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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Merit vs. Lineage: A Lesson from Reuven - Parashat Vayechi - January 13, 2017

This week’s parasha, VaYechi, describes the blessings that Ya’akov conveyed to his children at the end of his life.

The first blessing was to Ya’akov’s eldest son, Reuven. The blessing begins, “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like in impetuosity – you cannot be foremost…” Based on this verse, the Midrash concludes that, at the outset, Reuven and his descendants had been given the rights to three positions of leadership – Firstborn, Priesthood (kehuna) and Kingship. All were lost when Reuven sinned by acting impetuously. As a result, these rights were each transferred to more appropriate recipients within Ya’akov’s family- the Firstborn to Yosef, the Priesthood to Levi and the Kingship to Yehuda.

From the perspective of this Midrash, rights and privileges are determined by merit. Originally, Hashem had intended Reuven - Ya’akov’s first-born – to be associated with all of the rights of leadership - the first-born, priesthood and kingship. When he sinned, Reuven lost all of these rights. Other, more meritorious brothers, were selected to hold the privilege of these rights.

Let us contrast this perspective with the halachic system – with Jewish Law. In halacha, how are rights and privileges distributed? Rights and privileges in the Torah are distributed based on one’s lineage: The rights of a kohen – first and best portions of food, for example – are transmitted only to kohanim. The rights of a first-born – double inheritance, for example – are transmitted only to first born males. The rights of being a king – taxation, for example – are transmitted only to the descendant of King David who is inaugurated as king. This system is based on lineage – very different than the meritocracy of Ya’akov’s time described by the Midrash.

However, another statement by our Rabbis conveys the idea that meritocracy exists even in our day. Our Rabbis say, “The child of an adulterous relationship, a mamzer, who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” This statement conveys the idea that one’s level of Torah scholarship is more important than one’s lineage.

How can we reconcile the fact that rights and privileges are distributed in halacha based on lineage with the aforementioned aphorism that conveys the all-important value of Torah scholarship?

To help answer this question, let us examine the story of Korach – which is presented much later in the Torah. While b'nei yisrael is travelling in the desert and in the wake of the catastrophe of the spies, Korach – a great-grandchild of Levi – bands together with Datan and Aviram and On the son of Pelet, a descendent of Reuven and 250 men. Each of these men was disgruntled for different reasons. Korach was upset because he was a descendent of Levi but from a family that Hashem did not select to have any levite or kohen rights. The descendants of Reuven were upset because as children of Ya’akov’s first-born male – Reuven – they felt entitled to a position of leadership.

The Midrash explains that they all stood before Moshe and jeered him. They asked Moshe whether a room that was filled with sifrei Torah requires a mezuzah. Moshe responded that it does require a mezuzah. Korach mocked Moshe saying, “If the purpose of the mezuzah is to remind us of the unity of G-d then why would I need a mezuzah on a room filled with sifrei Torah – what greater reminder of the unity of G-d exists than sifrei Torah?”

What was Korach’s error?

He failed to understand one of the unique qualities of Judaism. Two spheres exist within Torah – the Torah’s overarching aims and goals – the philosophy of Torah – and the halacha – the Torah’s legal system. Hashem’s Will is that we should be truthful and honest, just, charitable and that we should love Him. These are overarching aims of the Torah. G-d, in His Infinite Wisdom, codified a system of law called halacha which is designed to help inculcate these overarching aims into the adherents of the law. Although there is a relationship between halacha and the overarching goals, these two spheres are separate – each and every halacha does not directly correspond to an overarching goal. Rather, the halacha is a separate system.

Korach failed to understand that the requirement to affix a mezuzah on a room is a halacha – a legal requirement. One aim of the mitzvah of mezuzah is that those who encounter a mezuzah should be reminded of G-d’s unity. However, fundamentally, mezuzah is a law. There are parameters to the law. What is a room? What is a mezuzah? Who is obligated? When is that person obligated? Is the obligation on an owner or a renter? The law is that a mezuzah must be placed on the door-frame of a room. Therefore, even if this room contained all sifrei Torah, a mezuzah must be affixed to the doorpost.

Returning to our question - how can we reconcile the fact that rights and privileges are distributed in halacha based on lineage with the emphasis that the Torah places on merit?

One of the features of a legal system is that it often does not differentiate between individual circumstances. However, by designing a legal system, Hashem helped ensure that our commitment to the overarching aims and objectives will be obligatory and permanent and not merely casual. The existence of the law – which is based on objective criteria such as lineage – creates the circumstance that allows for the perpetuation of the Torah philosophy – that merit is of supreme importance.

Yosef and Yehuda: Models of Moral Leadership - Parashat Vayigash - January 6, 2017

This week’s parasha, VaYigash, presents the story of the reunification of Ya’akov’s sons and the family’s move from the Land of Cana’an to Egypt. At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef set up a ruse in which Binyamin was accused of stealing a royal goblet. Our parasha opens with Yehuda’s plea to Yosef on behalf of Binyamin in the moments before Yosef’s revelation of his true identity to his brothers.

In this moment, Yosef and Yehuda demonstrate that they have become the leaders of b’nei yisrael – Yosef through his position of power in Egyptian society and Yehuda through his commitment to responsibility for Binyamin’s safety and his follow through on that commitment.

This week’s haftarah – a passage from Sefer Yechezkel – relates a prophecy that describes a future time for b’nei yisrael. In this famous prophecy, Hashem commands Ezekiel to make a demonstration to the people involving two wooden tablets. On one tablet, Ezekiel is to inscribe, “For Yehuda and the Children of Israel, his compatriots”. On the other tablet, Ezekiel is to inscribe, “For Yosef, the wooden tablet of Ephraim, and all the Children of Israel, his compatriots”. Hashem commands Ezekiel to bring the two tablets together in his hands – and at that moment the two tablets will become one.

Hashem tells Ezekiel to explain to b’nei yisrael that this demonstration represents Hashem’s commitment to His people – He will unify a nation that has become spread out and steeped in moral pollution of the surrounding base societies. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the prophecy is describing two camps within the nation of Israel – one identified with Yosef and one identified with Yehuda. Although one camp is identified with Yosef and one with Yehuda, each camp is not living in accordance with the ideals of its namesake – their connection to these patriarchs represents their respective shortcomings. According to Rav Hirsch, the prophecy records Hashem’s commitment to unify the nation by rehabilitating the values of each of these camps and reconnecting the people to their namesakes.

Rav Hirsch’s explanation of this prophecy begs the question - what respective philosophies or value systems do Yosef and Yehuda represent? Asked in another way, in what quality are the two camps described in Yechezkel’s vision deficient? In the prophecy, what is stopping the Yosef camp from joining with the Yehuda camp?

In a passage in Sefer Hoshea, the prophet speaks extensively about the shortcoming associated with the “camp of Yosef” described in this prophetic time – they place too much trust in other nations and place little trust in Hashem. This description of the “camp of Yosef” connects with what we know about the value system that Yosef HaTzadik exemplified – he is the committed Jew in exile. He remained moral even in the face of an opportunity for sin with the wife of Potiphar. He pronounced his belief and trust in Hashem in his conveying the interpretation of the dreams of Paroh. The quality that exemplifies the “camp of Yosef” is placing trust in Hashem even in exile – when G-d’s Providence is less apparent.

In a passage in his sefer, the prophet Isaiah speaks extensively about the shortcoming associated with the “camp of Yehuda” – punctilious observance of the mitzvot coupled with a complete lack of commitment to honesty and truth. He castigates the “camp of Yehuda” for the fact that their performance of mitzvot does not lead to a greater enlightenment or commitment to emet – truth – and chesed – loving-kindness. Our patriarch, Yehuda, is a paragon of the cultivating of truth and honesty through commitment to Hashem’s will. When Tamar confronted him with his sin, Yehuda instantly admitted the sin and took responsibility for her welfare. When pressed to return to Egypt to retrieve his brother, Shimon, Yehuda made an honest and reasoned commitment to his father to take Binyamin to Egypt and to return him home safely. The quality that exemplifies the “camp of Yehuda” is growth in understanding and allegiance to truth and honesty through the performance of mitzvot.

Returning to our question – what is preventing the reunification of the camps associated with Yosef and Yehuda in the time of Ezekiel? The answer is that the moral shortcomings of the people keep them from being a united people. The prophet presents an inspiring solution to this problem – Hashem will lead the people in moral development and this growth will create the opportunity for reunification. Indeed, this prophecy serves as a model for all situations of disharmony within the various camps of b’nei yisrael – personal and communal moral growth is a powerful agent for national harmony.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Retirement - Parashat VaYeshev - December 23, 2016

Our forefather Ya'akov's life was difficult. He suffered the threat of his brother Esav, his exile from home, the constant harassment of Lavan, the assault of his daughter and the early death of his beloved wife.

In the first pasuk of this week’s parasha, the Torah states, vayeshev Ya'akov be'eretz megurei aviv, be'eretz kena'an – and Ya'akov settled (vayeshev) in the land of the dwelling (megurei) of his father, in the Land of Cana'an. This verse seems to conclude the end of an era for Ya'akov and the beginning of a period of tranquility. Ya'akov is retiring, so to speak. However, the Torah continues in the next verse – et dibatam ra l'avihem – and Yosef would bring evil reports about them (his brothers) to their father. The episode of the brothers is beginning to unfold. A new chapter in Ya'akov's life of struggle is just beginning.

There are two interesting peculiarities in these verses.

First, in the first pasuk, there are two synonyms for "settle", yashav and gur. The Torah juxtaposes these words – vayeshev and megurei. The second root gur is more appropriate here because it is consistent with Hashem's original instruction to settle the land – gur ba'aretz hazot. Why does the Torah select the synonym yashav in this context?

Second, the narrative is striking in that it contrasts between Ya'akov's "retirement" and the fact that his sons' conflict pull him out of "retirement". Are these two events related by more than just chronology?

Based on the Midrash, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary on the Torah, Torah Temima, explains that whenever a person decides to settle (le'hityashev) in tranquility and peace and this is not decreed upon him (from Heaven), he will be troubled by pain. The Midrash suggests that Yaakov did something wrong and was therefore punished by the incident of Yosef. What was Yaakov's sin?

The term yashav generally refers to a permanent dwelling – as in the phrase yishuv eretz yisrael – settling of the Land of Israel. This term is opposed to gur which refers to a less permanent dwelling – as in ger – a foreigner who takes up residence in a non-native land. VaYeshev Ya'akov – and Ya’akov settled – testifies to Yaakov's desire to be finished with the conflicts in his life and settle down to raising his family in the land of his fathers. VaYeshev Ya'akov also testifies to how Ya'akov viewed this new chapter in his life.

Ya'akov desisted from his mission to develop a nation once he reached the land of Cana’an because he put too much security in the land of Cana’an. The Midrash explains that the term vayeshev – and he dwelt permanently – is a textual cue that pain is on the horizon. True security is only in Hashem. Even the land of Israel does not provide security.

Everybody has a unique personality. Our respective personalities affect how we make decisions. Hashem gives us the ability to make decisions independent of our personality. Furthermore, the more that we make these types of decisions the more that we affect our personality for better. For example, a stubborn person may have difficulty learning. He may resist learning from others and from his mistakes.

However, it is possible for this person to learn from a given situation if he chooses to do so. Furthermore, the more that he decides to learn from learning opportunities that arise, the more he can regulate his stubbornness. One of our main challenges is to use our personality to make decisions that are in accordance with the Will of Hashem as we understand it through Torah and Mitzvot.

Hashem wants us to use our personality to make decisions that are in accordance with His Will. Ya'akov was visited by the pain of Yosef's sale in order to remind him that his mission was unfulfilled – the conflicts were not over. The pain gave Ya'akov the opportunity to do teshuva – repentance.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ya'akov and Yisrael - Parashat VaYishlach - December 16, 2016

The Jewish people are called b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel. The name Yisrael has its roots in our parasha.

Upon leaving the company of Lavan, Yaakov embarks on his return to Cana’an. Yaakov, preparing for a potential confrontation, sends angels to Esav who dwelt in Edom – far south of where Yaakov was at Ma’avar Yabok in the north. The angels return to Yaakov to tell him that Esav is already on the road – headed to meet with him. Yaakov, anticipating a fight, becomes fearful.

On the evening prior to his fateful meeting with Esav, Yaakov encounters a man – understood by our Rabbis to be the guardian angel of Esav. The angel struggles with Yaakov and they end in a draw. Yaakov’s thigh is damaged. The angel declares, “What is your name?” Yaakov responds, “Yaakov!” The angel continues, “Your name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael (Israel), because you have struggled with the Lord and with men – and you have been able (to overcome).” It is through this incident that Jacob acquired the name, Israel.

The acquisition of new names is not an infrequent occurrence throughout the Torah. Avraham’s name was changed from Avram. Sarah’s name was changed from Sarai. Yehoshua’s name is changed from Hoshea. Yaakov’s name is seemingly changed by this adversary to Yisrael. Apparently, for this reason, we are b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel – not b’nei Yaakov – the children of Yaakov.

Our chachamim explain that this renaming was unique. In the cases of Avraham, Sarah and Yehoshua, these individuals were given a replacement name. However, Jacob was given an alternate name by this adversary – the name Israel. Upon leaving the struggle with the angel, Yaakov had two names – Yaakov and Yisrael. A substitute name conveys a totally new identity created upon by an awareness or change in circumstance. An alternate name is a more subtle change. Such a name conveys an additional dimension or mission in a person. Consider, for example, a stage name or a pseudonym. Alternate names are used situationally.

The Ohr HaChayim, Rabbenu Chayyim Ben-Attar, explains that in general, the Torah calls Yaakov by the name Yaakov during a period of struggle in his life and by the name Yisrael during a period of spiritual calmness or spiritual resolution. The name Yaakov – Yaakov’s given name – refers to struggle – the struggle of Yaakov holding onto his brother, Esav’s, heel. While this name originated to describe his struggle with his brother Esav, Yaakov is also an apt description of his life – a life of confrontation and struggle that originated in Rivkah’s womb and lasted for 130 years. After confronting the adversary, Yaakov now had another name – Yisrael. This name is used to describe the resulting peace that Yaakov experienced in the wake of conflict, a type of spiritual serenity.

Interestingly, throughout our parasha, Yaakov is not called Yisrael. Later in our parasha, for example, two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, acted violently to protect their sister, Dinah. In this incident, these children are called b’nei Yaakov, instead of the appellation, b’nei Yisrael, Based on the Ohr HaChayim’s explanation, we can readily understand why this name is used in this situation. The term b’nei – the sons of – refers to Shimon and Levi cooperating towards a specific aim. The term Yaakov – Jacob – conveys their aim represents a struggle. Yaakov’s children were struggling together to exact justice from Shechem. Therefore, they are called b’nei Yaakov – a communal struggle – one group identified with one aim. There is, however, another type of collective – a community built on spiritual harmony. The Jewish People are typically called b’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel. This name conveys our aim – that of a collective based on spiritual serenity.

Based on the Ohr HaChayim’s explanation we can delineate two purposes or aims of the Jewish community – solidarity to strengthen ourselves in conflicts that we may have with the world at large. This purpose is conveyed by the term b’nei Yaakov. However, there is another, equally important aim that we have – the responsibility to support ourselves in strengthening our internal values - this aim is conveyed by the term b’nei Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Rabbi Owen's Top Twenty MHA-FYOS from the Year So Far...

As we reach Chanukah and our Winter Break, I want to take some time to reflect and share my favorite events, programs, and accomplishments at MHA-FYOS for the 2016-2017 school year.  

What a year!   I'm so proud of our staff, students, volunteers and families for all of the effort that each of us have put into making MHA great. Thank you!

Do you have favorites from this year so far?  Please share your favorites in the comments!! 

Check out my Top Ten for 2017 to see what I'm looking forward to in the new year and - as always - LIKE and FOLLOW US on Facebook to see photos, videos, stories and more all about our wonderful school!


1) School Renovations
Our school - including the gym, kitchen, new administrative offices, and GMSG Student Lounge - saw massive building improvements this year. The renovations have improved morale and enhanced our programming.  The community has enjoyed coming to the gym for basketball games and our kids and staff love the new floor, hoops, and functionality of the gym.  Ms. Sandra Osdoba, our marvelous Head of Food Services, has led her team in making sure the students and staff are well fed throughout the day and the dorm students have great meals each night.  Two new offices adorn the halls of the lower school and allow our General Studies Principal Mrs. Becky Nissani and Judaic Studies Principal Rabbi Yosef Hauser to work in close proximity to the students.  The girls in the high school benefited from a coat of fresh paint and new furniture for their school--it is a bright, warm environment to learn in.

2) Grandparents and Special Guests Day
This program was stellar!  A dedicated committee ensured that grandparents and special guests had a fabulous experience spending time in classrooms, touring the school, participating in the pre-Shabbat program and sharing a wonderful hot lunch.  We had four generations of some families present, and students brought grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends to share this day with them.

3) The MHA Operational Campaign exceeded our fundraising goal this year.  This campaign ensures that we will continue to provide an outstanding program of Judaic and General Studies for all of our students.

This year the PTA is making unbelievable strides in supporting our school through fundraising and friend-raising!  From the back-to-school BBQ to the Kitchen Shower to the White Elephant Party, the PTA is making it fun to volunteer and contribute to our school!  Thank you to Elana Kahane and Stacy Sanderson for chairing this amazing committee and for working so hard on behalf of our students!

5) MHA-FYOS Wellness Committee
This committee is dedicated to supporting student health through integrated and special programming that promotes our well-being.  I love Walk to School Wednesday, our weekly jaunt through the neighborhood with students, parents and staff.  They are responsible for the Tower Garden which has provided the opportunity for students to plant, nurture, and pick their own food right here in the school.  And this year during finals week they arranged special program for our high school students to help them recover and center during this stressful time. Students participated in yoga, meditation, and some pampering facials from community volunteers. They loved it and I love that we are thinking our students in this holistic manner.


6) ECE Fall Programming
The Fall Festival brought autumnal fun to the families of the community with a petting zoo, bouncy house, hay rides, amazing food, a scavenger hunt, art projects, face painting and fabulous book sale. This spectacular day was organized by our ECE Director Charna Schubert with help from teachers and community members.  It was a blast!
The ECE Parent Parties bring together parents for a night of fun games which include parents guessing their kids answers to questions about them, lots of socializing, and delicious food
ECE Open House showcased our Pre-K, Kindergarten, and First Grade program for current and prospective parents.  Teachers prepared stations and lessons that provided a sample of a day at MHA. 
7) ECE Chanukah Party
  • The kids learned and sang a complicated song called "Shine a Little Light"  that showed off their musical skills and enthusiasm
  • The event was posted on Facebook Live which allowed family members who could not attend to enjoy the event with us and to celebrate Chanukah ECE-style 
  • On the menu was delicious fresh greens from the MHA Tower Garden (our indoor greenhouse garden) that they cut themselves to share with family and friends
8) Pre-K Program (This year we instituted a new program to combine the 3s and 4s into one program)
  • Three dynamic teachers in one classroom
  • Individuated learning for each student
  • Kids of different ages work and play together in a classroom environment
9) Renewed our NAEYC Accreditation
NAEYC attested to what we all know - ECE is a great place to go to school!

LOWER SCHOOL (Grades 1-4)

10) Bean Bag Chairs!!
Bean Bag Chairs have arrived at MHA!  These offer teachers easy ways to innovate the spaces they set up in their classroom, and kids really learn well with the ability to move and interact with this sensory-friendly furniture. 
11) Individualized Learning
Teachers are responsive to student aptitudes, interests, and styles.  It's great to walk in a classroom and see our students working in groups, alone, and one-to-one with teachers--all on the same lesson but each in the way that best suits them

12) Lower School Shabbat Party
Rabbi Hauser brings Jewish lessons to life each Friday with engaging stories that keep the kids on their toes and start great conversations about challenges, philosophy, and solutions that surprise. Students experience the spirit of Shabbat complete with candle lighting, Kiddush, and songs from Cantor Ricky Kampf

13) Third Grade Chanukah Skit
The third graders presented the story of Chanukah for family and friends.  They performed the whole play in Hebrew with clear understanding for both the language and the messages they conveyed. There were great costumes, songs, and fantastic lines by each student.

MIDDLE SCHOOL (Grades 5-8)

14) New Middle School Assistant Principals
Rabbi Moshe Nachbar and Morah Anat Kampf have brought innovative programming, enthusiasm, and tailored learning to our new middle school program. 

15) Student Leadership Opportunities
Big Brother/Little Brother, Big Sister/Little Sister Program
  • This program pairs Junior high students with students in lower grades where they provide mentorship in the classroom--reading together and connecting in meaningful ways
  • Student Council is led by 7th and 8th grades and focus on improving student life through programming.  Students learn leadership skills and program management while having a great time together
16) D'var Torah Workshop
Each Friday afternoon Junior High (7th and 8th graders) students work with the Bat Ami and Kollel Torah MiTzion bachurim to develop and write original divrei Torah. They use a special website called Sefaria where they can look up primary Torah sources, commentator's notes, and they can see cross-references, all in the original format with or without English translation. After they are complete they present their work to the 5th and 6th graders in a special program. Rabbi Nachbar and Morah Anat coordinate this inspirational program. I love that our 7th and 8th graders are working with mentors to accomplish something so meaningful each week and that our 7th and 8th graders are demonstrating such high quality work to younger students, providing a model for them of something to grow into and look forward to in coming years!


17) Nechama Jewish Response to Disaster in Baton Rouge, Louisianna
This past September, I had the opportunity to drive - first the boy's high school and then the girl's high school - to Baton Rouge to help in the recovery efforts after severe flooding devastated that community. We camped at a state park overnight and spent the days in HAZMAT gear pulling nails, removing waterlogged boards and sheetrock, cleaning out contents from the houses and working side by side with the owners to get their homes ready for reconstruction.  I loved the energy and dedication our students showed for helping their fellow-man, and working hard with together to accomplish something so significant. You can read about the full experience here.
18) Names Not Numbers Program
This year, students are producing a movie about the biographies of local holocaust survivors.  They are working with professional videographers, journalists, Facing History and Ourselves, the Belz Museum and the Tennessee Holocaust Commission in Nashville. Students are making a documentary about their experience learning from these experts and creating the movie and the finished product will be presented in the Spring in commemoration of Yom Hashoah.

19) Better Together
Rabbi Harris and Rabbi Semmel lead this program which brings together students from Goldie Margolin High School and residents of The Jewish Home weekly where they spend time socializing, playing games, and developing relationships.  The program culminates in capturing the experience of each participant in a beautiful photo-book keepsake for the girls and seniors. 

20) Hausdorff Flatbush Yeshivah HS Tournament
Early this month, I joined Coach Jason Redd and the JV boys basketball team on a six day trip to Brooklyn, New York for this annual basketball tournament.  The boys played their hearts out and we enjoyed great hosting from our friends at Flatbush High School.  We toured New York and attending a a shiur from Rabbi Mordechai Willig about the bracha that a father makes at a Bar Mitzvah.  I thoroughly enjoyed traveling together, spending Shabbat and lerarning with each other.

and one bonus...

21) Mentoring Program
Professionals from the greater Memphis area visit the school to talk with the students about their professions monthly.  Students hear about education and career path opportunities and are able to ask questions and engage in lively discussion.  I love this program because it connects students with leaders in a variety of industries, and creates a tangible link between the work they are doing now and the potential options they have to develop careers in the future. 

What were your favorite moments from this year?  Please share them below!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fire and Flame - Parashat Vayetze 5777 - December 9, 2016

Chanukah is approaching.

The h
alacha regarding the Chanukah lights is that a candle is required – a candle with a single flame. The use of a medura – a fire - does not fulfill the mitzvah. What is the difference between fire and flame such that a flame meets the requirements of ner Chanukah but a fire does not?

To address this quote, let us consider a lesson from this week’s parasha. Yaakov leaves the house of his father, Yitzchak, to flee from Esav – his brother – and takes residence with his first cousin Lavan. Lavan’s devious personality is well - understood by Yaakov, yet Yaakov stays with Lavan for 14 years – enough time to have married Leah and Rachel and have 12 children – 11 boys and one girl. Immediately upon Yosef’s birth to Rachel, Yaakov declares his intention to leave his residence with Lavan and take up a new residence in Canaan.

The Torah says, “and it was when Rachel gave birth to Yosef – and Yaakov said to Lavan, ‘send me and I will go to my place and to my land’.” Our chachamim understand this verse to create a linkage between the birth of Yosef and Yaakov’s decision to leave Lavan. Had the Torah wanted to say that Yaakov had completed his service commitment to Lavan, the Torah should have said that. It should not have said, “when Rachel gave birth to Yosef”. What prompted Yaakov to leave Lavan immediately upon the birth of Yosef?

The Tur – Rabbenu Yaakov ben Asher – gives a simple explanation of Yaakov’s decision. Yaakov waited until now to leave because he had been concerned that since Rachel had been barren, her father Lavan would have claimed that Yaakov and Rachel should get divorced and Rachel should be left in her father Lavan’s house to remarry. Now that Yosef, Rachel’s first-born had been born, such a claim would not be possible and Yaakov would be free to take his entire family with him.

Rashi, however, offers an alternate explanation of Yaakov’s decision. Rashi, quoting Midrash Rabbah says, “When Yosef was born to Rachel, the adversary of Esav was born. The prophet Ovadiah, describing the time of the Messiah, says, ‘and it will be that the house of Yaakov is fire and the house of Yosef is a flame and the house of Esav is straw’.” Rashi continues, “fire without a flame has no power at a distance. When Yosef was born, Yaakov trusted in Hashem and he wanted to return to Canaan.” In other words, the Lavan saga culminating in Yosef’s birth gave Yaakov the knowledge and security that he had the tools necessary to fight Esav.

In considering this midrash, a question arises. Fire also burns straw! Why couldn’t the philosophy of Yaakov – the “fire” – burn the “straw” – the philosophy of Esav? Why was the “flame” of Yosef necessary?

The author of the Sha’are Aharon explains: Yaakov didn’t want to get close to his brother Esav. Perhaps there was too much identification between the brothers. Perhaps Yaakov was worried about Esav’s influence on him. Whatever the case may be, for fire to burn straw, the two have to touch. Yaakov couldn’t and wouldn’t allow that to occur.

Yosef’s birth was the birth of a flame – the ability to project the fire into the surrounding environment. As an example, look at what influence Yosef was capable of in Egypt. With this flame, Yaakov was secure that he could influence Esav and his surroundings without coming into direct contact with Esav.

Until the times of Mashiach, Esav continues to influence us – even indirectly. With the coming of the Mashiach, the forces of Esav will be consumed by the projection of Yaakov’s flame – Yosef.

Returning to our original question, why does a flame fulfill the requirement of the mitzvah of Chanukah while a fire does not? As we learn from the midrash above, a flame projects the light – it is more than a fire. The requirement of Chanukah is pirsume nissa – publicizing the miracle of Chanukah. On Chanukah, fire represents the ideas of the Torah, the miracles, our relationship with Hashem. A fire is insufficient. A flame is required. We must project these ideas to our surroundings. For this task, a flame is required.

Shabbat Shalom.

Actions Influence Ideas - Parashat Toldot 5777 - December 2, 2016

This week’s parasha, Toldot, presents the early years of Ya’akov and Esav – the twin sons of Yitzchak and Rivkah. A watershed moment occurred between them early in their respective lives.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the Torah tells us that Yaakov was cooking a lentil porridge and that Esav was coming inside from the field and that he was tired. Esav requests lentil porridge from Yaakov and Yaakov offers to give him some in exchange for Esav’s firstborn rights. Esav takes an oath and sells the birthright to Yaakov. Yaakov gives porridge to Esav who ate, drank, got up and left and “disgraced” the birthright.

Rashi seems to be bothered by the context of this story. In one of his comments, Rashi cites a Midrash that says that Yaakov and Esav lived similar childhoods, but went their separate ways at age thirteen. In another comment, Rashi cites a Midrash that addresses the reason why Yaakov was preparing lentils. The Midrash says that lentils are customarily eaten by a mourner because lentils are a round food with no opening representing a mourner who has no mouth to speak. The Midrash explains that the lentils were for Yitzchak whose father Avraham had just died. The Midrash elaborates on this story. Esav thought that G-d’s justice had incorrectly been applied to Avraham and he denied the philosophical tenets of reward and punishment and of the resurrection of the dead. This interpretation is supported by Esav’s justification for selling the birthright – “behold I am going to die”.

In a separate comment, Rashi cites a Midrash that teaches that Hashem cut Avraham’s life short by five years so that he would not have to witness Esav become a scoundrel who regularly committed public acts of immorality, murder, robberty, etc.

At first glance, these Midrashim seem to create a circular argument. G-d withdrew five years from Avraham’s life in order that he should not have to witness Esav becoming a scoundrel. Yet, it was Avraham’s death that propelled Esav to deny fundamental philosophical tenets. Apparently, Esav’s denial of the fundamentals preceded his total corruption. In other words, Avraham’s death precipitated Esav’s philosophical corruption which led to his downfall which is why Hashem withdrew five years from Avraham’s life. Why didn’t Hashem leave Avraham with the five years? Esav would never have had the philosophical question that led to his downfall and Avraham would never have had to witness Esav’s corruption!

I believe that the answer to this question is that Esav’s philosophical question did not cause his corruption. In his sefer, Chovot HaLevavot, Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda argues that our desires can influence and corrupt our thinking process. He argues that even a basic understanding like appreciation for G-d’s kindnesses can be influenced by our base desires or by our situation. Based on this idea, I suggest that Esav’s reaction to Avraham’s death was not a true philosophical analysis. Rather, his question was an excuse – a justification – for him to live a completely pleasure-seeking existence. Before this incident with the lentils, Esav was well on his way to corruption. He has diverged from the life of Yaakov. He put his energies completely into the physical world – he was a hunter and a man of the field. His pursuit of the physical life to the exclusion of the world of ideas and service of Hashem would inevitably lead to his corruption. Hence, Avraham’s death did not cause Esav’s corruption. Esav used Avraham’s death as a tool – as an excuse – for immoral behavior. Even if Avraham had not died at this time, Esav was already on the path of corruption. The Torah seems to confirm that there was a change in Esav exactly at this instant in his life. Al ken kara shemo Edom – therefore he (Esav) is called Edom. At this moment, Esav became a corrupt individual with a justification for his behavior.

A well-known story illustrates this idea. There was a student of the Volozin Yeshiva who abandoned the Torah. Instead, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy and joined the haskala movement. The student had occasion to visit his former yeshiva. There, he met with Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l who was serving as Rosh HaYeshiva. Rav Chaim asked the young man to explain his reasons for abandoning the life of Torah and pursuing worthless endeavors. The young man was shocked by Rav Chaim's confrontational tone. After recovering, the young man responded. He explained that he was troubled by various doubts and questions regarding the Torah. He could not find answers for his questions. So, he abandoned the Torah. Rav Chaim told the young man that he was willing to answer every one of his questions. However, the young man must first agree to answer a single question. Rav Chaim's asked, "When did these various questions occur to you? Was it before you experienced the taste of sin or afterwards?" The young man was embarrassed. He responded that only after committing a serious sin had he begun to be bothered by questions. Rav Chaim responded, "If that is the case, these are not questions. Rather, they are answers you sought to excuse your evil actions." Rav Chaim continued, "I am sure that if you merit to achieve old age, your desires and yetzer harah will diminish. Then you will realize that you do not really have any questions. So, why not repent now?" (see Thoughts on the Parasha, Rabbi Bernie Fox)

This story underscores the perspective of the Midrash with regard to Esav – his sinful behavior led to a corrupt philosophy. Esav may be unique in how drastically and how quickly he changed. However, the story of Esav is an exemplar for how attentive we all must be to performing mitzvot and attuned to how our actions influence our ideas – for the positive and the negative.

Shabbat Shalom.