”. In other words, anything that seems supernatural was, if fact, already pre-set in the natural world at the time of creation. This definition of miracles holds on to the notion that miracles are a sign of Gd’s providence but that the miracle itself is carried out within the laws of nature.
During the times of the Hasidic masters the idea that humans could initiate miracles, as a direct result of prayer to Gd, became popular. Many accounts exist of the great Hasidic masters who were reported to have raised people from the dead, or to have made themselves invisible, in order to do a mitzvah or to help a fellow Jew. As one of the most famous Hasidic masters, Rav Nachman of Bratslav wrote, “There are people who obscure all miracles by explaining them in terms of the laws of nature. When these heretics who do not believe in miracles disappear and faith increases in the world, then the Messiah will come. For the essence of the redemption primarily depends on this — that is, on faith.” (Likutei Moharan)
Clearly in our own contemporary world there is no one way to think about miracles. As was written by the editor of Myjewishlearning.com, “There are those whose faith rests on secure belief that God performed these wonders as they are described — and that more are possible. Equally, some Jews believe that God is actively engaged in the world through what might be called Divine Providence and who call on the help of heaven. Others understand miracle accounts as fantastic stories or allegories that enhance their spirituality in other ways. Still others have sought rational explanations for the miracles recorded in Scripture. . . The tradition holds room for more than one view.” So, however you view the nature of a miracle, let them inspire each of us to bring a little more light into the world as we strive to accomplish what sometimes seems impossible. Hag Urim Sameah!
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
In the classic 18th century Chassidic text, Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev makes an interesting observation about the name of our upcoming festival of lights. The Berditchever Rebbe points out that the name Chanukkah (meaning dedication) comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for education: Chinukh. Both words share the 3 letter shoresh of Chet-Nun-Khaf.
In the Sefat Emet, the 19th century Chassidic Torah commentary by R’ Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur, he shares the following similar observation:
Chanukkah is an expression of education [Chinukh] in the way one educates a child to walk on their own, just as it said: “Educate a youth according to their own way” (Proverbs 22:6).
Chanukkah gives each and every Jew the opportunity to increase our knowledge, to enlighten ourselves, young and old alike, each and every day.
Now, we know that our people are known for having multiple opinions on all sorts of topics regarding our traditions, hence the frequently used expression, “two Jews, three opinions.”
For our sake, I will focus on two rabbis with two very different opinions. We recall the great 1st century debate, for the sake of heaven, between Hillel and Shammai regarding how one should light Chanukiot (menorahs) throughout the week of Chanukkah:
Beit Shammai held that on the first night eight lights should be lit, and then they should decrease on each successive night, ending with one on the last night; while Beit Hillel held that one should start with one light and increase the number on each night, ending with eight.
Beit Hillel’s rationale is that as a general rule in halakha (Jewish law), one increases holiness, rather than decreasing it. Beit Hillel has on its side the general rule followed in many areas of the Torah, that “Ma’alin Ba’Kodesh ve’ayn Moridin,” One increases in matters of holiness, and does not diminish.
Beit Shammai’s opinion was based on the halachic principle that allows one to derive law using similarities. Beit Shammai has the model of the offering of bulls during the Festival of Sukkot, which begins with thirteen on the first day and, decreasing by one each day, finishes with seven on the seventh day (for a total of seventy, corresponding to the “seventy nations of the world,” for whose benefit the offering is made.). And decrements yet again to just one bull, on the “eighth day” of Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, which corresponds to the singular People of Israel.
As is often the case with this rabbinic duo, Hillel’s opinion is the predominantly observed one throughout the wider Jewish community.
In the case of the common root of the words Chanukkah and Chinukh, this further deepens my understanding of Hillel’s opinion. With each consecutive day, our opportunity to increase in holiness and knowledge grows with each additional candle. Our potential for enlightenment is reinforced as our lights increase, especially in this darkest season of the winter months.
As we prepare to kindle our first candle of Chanukkah this coming Sunday night, I share the following wish for all of us: While our natural lights decrease outside during this season, may the divine spark within each of us grow with every opportunity we find for educating ourselves, for learning from one another, increasing our holiness both as individuals and as part of the wider Jewish community.
Chag Urim Sameach!!
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
In search of inspiration for this week’s Thursday Thought I turned to our very own Rabbi Emeritus Vernon Kurtz’s book Encountering Torah. One of the reflections in this collection is entitled “Deborah’s Legacy” that brought to my attention an obscure line toward the end of our parsha I hadn’t noticed before.
“Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth. [‘the oak of weeping’]” (Gen 35:8).
How did Deborah end up with Jacob and the rest? Rashi notes that Rebecca promised Jacob “I will fetch you from there [Laban’s house]” (Gen. 27:45). Still is this the same nurse that went with Rebecca and Abraham’s servant Eliezer all those years ago? Maybe, maybe not. Rabbi Kurtz shared an opinion from Genesis Rabbah 81:5 that “while Jacob was mourning Deborah, he received the news that Rebecca had also passed away.” Rebecca’s death is never explicitly mentioned in the Torah. This may be why the site of Deborah’s burial is called Allon-bacuth — plural of weeping because of the two losses in the family. If you’re interested in what else Rabbi Kurtz wrote, you should check out the book.
What happens next I find especially moving. “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram. And God blessed him.” (Gen 35:9) According to Rav Acha in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, God blessed Jacob with the blessing of consolation addressed to mourners. (Genesis Rabbah 81:5). Just as God comforts mourners, so too should we comfort mourners. This is one of the examples of how we ‘walk in God’s ways.’
By Rabbi Michael Schwab.
Experiencing hardship is a challenging and unavoidable feature of life. And these obstacles placed in our path often force us to make difficult life choices. Do they stop us from moving forward and force us to abandon our dreams? Or will they prompt us to find or create new paths, or even new destinations?
At the end of last week’s parshah, Jacob reaches a difficult moment in his life. We learn in the Torah that Jacob was given the first born blessing by his father Isaac. This is a positive development that indicates Isaac’s wishes that Jacob become the next patriarch. However, Esau felt this blessing should have been given to him and became enraged when he found out that it was given to Jacob, instead. Thus, Jacob was forced to flee his home for fear that his brother, Esau, might kill him. From this moment forward his life was drastically altered: instead of the comfortable and happy life in his family home, which he had anticipated, he was now on a journey, all alone, to a foreign land to live with a relative he had never met. His path into the future that had once been so secure was now blocked and obscured.
How would he handle his misfortune? What choices would he make? What path would he choose? While Jacob was not perfect by any stretch, and made poor choices as well as wise ones, one critical decision that he made from which we can learn is that he chose to maintain hope and faith in the face of this life challenge. Eschewing an attitude of despair, or a complete rejection of his previous life (two possible alternatives), he remained committed to Gd and was determined to be successful. Shortly after running from his home, he had a miraculous dream, after which he made a covenant with Gd, reaffirming this commitment to his family values and the core vision of the blessing bestowed upon him. Once he arrived at Rebecca’s; brother’s home he worked diligently for his Uncle Laban, got married (twice), had lots of children and became a successful businessman. All through this time he maintained his relationship with Gd and was therefore blessed by Gd. Further, despite his life being very different than he ever imagined, he never lost sight of his ultimate goal — to return to his homeland and fulfill his birthright as the next patriarch. While his misfortune prevented him from doing so in the straight-forward way he had always imagined, due to his ability to maintain faith, embrace hope and stay committed to his ultimate goals, he got there by a different path. As the life of our patriarch Jacob demonstrates, hardship is inevitable. But with determination, resilience, hope and faith, we can often find a way to continue to flourish and a different path to fulfill our dreams.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
I am the older brother in my family. There were times when I was happy to be older, and there were also times when I wished I were the younger child. I imagine many younger siblings at times desire to be the older one. But is being the older sibling actually better?
In biblical times it was, if for no other reason than that the firstborn inherited double the amount of other siblings. That’s a better deal than most older children today! But of course there’s more to it than that.
Parashat Toldot contains a prophecy that God tells Rebecca when she has twins struggling in her womb.
God says, “Two nations are in your womb… one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gn. 25:23). At this moment Rebecca knows – and we readers know – that the younger son Jacob will triumph over the older brother Esau. And that’s how it played out.
Interestingly, this is how nearly every sibling relationship in Genesis also played out. In other words, you did not want to be the oldest sibling.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Among the first pair of brothers, Cain killed Abel (not good to be either one in that scenario). Later on Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael became his own nation, but the Jewish family tree bypassed him in favor of Isaac. Isaac then had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and it was the younger Jacob who continued the family legacy. Next, Jacob expanded the family tree by having 12 sons and one daughter. His oldest sons, like Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, never captured their father’s heart like their younger sibling Joseph. Then Joseph’s two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were given a blessing by Jacob who famously crossed his arms to give his fuller blessing to the younger child. No reason is given as to why other than that Jacob foresaw that the younger one would be greater. But the older Menasseh must have had his feelings hurt by this relegation. To his credit, he did not pick a fight or threaten his brother, unlike earlier generations. This might be the reason, suggests the Etz Hayim Humash, why parents bless their boys Friday nights to be like Ephraim and Menasseh.
So the Torah presents a clear pattern that the younger child succeeds more than the older child. Why might this be?
I think that it has to do with the status quo. In ancient days, older sons were entitled to much more than younger brothers. It seemed to be destiny for them to accomplish more because they had such a head start. When the Torah empowers the younger sibling, it upsets the status quo. Remember that in Genesis, the family’s mission was to live a life according to the values of the one God in a world awash with idolatry. By definition, the Jewish family was upsetting the status quo simply by being! A key lesson from the Torah is that just because the world is as it is does not mean we should not change things to be what the world can be.
By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
Yossi Klein Halevi stated the following this past Monday evening at Beth El: “Israel is the State of all Jews, and the State of all of its citizens.” Its first function is to be a home for all Jews world-wide, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. Similarly, Israel is a country for all of its residents, whether they are in the Jewish majority, or in the sizable non-Jewish minority.
The second part of his statement also connects with this week’s Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah. Following Sarah’s death, Avraham needed to make burial arrangements for his beloved wife: “Then Avraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a resident alien (ger v’toshav) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’”(23:4) Avraham purchases Ma’arat Ha-Makhpelah as a burial place for Sarah in Hevron for 400 shekels, the first parcel of real estate acquired by our founding father in the promised land.
Avraham mentioned his status as ger v’toshav because a resident alien was unable to purchase real estate. Midrashic commentary continues: Avraham is uncertain whether his neighbors accept him as a fellow resident or Hayyei Sarah him as an alien in their midst. The Hittite’s answer surprises him: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (23:5-6) Abraham is surprised because the Hittites have gone beyond acceptance and toleration. They truly admire him for the quality of his faith.
This opening section of Hayyei Sarah is a paragon for how to respect our neighbors, regardless of our differences. The latter half of Halevi’s statement, “Israel is the State of all its citizens,” is inverted at this biblical moment. Avraham, as the first Jew, is clearly in the minority. But regardless, the Hittites welcome him with equal opportunity for burying his beloved wife, Sarah.
Despite being the majority in Israel, Jews are the minority in the Diaspora. Throughout Jewish history, Jews outside of Israel have lived as “ger v’toshav,” resident aliens in the midst of other nations.
Avraham was welcomed as an equal by his Hittite neighbors with kindness. Whether we dwell in the Diaspora or in Israel, we recall our roots with this first biblical moment of being strangers in a strange land.
Just as Avraham greeted some unexpected guests with extraordinary hospitality in last week’s parasha, Vayera, so too, he was warmly welcomed by his neighbors to enjoy the rights of full citizenship.
It is a two-way street. Let us all consider both perspectives in our interactions with our own neighbors. Just as Avraham and the Hittites modeled what it means to be a good neighbor, to be hospitable, may we always strive to be respectful neighbors amongst those with whom we dwell.
By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
Our parasha begins (Gen 18:1-2): “Hashem appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at the heat of the day. Looking up, he saw three people standing about him and seeing this, he ran from the tent’s entrance to greet them and bowed toward the ground.”
It is known in our tradition that these three ‘people’ were in fact three angels. However the word in Hebrew is anashim, which literally means people (or men). In a few weeks we will read about Joseph who was sent by his father to find his brothers in shechem. The Torah says “a man came upon [Joseph] wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’” and Joseph goes on to tell this Ish–this man, who then directs him toward Dothan where his brothers had gone. Here again, but in the singular, we see the word for a human man, but Rashi teaches us that this was the angel Gabriel.
In fact, according to Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, the angels who visited Avraham and Sarah “were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Michael had been assigned the task of announcing that Sarah would have a child and to save Lot. Both of these assignments were expressions of God’s love or mercy respectively, and could therefore be described as being of the same category. Raphael had the task of healing Avraham. Gabriel’s task was to turn Sodom upside down.”
These angels appear to our ancestors as regular human beings and there are two commonalities: 1) they have a specific task or message, and 2) their arrival appears to be serendipitous. As Lawrence Kushner wrote, “The Hebrew word for angel is malakh which also means “messenger,” one who is sent…Unsuspecting and unaware. Consumed by their own plans and itineraries. Busy at work on their own schemes…people chosen to be messengers of the Most High rarely even know that they are God’s messengers…I do not know how many times in one’s life one is also a messenger. But for everyone it is at least once.”
When we read parshat Vayera we are reminded that an angel may indeed come in the form of a regular person. Kushner’s words, which can be found in Siddur Lev Shalem (p.153), echo a spiritual sentiment I’ve held for many years. In our lives, we never know when we might be the person in the right place, at the right time with the right message for our loved one, our friend or even a stranger. I can recall moments when I’m certain I’ve encountered such angels in my own life. Perhaps these were just unlikely but pleasant coincidences, but I look to Maimonides for a little assurance. In his Guide for the Perplexed he wrote, “Before the angels have accomplished their task, they are called men (human), when they have accomplished it they are angels.” Perhaps it is on us to develop our dispositions toward kindness, open our hearts and minds to the beautiful mystery of random chance, and treat everyone as though they might be an angel, or in need of an angel. We might visit the sick like Raphael, we might bring good news and hope like Michael, or we might help someone find their way like Gabriel in the Joseph story. Imagine greeting everyone we met with that same rush to embody Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. The world would be a much more angelic place.
By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
You have probably heard the expression: “It’s not just what you do that matters, but how you do it.” We learn from Abraham: How quickly we do something matters too.
If I ask somebody to bring me a bottle of water, for example, it’s a very different impression if it takes that person a moment or a full minute. The former conveys, “what you said is important, and I want to meet your needs right away.” While the latter communicates, “I’ll do it when it’s convenient for me.” Same action, different speeds, different emotional takeaways.
Abraham had a reflex for doing things quickly. At the end of our Parsha, Lech Lecha, G-d instructs him to circumcise himself and those males of his household. Isaac is 8 days old, which is why Jewish baby boys ever after have the Bris on the 8th day. But his father Abraham is 99 years old. Nevertheless, the Torah says he does this “B’Etzem Hayom Hazeh – on this very day” (Gn. 17:23). That he does not delay shows his devotion to G-d and his eagerness at entering the covenant. We learn from this the expression “Zrizin Makdimin Lamitzvot,” which means those who are eager do the Mitzvah on the sooner side.
This is a great lesson for how we today should respond. When we have the opportunity to do a Mitzvah, we should jump into it. Similarly, it’s a great reminder of an important way to show love to people important to us, like family or friends. If they need a hand, extend it right away. Try it; they will be touched by your quickness to respond.
This enthusiasm is part of Abraham’s spiritual DNA. When we fast forward to the next Torah reading, Vayera, we encounter the scene of Abraham extending lavish hospitality toward three strangers, ushering them into his tent and providing the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner. Look carefully at the speed at which he operates (words in bold): The L-rd appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords! If it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. (Gn. 18:1-7)
Again and again, Abraham is in a hurry to take care of these strangers, which indicates that the hospitality is not mere lip service, but comes from a place of genuine enthusiasm. His outward speed conveys his internal conviction. We, Abraham’s children, can do the same.