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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 t…

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 Jaco…

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!

SCHOOL-WIDE

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, …

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

Chanukah is 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 - 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’.…

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 …

Responding to the Challenge of Technology - Operational Dinner Speech 2016

The columnist, David Brooks, recently published an editorial entitled, “Intimacy for the Avoidant”. In the piece, the author discusses friendship and deep social connection in this generation of pervasive social media and compares our generation to the previous one in this regard. One of the studies that he cites compares relative numbers of high-quality friendships.

Let me start by asking you. How many confidants – people with whom you can share everything – do you have? Do you want to guess how many confidants most Americans told pollsters in 1985 that they had? The answer is three. Today, the majority of people say they have about two. Furthermore, in 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no one to fully confide in, but by the start of this century 25 percent of Americans said that.

Mr. Brooks reports that according to the best evidence, the existence of social media is not necessarily the cause of the phenomenon – instead, research shows that social media is creating…

Justice and the Perception of Justice - Parashat Vayera 5777 - November 18, 2016

This week’s parasha, Vayera, presents the destruction of Sedom and its sister cities. Prior to the destruction, Hashem declares to Avraham that He wants him to understand His decision to destroy Sedom. After all, Avraham’s offspring will be the guardians of the path of righteousness – they should properly understand the message of the event.

After Hashem tells Avraham that he plans to destroy Sodom and Amora and after Hashem sends His two messengers to Sedom to save Lot and his family, Avraham remains in Hashem’s presence to pray. Avraham asks the Almighty, “Is it appropriate for Hashem’s anger - אף - to destroy the tzadik with the rasha?” Avraham argues that G-d’s Providence should protect the righteous and the city along with them. Avraham says, “chalila lecha – it would be a disgrace to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be like the wicked.” Avraham further questions the appropriateness of Hashem – the Judge of…

Blessings Require Preparation - Parashat Lech Lecha 5777 - November 11, 2016

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 in…

A Community Supports the Perfection of the Individual - Parashat Noach 5777 - November 4, 2016

In this week’s parasha, the Torah presents the story of the dor haflaga – the Generation of the Division – what is known colloquially as the story of the Tower of Bavel.

Approximately 400 years after the flood, families began to settle in one locale. These families shared a common language, culture and outlook and decided to become more industrially advanced. The Torah tells us, “they then decided to build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and to make for themselves a name lest they become dispersed across the whole earth.” The Torah continues and tells us that Hashem descended to see the city and the tower. Upon seeing that they had one culture and had decided to construct this tower, Hashem confuses their language and causes them to become spread across the whole earth.

Apparently, Hashem punished this generation. At first glance, however, it is unclear what the people did wrong. On the contrary, this generation seems to have acted quite rationally. Upon settling in a n…

Teaching our Children to Forge a Relationship with Hashem - Parashat Beresheit 5777- October 28, 2016

At the end of this week’s parasha, Beresheit, the Torah describes the generations that descended from Adam; naming his descendants and their children. The list concludes with Noach and his three children Shem, Cham and Yefet. In the beginning of next week’s parasha, Noach, the Torah reintroduces us to Noach – a tzaddik, a perfect individual and a man who walks with Hashem. The Torah then repeats that Noach fathered three sons – Shem, Cham and Yefet. We already know that Noach has three sons! Why does the Torah find it necessary to repeat itself?

The commentator Radak addresses this question. Noach merited to be saved from the flood because he walked with Hashem – in the face of the wicked people of his generation, Noach was only involved with serving Hashem. Just as Noach walked with Hashem, he taught his children to turn away from their wicked generation and to only serve Hashem and to cleave only to Him.

Based on a verse in the book of Yechezkel, Radak explains that if Noach’s childr…

A King Must Remain Humble - Parashat VaYelech 5777 - October 7, 2016

In this week’s parasha, VaYelech, Moshe gives words of encouragement to his disciple, Yehoshua, the next leader of the Jewish People. “And Moshe called to Yehoshua and he said to him before the eyes of all of Israel be strong and courageous…” (Devarim 31:7)

There is some ambiguity in the translation above. Is the Torah telling us that Moshe spoke these words of encouragement to Yehoshua in front of the Jewish People (“before their eyes”) or did Moshe privately tell Yehoshua to be strong and courageous before the Jewish People.

A king (or Jewish leaders, like Yehoshua) must straddle the line between arrogance and public displays of confidence while remaining humble internally. For these leaders, the lure of egotism is so great that there are special mitzvot for kings to dissuade kings from becoming haughty (le’vilti room levavo). On the other hand, kings must project honor and dignity. The Talmud, in Masechet Makkot, cites King Yehoshafat as a paragon of humility. When he would see a Tor…

The Meaning of the Shofar - Parashat Netzavim 5776 - September 30, 2016

In allusion to George Orwell: all of the passages in the Rambam’s magnum opus – the Mishne Torah – are meaningful; but some are more meaningful than others.

One such passage in The Laws of Repentance (3:4) fits this description. Maimonides writes:

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the call of the shofar] is saying: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts. Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his ba…

Responding to Disaster in Baton Rouge - Parashat Ki Tavo 5776 - September 23, 2016

This has been a unique week for the students of the Feinstone Yeshiva of the South!

In a normal week, two presentations – one by Rabbi Dovid Lieberman on the topic of Free Will and another by Ambassador Yoram Ettinger on the topic of supporting the State of Israel – would have been momentous. But this was no ordinary week.

Our students – Cooper Yeshiva on Sunday/Monday and Goldie Margolin on Wednesday/Thursday – partnered with Nechama-Jewish Response to Disaster in providing disaster relief to three families who suffered catastrophic loss during last month’s floods in Baton Rouge, LA. Our students hauled damaged personal effects to the curb. They removed damaged drywall, flooring, paneling and appliances. They removed many, many nails. Our students worked very hard.

As a chaperone for each of these two trips (CYHSB and GMSG), I saw the students witnessing destruction first-hand. The scenes were sobering. We saw block after block of homes devoid of life – families gone and the guts of the…

Burying the Body of the Hanged Criminal - Parashat Ki Tetze 5776 - September 16, 2016

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, the Torah introduces a number of mitzvot that are being taught for the first time and recounts other mitzvot that had been presented in previous parashiyot.

One of these mitzvot relates to the general requirement to bury a dead body in a timely manner. It is well known that the body of each departed soul requires immediate burial. In our parasha, the Torah extends this requirement even to criminals who are hanged.

The Torah writes, “If a man commits a sin for which he is sentenced to death, and he is put to death, you shall hang him on a pole. But you shall not leave his body on the pole overnight. Rather, you shall bury him on that day, for a hanging [human corpse] is a degradation of God, and you shall not defile your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance.” (Devarim 21:22-23)

At first glance, one would assume that it would be appropriate to disgrace the body of this criminal. Leaving the body overnight would serve as a…

Hashem's Kindness is an Undeserved Gift - Parashat Shoftim 5776 - September 9, 2016

We are now in chodesh Elul – a month dedicated to preparation for the coming yamim noraim – Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

Sephardic communities have the custom to begin saying selichot – prayers of penitence – at the beginning of the month of Elul, and Ashkenazic communities begin saying selichot closer to Rosh HaShana. One of the hallmarks of the selichot prayers is the recitation of the shelosh esre middot, Hashem’s thirteen traits of mercy. Hashem taught these traits to Moshe in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf and instructed him to recite them when praying to Hashem for mercy. The Torah describes these traits in a verse in parashat Ki Tissa in Sefer Shemot:

“Hashem, Hashem. Merciful and gracious G-d, long-suffering and abundant in loving-kindness and truth. Keeping kindness to the thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. And wipe away, He will not wipe away, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children until the third generation and until the fourth g…

Adding and Subtracting - Parashat Re-eh 5776 - September 2, 2016

Torat Hashem Temimah Meshivat Nafesh – G-d’s Torah is perfect; restoring the soul.

Besides being one of my favorite songs to sing on Simchat Torah, this verse from Tehilim describes the Torah as being perfect. This week’s parasha explains one aspect of the perfection of the Torah.

Parashat Re’eh continues the explication of Moshe Rabbenu’s tochacha – his rebuke of the Jewish People. In this rebuke, Moshe discusses the mitzvot of bal tosif and bal tigra – to not add or subtract from the mitzvot of the Torah. Our sages teach us that the Torah is comprised of taryag – there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. These two mitzvot teach that the Jewish People are not permitted to add a 614th commandment or to remove one of the 613 commandments from taryag.

The Seforno gives some context to each of these commandments. Concerning the prohibition of adding to the Torah, he explains that this mitzvah is designed to prevent a person adding something which is detestable to Hashem, even something tha…