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Halacha and Meritocracy - Parashat Vayechi 5780 - January 10, 2020

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-b…
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Chanukah - Inward and Outward - Parashat Vayeishev 5780 - December 20, 2019

On Wednesday of this past week, our Middle School Girls led a program called Light of Torah, in which each student presented their research on a righteous life of a figure in Tanach. Each of the students spoke either by video or in person. Dozens of parents, grandparents and friends came to learn from our students. Thank you to Morah Anat Kampf, Morah Tzippy Hollander and Morah Sara Wende for their work in leading this program.
To open the program, I connected the students’ work with the upcoming holiday of Chanukah.
Each Jewish holiday prompts us to reflect on themes and values that are central to our religion. One of the central themes of Chanukah is the primacy of protecting and defending our values and our Jewish way of life. The Maccabees’ bravery in the face of the Syrian enemy, the re-establishment of the Jewish monarchy and the removal of anti-Jewish laws are examples of themes which highlight national victories. In examining these themes more carefully, they represent parochial…

Yisrael and Ya'akov - Parashat Vayishlach 5780 - December 13, 2019

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 acqu…

Flame Versus Fire - Parashat Vayetzei 5780, December 6, 2019

We are now in the month of Kislev and Chanukah is quickly approaching.

The halacha regarding the Chanukah lights is that a candle is required – a candle with a single flame. The use of a medura – a fire unconnected to a wick - 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 sa…

Learning From Our Children - Parashat Chaye Sarah 5780, November 22, 2019

This week’s parasha, Chaye Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah Imeinu – the mother of our nation. This presentation comes on the heels of the end of last week’s parasha – the discussion of the binding of Isaac and the discussion of the proliferation of Avraham’s extended family.

The verse at the beginning of this week’s parasha states, “And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the Land of Canaan; and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.” Our Chachamim discuss the phrase, “and Avraham came” - from where was he was coming to eulogize his recently departed wife?

The Midrash offers two possibilities of where he was coming from. Rabbi Levi teaches that he was returning from burying his father, Terach. Rabbi Yose teaches that he was returning from Har HaMoriah – Avraham was returning from the episode of the binding of Isaac. According to Rabbi Yose, Sarah died out of the pain of hearing about the episode.

Both Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Yose agree that the subject that …

Greater Than the Sum of its Parts - Parashat Vayera 5780, November 15, 2019

In this week’s parasha, VaYera, Avraham Avinu is told of Hashem’s plan to destroy Sedom and its four sister cities. The Torah describes these cities as places of decrepit morals populated by denizens of corrupt values.

The Torah recounts that Avraham asked Hashem to preserve the cities on account of the tzaddikim – the righteous people – who lived in the cities. Avraham inquires whether Hashem would destroy the cities if there were 50 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires whether Hashem would destroy the cities if there were 45 righteous people. Hashem responds that He would not. Avraham then inquires about 40, 30, 20 or even 10 righteous people. Hashem responds that in any of these cases, He would not cause destruction.

Our chachamim address a number of issues related to this interaction between Avraham and Hashem. One question that they address is why Avraham chose to inquire about 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 then 10 righteous people. What was Avraham’s l…

Blessings, Blessings, Blessings - Parashat Lech-Lecha 5780, November 8, 2019

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, the Torah recounts the Avram’s return from an improbable victory in a war against the four kings. On the way, he encounters MalkiTzedek, the King of Shalem.

The Torah describes the meeting: “MalkiTzedek, king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of G-d, the Most High. He (MalkiTzedek) blessed him saying, “Blessed is Avram of G-d, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be G-d, the Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”

The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush, asks why MalkiTzedek blessed Avram before blessing G-d. Although the Midrash, in fact, criticizes MalkiTzedek for prioritizing the blessings in this way, Malbim explains that MalkiTzedek’s decision to bless Avram before G-d is to MalkiTzedek’s credit.

To understand what justifies MalkiTzedek’s prioritization, we first need to ask another question – how can a human being bless G-d? To say that a human being is blessed is understandable – MalkiTzedek saw…