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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

When Good is Done to You - Acknowledge It! - Shabbat Chanukah-Miketz 5778

Our chachamim, in masechet Kiddushin, teach a general halachic principle: mitzvot aseh shehazeman gerama nashim peturot – women are exempt from positive, time-dependent commandments. Generally, women may perform, but are not obligated to perform, those commandments that become obligatory only at a defined time. For example, the holiday of Sukkot occurs on the fifteenth day of the month of Tishrei. The mitzvah of lulav is obligatory only during Sukkot. Since this mitzvah is time-dependent – it can only be performed during a specific window of time, women are exempt. Of course, should a woman choose to perform the mitzvah of lulav she may do so and it rewarded for doing so.

This Shabbat we celebrate the fourth day of Chanukah – chag ha’oorim. As is well-known, on each night of Chanukah we light a set number of candles corresponding to the number of nights of Chanukah that have elapsed. On the fourth night of Chanukah, we light four candles. Clearly, the mitzvah of Chanukah candles is time-dependent. Based on the explanation above, women would be exempt from Chanukah candles.

However, our chachamim teach that women are not exempt from Chanukah candles – women are, in fact, obligated. The Talmud teaches that there is a subset of positive, time-bound commandments which form an exception to the general principle presented above – those commandments which are connected to a miracle in which women were involved. In the language of the Talmud – af hen hayu be’oto haness – even women were in the miracle. Because women were involved in the miracle of Hashem saving the Jews from the hands of the Syrian-Greeks, women are obligated to light Chanukah candles. The Talmud gives an identical explanation for the obligation of women in the Megilah reading on Purim.

(As an interesting aside, including this exception, and other exceptions which are not within the scope of this presentation, to the category of positive, time-bound commandments, there are more exceptions to the rule than mitzvot that are consistent with the rule.)

Our commentators discuss the boundaries of the principle of af hen hayu be’oto haness. On the surface, it is not clear why women should be obligated to perform positive, time-bound commandments on the basis that women in history had been involved in the miracle that the mitzvah commemorates. Why is it not sufficient for males, acting as representatives of the Jewish People, as a nation, to be responsible for fulfilling the mitzvah? Furthermore, the description of the exception – even women were in the miracle – is difficult to understand. What is the meaning of the word, “even”?

Tosephot, based on Rashi, explain that af hen hayu be’oto haness means that women were saved by the miracle. Haman plotted to kill all of the Jews. The women, together with men and children, were saved by Hashem’s intervention. The Syrian-Greeks intended to forcibly convert all Jews and Hashem saved all of the Jewish People. Tosefot explain that it would be non-sensical for women to be exempt from these commandments – being saved from destruction requires praise, thanks and recognition of the event. If only a subset of the Jewish People had been miraculously rescued then it might make sense for a subset of the Jewish People to acknowledge the miracle. However, if each and every Jew experienced the miracle, each and every Jew must acknowledge the miracle and give praise and thanks. Even the women were saved, therefore, even the women must participate in the commemoration.

The concept that undergirds af hen hayu be’oto haness is connected to fundamental Jewish concepts such as hakarat hatov – recognizing the good that others do on our behalf – and Kiddush HaShem – publicizing G-d’s name and oneness to those around us. When it comes to these fundamentals, others cannot act on our behalf. Therefore, it would be insufficient for the only some representatives of the Jewish People to acknowledge the good that Hashem did. Each one of us must personally engage the opportunity to publicize Hashem’s Name and to thank Him the good that He has done on our behalf. On Chanukah, through personally fulfilling the mitzvah of Chanukah candles, each one of us engages in Kiddush Hashem and hakarat hatov.

Considering this concept more universally, each one of us should look for opportunities to personally engage in publicizing Hashem’s great Name and to personally recognize those great things that others do on our behalf. Through this personal engagement, we make an indelible imprint on our own philosophy and on the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Acting with Integrity - Parashat Vayeshev - December 8, 2017

This week’s parasha, VaYeshev, opens with a description of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers – one fraught with contention. The Torah attributes this broken relationship most directly to the close bond that Yaakov had with Yosef – a closer bond than he shared with his other sons. The Torah tells us, “And (Yosef’s) brothers saw that their father loved (Yosef) most of all his brothers and they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably.”

The Targum Onkelos – an Aramaic translation of the Torah written by the great sage, Onkelos the Convert – gives a unique translation for the phrase “they could not speak to him”. Rabbi Dr. Rafael Posen, in his incredible work, Parshegen, explains that Onkelos normally translates the phrase “could not” in one of two ways – physically/emotionally unable or legally unable. However, on the verse above, Onkelos provides a translation for the phrase “they could not” in a manner unique to our parasha. In no other place in the Chumash does Onkelos translate this phrase in a similar manner. Onkelos translates the phrase “they could not” as “they did not want to” – the brothers decided not to speak to him peaceably. In other words, certain things cannot be done because we are physically or emotionally limited – most people cannot run a four-minute mile or most people are afraid of and cannot approach grizzly bears. We cannot do some things because we are legally proscribed from doing so – we cannot steal. The brothers could not speak to Yosef peaceably for a third reason – they made a conscious decision that they could not to speak to him peaceably. 

In line with Onkelos’s translation, Rashi explains that, although it was disgraceful that the brothers could not speak to him, their inability to his peaceably with Yosef was, in fact, praiseworthy. The brothers had three choices in front of them – to speak to Yosef poorly, to speak to Yosef nicely while feeling enmity in their heart or to not speak to him at all. They chose the third option. Although it was disgraceful, it was the least disgraceful of the three choices in front of them. Their choice was in line with the maxim, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.

On the surface, it seems that the brothers had a better choice than not speaking to Yosef – speak nicely, despite what they felt inside! Would it not be better to say something nice than not say anything at all? Rashi explains that the Torah teaches a greater ideal than just speaking nicely without the feelings to back it up. The ideal is to act consistently with one’s feelings. One should not feel malice towards his fellow and one certainly may not act with malice or with meanness. However, if one does feels malice, acting with integrity by remaining silent is superior to acting nicely, but inconsistently, with one’s feelings.

This lesson is of great importance to adults and students, alike. We encourage our children and students to be nice to others. We should continue to do so! However, we also must teach those within our purview us to act with integrity by not duping those around us by acting one way while feeling another way.   

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Chanukah is Upon Us - Parashat Vayishlach - December 1, 2017

Chanukah commemorates the miracles that Hashem did for the Jewish People in saving them from the hand of Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks. This miracle created the opportunity for our people to subsequently rededicate the Second Beit HaMikdash. The Rabbis of that generation created the holiday of Chanukah to serve as a time dedicated to reflecting on those miracles and praising and thanking Hashem for His miracles.

HaRambam, Maimonides, teaches, “the commandment of Chanukah candles is a very beloved and precious mitzvah. A person must be careful to publicize the miracle and add praise and thanks to Hashem for the miracles that He did for us. Even if the subsistence of a person comes from charity, he or she must borrow money or sell his or her clothes to buy oil and candles in order to light Chanukah candles.” 

The last portion of HaRambam’s law is surprising. On what basis does the 
halacha demand that a person borrow money or sell his clothing to fulfill this mitzvah? This law is particularly perplexing when we consider the following universal principle in halacha – a person should not spend more than 20% of his assets on the performance of a mitzvah (hamebazbez, al yevazbez yoter mechomesh). Consider as an example the mitzvah of lulav. If a person had only has $100 to his name, halacha would demand only that he spend up to $20 – no more. Applying this principle to the case of Chanukah candles, one would expect that a person would only be obligated to spend up to 20% of his or her assets – not to borrow or sell one’s clothing! Why is a person held to a higher expectation for the mitzvah of Chanukah candles than for other mitzvot?

In fact, there is another case in which a person is obligated to sell his clothing or borrow money to fulfill a
mitzvah – purchasing wine for the four cups on Seder night. What is the commonality between the mitzvot of Chanukah candles and wine for the four cups? Both mitzvot are designed to publicize a miracle – to accomplish pirsumei nisah. However, our question still stands – why do mitzvot that accomplish pirsumei nisah have such a strict standard?

The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
zt”l, explains that when we publicize the miracles that Hashem did for the Jewish People we accomplish another mitzvah – kiddush haShem – sanctifying G-d’s Name. He explains that the strict standard that the Torah has for sanctifying G-d’s Name is directly connected to the strict standard that the Torah has for someone who is confronted with a choice to profane G-d’s Name or die – he should not profane His Name even on pain of death. The Rav explains that the Torah obligates a person not to miss the opportunity to sanctify G-d’s Name even at great cost. For this reason, halacha demands that we even borrow money, if necessary, to publicize the miracle of Chanukah.

With the lighting of the Chanukah candles, we sanctify Hashem’s Name by reminding ourselves and projecting to the world the Torah values of holiness and morality and the sanctity of the Jewish People and of life itself. Through the simple, but powerful, act of lighting the Chanukah candles, we demonstrate our recognition of the greatness of Hashem’s miracles and providence over the Jewish People. May this coming Chanukah usher in a renewed commitment to these values by our families, community and for the entire world. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Yitzchak's Blindness - Parashat Toldot - November 17, 2017

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, the Torah shines its spotlight on Yitzchak and Rivka. We are introduced to their children, Yaakov and Esav, and presented with some of the struggles that Yitzchak encountered in settling Eretz Yisrael.

The parasha culminates in Yitzchak’s blessing his two sons and the description of the ruse which Yaakov employs to receive the appropriate blessing from his father. The Torah begins this section with the introduction ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראות –   - and Yitzchak was old and his eyes were dimmed from seeing (being able to see).
Our commentators discuss many issues about this verse, including, why, among the patriarchs, Yitzchak alone suffered from the dimming of his eyes. As they are wont to do, our commentators offer many explanations. According to the commentator, Imre Yosher, these explanations fall into two categories – those who maintain that Yitzchak’s blindness was a punishment for a transgression and those who maintain that Yitzchak’s blindness was an affliction that Hashem, in His infinite Wisdom, gave to Yitzchak to promote perfection – but not out of consequence of sin.

The commentators in the first camp – those who maintain that Yitzchak’s blindness was a consequence of sin – discuss the nature of Yitzchak’s sin that led to his blindness. Seforno, and others, explain that Esav was a rasha – an evil man. This evil tendency culminated in Esav marrying two Canaanite (Hittite) women, Yehudit bat Be’eri and Basmat bat Elon. Throughout Esav’s life, Yitzchak had the opportunity to rebuke him and to attempt to set him on the proper course. According to these commentators, Yitzchak neglected his duty to chastise his son out of a lack of recognition of his true nature. According to these scholars, Yitzchak suffered blindness as a consequence of this sin.
What prevented Yitzchak from executing this fundamental paternal responsibility?

The Midrash, and others, seizing upon the Torah’s juxtaposition of the marriage of Esav to the two Canaanite women and the blindness of Yitzchak, discuss this issue – albeit in the language of metaphor. The Midrash interprets these verses and declares that the smoke from the incense and smoke from the sacrificial offerings of these women to their idolatry caused Yitzchak’s blindness.

The Midrash seems troubled by the Torah’s juxtaposition of the statement that these women were troublesome to Yitzchak and Rivka but that (only) Yitzchak became blind. On this basis, the Midrash explains that Rivka – who had grown up in a house of idolatry – was immune from the effects of this smoke. Yitzchak was not immune. Apparently, Rivka was equipped to confront or deal with Esav’s evil – in this case, the idolatry of Esav’s wives. Yitzchak was not. This lack of sophistication or awareness in dealing with Esav and his evil was a shortcoming in Yitzchak and was the cause of his blindness.

Each new generation has new ideas and sees the world in a different way – sometimes radically so. Yitzchak, as compared to Esav, certainly fits this mold. Sometimes the differences between generations are superficial and sometimes deep. Sometimes the differences relate to etiquette and sometimes to values. In our time, the internet revolution and other powerful cultural currents have exposed a gulf between the new generation and the old. Our children see the world through a totally different lens than the previous generation. In our day, it is critical for parents and teachers to impact the generation of children through deep connection and through teaching them our values within their framework – in ways that make sense to them. Let us learn from Yitzchak’s experience about the importance of influencing the next generation and the consequence of ignoring this important responsibility.

Parents and Children - Parashat Chaye Sarah - November 10, 2017

This week’s parasha, Chaye Sarah, opens with the death of Sarah Imenu – 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 precedes Sarah’s death in the Torah is connected to Sarah’s death. However, they disagree regarding the specific topic that connects directly to Sarah’s death – the binding of Isaac or the expansion of Avraham’s family. Rabbi Levi maintains that the section that directly precedes the death of Sarah – the expansion of Avraham’s family – gives context to the discussion of Sarah’s death – Avraham sequentially attended to his father’s death and his wife’s death. Rabbi Yose maintains that the expansion of Avraham’s family is merely a detail – the Binding of Isaac is the big incident that precedes Sarah’s death and established the cause of Sarah’s death, her pain over hearing the news.

The commentator, Anat Yosef, further discusses Rabbi Levi’s teaching that Avraham returned to eulogize Sarah from burying his father and explains the import of this fact. Anaf Yosef writes that although the Torah is not clear as to what prompted Avraham to be in Charan to bury his father – perhaps he had gone there originally to see his growing extended family or perhaps Hashem commanded him to go there specifically to bury his father – the fact that Avraham buried his father is a statement of the stature of Terach. According to Anaf Yosef, if Avraham buried Terach, it is a sign of Terach’s righteousness – Terach must have abandoned his idolatrous ways and repented.

The Torah often presents the parent-child relationship as one of giver and recipient. The parent teaches and the child learns. The parent supports and the child is supported. The parent leads and the child is led. However, the case of Terach and Avraham serves as a very different model. Reading both the Torah and the Midrash, we see that Avraham taught Terach about the Oneness of Hashem. Avraham led Terach and his family away from Ur Casdim. Avraham gave and his father, Terach, received. In the case of Avraham and Terach, the parent-child relationship was flipped. Apparently, Rabbi Levi, according to Anaf Yosef’s interpretation, teaches that Avraham’s impact on his father was so great as to create the opportunity for Terach to do teshuva – to repent. Terach’s merit in turning away from idolatry created the obligation for Avraham to bury him in Charan.

As parents, our primary role is to give to our children. We teach, guide and provide for them. However, Avraham teaches that children should also seek to influence their parents and Terach teaches that parents should be open to being influenced by their children. It is understandably difficult for a parent to learn from his or her child. Such a change in the relationship requires humility and a willingness to grow on the part of the parent. However, children do have so much to offer their parents. Our children offer us a different and, hopefully thoughtful, perspective. When presented respectfully, we can offer our own parents a different, and hopefully thoughtful, perspective. Just as Avraham taught Terach and Terach learned from Avraham, we should seek to be a positive influence on our parents and be willing to be influenced positively by our own children.

Visiting the Sick is an Encounter with the Almighty - Parashat Vayera - November 3, 2017

This week’s parasha opens with Hashem appearing to Avraham Avinu through prophecy while he was sitting in his tent in the heat of the day.

The Midrash famously comments that this interaction occurred on the third day of Avraham’s recovery from his brit milah. Based on this understanding, the Talmud in Masechet Sotah writes:
R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said:  What does the verse: “You shall walk after the Lord your God (vehalachta bidrachav)” mean?  Is it possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah (Divine Presence); for has it not been said: “For the Lord thy God is a devouring fire”? But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.  As He … visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Lord appeared unto him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre”, so do you also visit the sick.

Through this teaching, our Chachamim convey that we are obligated to emulate Hashem’s ways of relating to the world. As He acts with mercy, so must we be merciful. As He acts with justice, so must we be just. As He acts with loving-kindness, so must we be kind. As Hashem visited Avraham as he was convalescing, so must we visit the sick – we are obligated to perform the mitzvah of bikkur cholim.

Based on the teachings of his father, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Yitzchak Yosef writes (Yalkut Yosef vol. 7, 1:2) that the ideal way to perform the mitzvah of visiting the sick is to go personally to visit the sick, if it is within his ability to do so. One does not fully complete his obligation to visit the sick by calling the sick person by phone or by sending him a letter inquiring about how he is doing. However, someone who is unable to visit the sick personally should phone the sick person or send him a letter to strengthen and support him through writing. Of course, Rav Yosef’s teaching would apply equally to sending an email or a text message to a sick person.

In this passage, Rav Yosef teaches that personal visitation is the only way to fully perform the obligation of visiting the sick. From the perspective of halacha, what about personal visitation is superior to remote communication?
Consider a situation in which a person’s friend is sick. The friend calls his or her sick friend and the sick friend enjoyed the call and feels better from the call. Halacha teaches that although the friend appreciated the call and felt uplifted – possibly as much as if the friend had visited personally – the performance of the mitzvah of bikur holim was lacking. What is missing in the performance of the mitzvah of visiting the sick by not visiting personally?

From one perspective, the mitzvah of visiting the sick is about the one who is sick. The Torah is very concerned with addressing and protecting the needs of the sick during a visit. A visitor must adhere to many laws which proscribe when to visit, how to enter the room and where to sit – laws which are designed to safeguard the welfare of the sick. During a visit, a visitor must be solely focused on the needs and welfare of the sick. From this perspective, it would not make a difference whether the visitor personally visited or whether there was remote communication.

However, the Talmudic passage quoted above appears to be teaching an additional lesson. This passage teaches that we must emulate Hashem’s ways of relating to the world. From this perspective, the visit is not only an encounter with the sick individual – it is additionally an encounter with the Almighty. Through visiting the sick, a visitor imitates Hashem and is offered the opportunity for growth in his relationship with Hashem. From this perspective, through his visit, the visitor is confronted with the realization that the sick individual needs help – man’s help and help from the Almighty. The visitor should leave with a call to action – to support the sick, however possible, and to pray for his or her welfare. This prayer will potentially help the sick person and will also improve the visitor’s relationship with Hashem. Although, at its heart, bikur cholim is a selfless act, a visitor does improve himself or herself through the act.

From the first perspective, the needs of the sick, no preference would be given to a personal visit. However, there is an additional perspective – the impact of the encounter on the visitor. Undoubtedly, a visitor is more intensely affected by a personal visit – he sees first-hand the effects of the illness on his friend. A personal visit, in a way that a phone call, email or text cannot do, serves as a catalyst for the visitor to realize that the one who is sick requires the help of Hashem – the visitor must turn to Hashem in prayer. From this perspective, a personal visit is superior to remote communication.

May it be the will of Hashem, that He quickly sends a speedy recovery – of soul and of body – to all of the infirmed of Israel.

Seeing Beyond What is in Front of Us - Parashat Lech Lecha - October 27, 2017

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Avram – on the command of Hashem – picks up and moves to Canaan. After his arrival, the land experiences a severe famine. Avram decides to travel with his wife, Sarai, to the land of Egypt in search of food.

Knowing Egypt’s reputation as a decadent and corrupt society, Avram plans a ruse with Sarai – Avram and Sarai will present themselves as brother and sister as opposed to husband and wife. Should a powerful Egyptian take an interest in Sarai, Avram would be seen as a facilitator instead of a rival. Once in Egypt, Avram’s concern came to fruition and Sarai is noticed for her beauty. Sarai is taken to Paroh. Sarai escapes the clutches of Paroh unscathed only by the grace of Hashem’s Providence.

Our mefarshim debate the appropriateness of Avram’s decision to go to Egypt in search of food. The Ramban, Nachmanides, argues that because Avram knew how morally decrepit Egyptian society was at that time, he should never have left Canaan and been forced to create a ruse with Sarai. Nachmanides criticizes Avram and maintains that he sinned, albeit inadvertently.

The Ralbag, Gershonides, argues with Nachmanides and maintains that Avram acted appropriately. He reinforces his position by making recourse to a general principle in decision making. Gershonides explains that whenever a person sees imminently approaching harm, he or she should quickly evaluate whether there are ways to mitigate the harm and choose those avenues. Gershonides emphasizes that a person should act with great alacrity in working to mitigate harm – to not be negligent and lazy. Gershonides argues that by going to Egypt to escape the famine, Avram was acting with great diligence and that he was therefore blameless.

On the surface, Ralbag’s point of emphasis seems obvious. Choose the path of less harm. However, we often see in our own experiences and in our own lives that people often do not act with the forethought that Ralbag describes and that is characterized by Avram’s choice to go to Egypt. What dissuades people from acting with alacrity in these critical moments?

The Torah and Midrash characterizes Avram as a decisive man and a man of action. Avram broke the idols of his father, Terach, when he saw the truth of monotheism. On Hashem’s command, Avram left his birthplace and moved to a land unknown to him. Later in his life, Avraham left on a mission to sacrifice his son, Isaac, with great alacrity. Avram believed in the truth of ideas and in the truth of a predictable future that has yet to have arrived.
People are often constrained by what they see in front of them – the way that things are today will be the way that they will be tomorrow. I often notice this when it comes to travelling. I often imagine that the place that I am going to will have the same weather as the place that I am currently in. To prepare for the new reality of the city that I am travelling to requires belief in a reality that I am not currently experiencing.

One reason why people fail to act with alacrity in the face of impending harm is because they are over-attached to the reality that they experience with their five senses and, in some way, diminish the reality of the impending harm. They do not try to mitigate harm because they do not truly believe that harm will ultimately arrive. By travelling to Egypt to escape the famine, Avram models the importance of validating and acting on knowledge of a truth that is beyond the ken of one’s five senses.

Let us learn from Avram’s example to validate the truths that we know – even when they are beyond the scope of our current situation – through planning and resolute action.