Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rashi Questions for Vayeitze

1. Where did Yaakov have his dream?  (28:11)
2. Why did Lavan greet Yaakov with hugs and kisses?  (29:13)
3. Why was Leah always crying?  (29:17)
4. What does "ba-Gad" mean?  (30:11)
5. How many times did Lavan change Yaakov's wages? (31:7)
6. How were Bilhah and Zilpah related to Rachel and Leah?  (31:50)

Answers to Toldot Questions

1. How old were Yitzchak and Rivka when they got married? (25:20)

The Torah states explicitly that Yitzchak was 40.  Rashi contends that Rivkah was 3.  The Torah mentions her birth immidiately before Sara's death.  Rashi understands that to mean that she was actually born at that time.  Yitzchak was 37 when Sara died so when Yitzchak was 40 then Rivkah was 3.

2. Where did Rivkah go to inquire of Hashem? (25:22)

Rivkah went to the the study hall of Noach's son Shem and his great grandson Eiver.

3. Why was Yaakov cooking lentils? (25:30)

Rashi says that day Avraham had died and Yitzchak was in mourning.  Since the days of Avraham the Jewish tradition has been to eat round foods when in mourning because round foods remind us that mourning is a turning wheel.  

4. How is Esav compared to a pig? (26:34)

Eisav deceived his father and presented himself as saintly.  The pig has one of the signs of a kosher animal, split hooves, but it does not chew its cud.  As if the pig shows its hooves saying, "look at me, I am kosher."  But his insides are really not.

5. How did Yitzchak become blind? (27:1)

Rashi gives 3 reasons.  1. So that Yaakov should not see Eisav's wives committing idolatry, 2. His sight was somehow impaired at the Akeida (I never really understood that) and 3. It was divinely orchestrated so that the episode with the brachot could occur.

6. How did Yaakov's voice differ from Esav? (25:22)

Yaakov respectfully requested his father to rise.  Eisav ordered his father t rise.

7. In verse 28:5 why does the Torah remind us that Rivka was Yaakov and Esav's mother?

In one of his many demonstrations of humility, Rashi says, "I don't know."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Helping Soviet Jewry Today

Yesterday I helped to bury Boris, a dear friend of mine, who died over Shabbat.  I don't know exactly how old he was, but he was not older than 65. 
Boris and his wife Genya emmigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 90s.  They were regulars at Beth Israel.  Genya died about 6 years ago and since then Boris was a regular at daily minyan in the morning. 

For a number of years, Boris was my Russian tutor.  Once a week, after minyan we would meet in my office for a half hour to study.  Initially we learned from a Russian language text book, and then we moved to a book about Judaism that Boris owned that was written in Russian. 

Unfortunately, Boris lost his voice a number of years ago which made it too dificult for him to teach, but I am proud to say that I was able to write and give a eulogy for Boris in Russian at his funeral. 

The Omaha Jewish community took in a number of Russian Jews in the 1990s.  After the funeral I spoke with a lady that was very involved in setting up apartments for them when they arrived.  She told me how she personally went out to stock the apartments with toiletries and linens, and tried to make sure that the Russians would be made to feel comfortable in their new homes.  I suggested that maybe we start some sort of project to document the Omaha Jewish community's involvment with the Russian Jews. 

She shuffled uncomfortably in her seat.  "Rabbi," she said, "I have never said this to anyone out loud, but I have to tell you that I am not proud of how we treated the Russian Jews.  While it is true that we made it comfortable for them to settle in, once they were settled our community did not do a good job of integrating them."

This struck a painful chord in me as well.  I remember as a kid in gradeschhol the weekly rallies held to free Soviet Jewry.  I recall Rabbis and teachers regularly talking about our Jewish brothers and sisters suffering under communism. Let My People Go!!

Then when I got to high school the Russians were freed and they came to America.  The high school that I went to opened its doors and offered free tuition to Russian students. 
These kids came to our school, they didn't speak the language, didn't know the culture, they looked different, dressed different, spoke funny, and acted different.
There were certainly a few sensitive American kids who reached out to these new immigrants, but what I remember for the most part, including myself, is that we were mean and insensitive to the Russian kids.

I don't know how many other people my age feel this way, but for me it is a past that I am not proud of and a shame that I will never live down.

But that does not mean that it should be forgotten.  It is now going on 20 years since the first wave of Russian Jewish immigrants.  I think it is time to start looking back at that history.  There were many things that the Jewish community can and should be proud of.  Money was given, volunteer hours were spent, and homes were open.  The Omaha community and other American Jewish communities should be proud of that. 
On the other hand, perhaps we could have been friendlier to the immigrants once they were settled.  Why weren't we?  It is worth doing some self exploration to figure that out.  Perhaps it will help us if we are ever faced with a similar situation in the future.  Perhaps it will make us sensitive to people that we could be reaching out to right now.  If we are ever to perfect ourselves, we need to explore and learn from our mistakes in the past.

And finally, the same people who came over 20 years ago are still here.  Many of them were too old to integrate properly.  Some are in need of financial help.  Some are lonely.  Others are alienated from the Jewish community.  While not as severe as the Holocaust, the Russian Jews have a story of persecution that needs to be recorded for posterity.  Engaging an elderly Jew from the former soviet union and taking time to learn their story is something that each of us can do to make sure that their story is never forgotten.

We can never change the past, but there are things that we can do to make sure that the experience of the Russian Jews is one that will help us make a better future.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chief Rabbi sticks it to Steve Jobs

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, chief Rabbi of the UK, recently made a speech where he had the audacity to criticize Steve Jobs.
The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTunes, i, I, I,
But the Rabbi immediately faced harsh criticism that forced him to retract his statements.

I support Rabbi Sachs for criticising Steve Jobs and am disappointed that he did not have the courage to stand by his words.

We all know that Steve Jobs was a great innovator that changed the world.  That has been widely established  There is now a generation of kids who literally venerate - practically idolize - him for his contributions.

All the more reason that it is necessary for someone like Rabbi Sachs to remind us that nobody, no matter how great, is infallible or absolved from criticism.  In fact, in Jewish tradition, the greater the individual the harsher they are judged.

It was certainly inappropriate to criticize Steve Jobs at the time of his death, but some time has past and I believe it is appropriate and necessary to evaluate this character who has become a legendary icon and decide which aspects of his life should be emulated and which should be eschewed.

There were certainly aspects of Steve Jobs character that were deserving of criticism.

  • Apple computers was accused and admitted to all kinds of human rights violations, inhumane working conditions, and exploitation of child labor in its factories in China where ipods, ipads, and iphones were made.  In this regard Jobs made Shlomo Rubashkin look like a humanitarian.
  • One of the first moves that Steve Jobs made as CEO of Apple was to end its company charitable contribution programs.  Ostensibly it was to save money, but when Apple started turning billions in profits Jobs never reinstated the programs.  Apple is one of the few companies of its size that does not encourage charity by matching employee donations.
  • Most of all, Steve Jobs may represent the worst example of radical stinginess since the people of the ancient city of Sodom.  Jobs gave virtually zero personal charity in his lifetime despite the fact that he was one of the richest men of the planet.  Never before had someone so wealthy given so little.  He may stand out as the most uncharitable person in the history of the world.
In Judaism we respect our heroes but we also analyze and critique their lives.  Hagiography certainly exists, but overall the Jews are a stiffed necked people who hold people accountable for the totality of their actions. 

Henry Ford was a great innovator who changed the world, possibly more than Steve Jobs, but overall he was not someone that good people wish to emulate.  Will those who venerate Steve Jobs seek to emulate only the best of what he contributed to the world, or was the Chief Rabbi correct and he will leave a legacy of consumerism, materialism, selfishness, and misery?  Only time will tell, but I applaud the Chief Rabbi for beginning the conversation.  It is just too bad that he retreated to censorship.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rashi Questions for Toldot

According to Rashi...

1. How old were Yitzchak and Rivka when they got married? (25:20)
2. Where did Rivkah go to inquire of Hashem? (25:22)
3. Why was Yaakov cooking lentils? (25:30)
4. How is Esav compared to a pig? (26:34)
5. How did Yitzchak become blind? (27:1)
6. How did Yaakov's voice differ from Esav? (25:22)
7. In verse 28:5 why does the Torah remind us that Rivka was Yaakov and Esav's mother?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Other Side of the Palestinian Conflict

This past week, shuls across the world read parshat Chayei Sara which includes the episode of Avraham's purchase of Maarat Hamachpelah, the cave of the patriarchs, found in the city of Hebron.  

From the time of the Bible there was always a Jewish community in Hebron until the Jews were massacred there and then expelled in 1929. Thankfully, in 1967 Israel liberated Hebron and soon after Jews were able to return once again to this historical and religiously significant city.  Today Jews are able to visit Hebron and pray in the spot that according to unbroken Jewish (as well as Muslim) tradition is the same spot mentioned in the Bible.

Today I spoke with my friend Yisrael who was born, raised, and currently lives in Hebron.  For me it has always been an honor to know him and his family.  It is because of them and the other brave families who choose to live in Hebron that the rest of the Jewish world has access to maarat hamachpelah today.  The Arabs in the area have been extremely hostile to the Jewish community there, but the strong and heroic Jewish community refuses to be intimidated and they continue to assert the right of all Jews in Israel to live in Hebron and visit the Jewish holy site.

Unfortunately not everyone sees Yisrael and his family as heroes.  There are many Jews who believe that the Jewish presence in Hebron is an obstacle to peace with the Arabs.  They view the Jewish community in Hebron as religious extremists and fanatics.  

Yisrael is a veteran of the IDF and periodically has served as a guard on American tours to Israel.  A few months ago he served as a guard on a tour of Reform and Conservative Rabbis from all over the United States.  The purpose of the tour was to take Rabbis to view and meet with Palestinian Arabs living on the West Bank.  For a week Yisrael listened to left wing Israeli tour guides speak about the plight of the Arabs in the occupied territories, and about the crimes committed by the Israeli "settlers."  

As hard as it was for him, Yisrael kept quiet and concentrated on the job he was hired for, to protect the Rabbis from the Arabs.  During the long bus rides, one of the younger Rabbis in his 30s sat with Yisrael and they became friends.  

Yisrael told him that he was from Hebron.  The Rabbi said that he had been to Israel over a dozen times, and many times to visit Arab villages on the West Bank, but he had never been to Hebron.  Amazing.  A Rabbi.  He had been to Israel many times.  But he had never once visited the site that is most prominently mentioned in the Torah!  

Yisrael told him that there is a whole other perspective than the one presented on the tour and if the Rabbi would only spend a Shabbat in Hebron with Yisrael it would open his eyes to a whole new world.  The Rabbi said that he was staying a few extra days after the tour and would be delighted if he could take Yisrael up on his Shabbat invitation.  

So Yisrael and the Rabbi spent Shabbat together in Hebron.  They did not discuss politics even one time over Shabbat.  Yisrael brought the Rabbi to pray for his first time at the cave of the patriarchs.  He introduced the Rabbi to his neighbors and friends who live in Hebron.  And the Rabbi for the first time learned about the history of the Jews in Hebron, including the massacre and expulsion of 1929.

There was a time in Jewish history when "The Other Side of the Conflict" meant meeting Arabs and hearing their story.  It seems today that to American Jews the Arab narrative is ubiquitous while the Jewish narrative - even the Biblical narrative - has become obscured to the point that even Rabbis are grossly ignorant.  

After years of hearing the Arab side of the conflict, this young Rabbi was for the first time exposed to his own heritage and roots in Israel.  Undoubtedly he returned to the states with a heightened sensitivity to the rights of Jews to live and visit Hebron and the other Jewish sites in Judea and Samaria.  Yisrael was inspired and since then has started working as a tour guide, trying to connect American Jews with Jewish places like Hebron.  

Perhaps the pendulum has swung so far to the left that it may actually swing back to normalcy.  Maybe Jewish groups that have concentrated heavily on the Arab side may open up to hearing the Jewish side of the story.  Maybe this signifies a return back to the days when Jews used to advocate for the rights of the Jewish people to live and be free in the land of Israel.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Meet my daughter Zoey Shayna

This morning we named our daughter in shul.  Her name is Zoey Shayna.

She was named for my great grandmother - Chaya Shayndle.

I had the privilege of knowing my great grandmother.  She died when I was about 13.  She was one of the great American Jewish heroes.  She came to this country from from Poland in the early 1920s.  Her husband, my great grandfather, died when my grandfather was only 13.  My great grandmother raised my grandfather and his two sisters as a single mother.  She worked as a seamstress in the sweat shops in New York City.

As hard as life was, her commitment to keeping the Torah was unshakable.  In those days there were no laws to protect Jews who wanted to observe Shabbat.  When Friday came she would inform her supervisors that she could not work on Saturday and they would tell her that if she did not come in, she should not bother coming in on Sunday either.  Despite the risk of losing employment, she never broke Shabbat, and she always provided a beautiful Shabbat at home for her children.  This obviously made an impression on them.  At a time in American history when most Jews were abandoning Shabbat, my grandfather and his sisters continued to embrace and cherish the Shabbat and successfully passed that love on to their children as well.

My great grandmother prided herself on this.  At the end of her life she would often say, "when I walk into a room, the biggest Rosh Yeshivas [Rabbis] should stand up [out of respect[ for me for how many of them can say that every one of their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are shomer Shabbat?"

If she were alive today she would be as proud as ever.  Today there are well over a hundred people alive who are descended from her and every single one of them observes the Shabbat that she fought to maintain.  Raya Liba and Zoey Shayna are her great great grandchildren and my hope is that they continue to love and cherish the Shabbat and all of the mitzvot of the Torah and to have a love for Hashem and the Jewish people just as their great great grandmother did.

So how did we arrive at Zoey Shayna?

The middle name is obvious.  Shayndle is really a diminutive of Shayna which means beautiful.

Chaya was the problem.  We already had a daughter named Raya and we felt that Raya and Chaya would be cute - until they were about 3 and 4 years old.  After that, not so cute.

Chaya is the feminine form of the Hebrew word Chay - life.  So we looked for Hebrew synonyms for life but were surprised that we could not find any (or any that would make a good name).

So if we could not find a word in Hebrew, my wife had the idea of looking for a name in Greek that means life.  The Gemara says that Greek, the language of Noach's son Yefet, is such a beautiful language that it is even permissible to write the Torah in Greek.  There are even a number of Rabbis in the Mishnah who have Greek names like Horkenous, Antignos, and Alexander.

It turns out that the Greek equivalent of Chaya is Zoey.

But we were still a bit uncomfortable.  We really wanted our daughter to have a Hebrew name.

So where did we finally find our comfort?  Obviously, in my favorite city in the entire world - the Holy City of Akko.

Miriam and I were visiting Akko during our last trip to Israel.  We stayed with our good friend Eliad and met his beautiful new daughter Shilat.  I had never heard the name Shilat before.  i asked him what it meant.  he told me that it was an acronym for the verse in Tehilim, "Shviti Hashem Linegdi Tamid" which means, "I place Hashem before me always."  I loved it!!!

So maybe Zoey could be an acronym for something.  This took work.  We scoured the Tanach for anything that would fit.  Then, on Rosh Chodesh my wife found it.  Right before our eyes in Hallel.
Zeh HayOEsah YHashem
Which is the first half of the verse, "this is the day that Hashem made - rejoice and be happy in it."

Perfect!  What better way to capture the essence of her great great grandmother who held firm for the day of Shabbat and rejoiced in its observance?

My wish to Zoey is that she grow to love Shabbat, and the Torah, and Hashem, and the Jewish people. May she always rejoice in the mitzvot and bring love and happiness to the world.
May she grow up and enter into Torah, Chupa, and Massim Tovim.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rashi questions for Chayei Sara

According to Rashi...
1. How did Kiryat Arba get its name?
2. What is meant by, "Hashem blessed Avraham with everything?" (24:1)
3. How were Avraham's camles recognizable? (24:10)
4. Why did Lavan run out to meet Eliezer? (24:29)
5. In what way did Lavan demonstrate disrespect for his father? (24:50)
6. What happened to Bethuel? (24:55)
7. Who was Keturah? (25:1)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Answers to Vayeira Quiz Questions

1. Who taught Avraham how to do a bris?  (18:1)

His friend Mamre.  At the end of the Parsha we see that Avraham was very close with Mamre and even considered having Yitzchak marry one of his daughters.

2. Who helped Avraham entertain his guests?  What do we learn from that? (18:7)

Yishmael.  We see that Avraham sought to involve his son in helping him perform mitzvot in order to teach him. 

3. When bargaining for Sodom, why did Avraham not go lower than ten righteous people? (18:32)

Because he knew that less than that was not sufficient to prevent the flood.  Noach, his wife, his sons and their wives were eight and the flood still happened.

4. When did the Malachim come to visit Lot in Sodom?  How do we know that?  (19:3)

Lot fed them Matzot so we learn that it was pesach.  It is interesting that the Exodus of Lot happened on the same night that our ancestors left Egypt.  

5. What is the meaning of the word 'Eishel'? (21:33)

 Eishel means either an orchard or an inn.  Either way, it was a method in which Avraham took care of his guests.  Some say Eishel is an acronym for achila - food, shtiya - drink, and lina - rest, the three things that Avraham provided.

6. Did Yitzchak know that he was intended to be the sacrifice? (22:6)

According to Rashi at first he did not, but then Avraham either told him or alluded to it and Yitzcha figured it out.  Other commentators disagree on this point and say that Yitzchak was unaware.

7. What striking similarity did the descendants of Avraham share with the descendants of his brother Nachor? (22:20)

Nachor had twelve descendants, 8 from a full wife and 4 from a concubine.  Yaakov had 12 as well.  8 from full wives and 4 from the maidservant wives.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Avraham's Liberal Views

Parshat Vayeira may possibly be the most exciting parshah in the entire Torah - especially the episode of the destruction of Sodom.  
Preceding the story of how Lot and his daughter's escaped, we find Avraham arguing with Hashem on behalf of the people of Sodom and trying to save them.

The society that Sodom had built was unequivocally evil.  From the Torah itself we see how the entire town was adamantly opposed to any form of kindness.  This was most likely a philosophical position.  They believed that to assist a person in need was not truly helping that person.  To truly help a person they had to be cruel and with hold any aid.  That would motivate the poor person to learn to fend for himself.  

The philosophy may have some merit to it, but the people of Sodom took it to the most dangerous extreme.  In Sodom poor people were left to die and those who tried to give charity were killed.

If that was the case, then why did Avraham stick his neck out for these wicked people?  Elsewhere, the midrash teaches us that one who has mercy on the cruel is causing cruelty to the merciful.  The people of Sodom had the blood of many righteous and merciful people on their hands.  If Hashem had listened to Avraham an spared them they would have gone on to kill other righteous people in the future. 

This is not a case of "where he is at" because the people of Sodom were already guilty.  Even if there were 50 righteous people, why couldn't Avraham just request that they be evacuated as lot was?

What are we supposed to learn from Avraham?  Should the Jews in America have protested against the war with Germany?  Maybe there were fifty righteous Germans?  Obviously not.  So what are we supposed to learn from Avraham's protest against the destruction of Sodom?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why Hebrew School Produces Great Rabbis

Study after study seem to indicate that suplimentary Hebrew schools are a failure.  Some studies have even shown that Hebrew school is more likely to turn a child away from Judaism than towards Judaism.

The  blame cannot be placed on the valiant professionals who run these schools.  Many of them are talented educators with innovative ideas and they are doing the absolute best that they can, but they are fighting an uphill battle.  By the time the students get to Hebrew school after a long and hard day of regular school they are exhausted and in no condition to learn.  Not to mention that they are only there once a week and there are no real consequences for misbehavior.

And those handicaps only apply to the kids who actually show up. Today Hebrew school is more irrelevant then it ever was.  Kids are more over programmed then ever.  The best kids are also involved in serious after school activities that give them the opportunity to engage in something they are passionate about and in many cases even give them opportunities to travel and compete or perform all over the country.

In addition, the parents of these kids are products of hebrew school themselves.  In past generations parents made hebrew school a non-negotiable and kids were forced to go.  Today the parents are more likely to encourage other activities that conflict with Hebrew school.

The reason day schools are mostly successful is because in a day school being Jewish is incidental.  Very few kids in day school attend suplimentary jewish programs in the evening.  After school they are free to be teenagers and participate in whatever they want to.

Hebrew school is an extra curricular that most Jewish kids are not interested in.  There are those few kids who actually click with Judaism and want to make Hebrew school their primary activity.  Those kids go on to be very active in their youth movements and eventually decide that they want to be Jewish professionals, and sometimes Rabbis.

The Jewish world has already decided that there must be an alternative model to Hebrew school to give Jewish kids a sense of Judaism.  But in the meantime, I do not think that Hebrew schools should be stopped altogether.  They are still the best breeding ground for the Rabbis of tomorrow and one of them may one day discover the solution.

Memorials for Yitzchak Rabin

Among the many well known episodes found in parshat vayeira is the lesser known episode when Avraham made peace with the Plishti king, Avimelech.  

At first glance the passage looks like Avraham is doing a good thing by making a peace treaty with the other people living in the land, I was surprised to find that the sages where very critical of Avraham for doing so.

Midrash Rabbah 54:4 contends that Avraham's overtures of peace with the Plishtim of his day eventually caused true peace for his own descendants to be delayed for hundreds of years, it caused the future deaths of many of his descendants including seven illustrious leaders, and it eventually lead to the destruction of every sanctuary to be built in the future - including the first and second temples!

While this may have been hyperbole, it is clear that when the midrash was written, hundred of years after the actions of Avraham, with historic hindsight the sages felt that Avraham made an enormous historic blunder that ultimately lead to further suffering.

On this day in 1995 Israeli Prime minster Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated.  Every year on this day there are memorials held for him in Israel and in Jewish communities all over the world, and every year myself and many other religious Jews are made to feel uncomfortable. 

One reason is because  many memorial programs overtly or by implication suggest that rabin's death was caused by Jewish religious extremism.  The anniversary of his death is used as a way to foment hatred directed against all religious Jews.  Ironically, those who hold the religious community responsible for Rabin's death tend to be the same people who cry foul the moment someone suggests that Islam may be responsible for terror.  

Rabin's murderer acted for political reasons not religious reasons.  The so-called "religous" reason that is given for his motives were that Rabin was a "rodef", someone whose actions would cause the death of others and therefore had to be stopped.  Calling him a religious fanatic for that reason is like saying that everyone who gives charity is doing so out of religious convictions.  

The fact that Rabin's murderer happened to wear a kipah and spent time at a Yeshiva and may have kept shabbat are all incidental to the murder and I take great offense to programs that try to make any implications otherwise and that lead to baseless hatred against others.

But in a more general sense, I am offended by any Rabin memorial that uses his tragic and senseless death as a club to beat down those who disagree with left wing Israeli politics.  

I think the Oslo Accords were an epic failure.  Countless books have been written that reasonably demonstrate what a mistake it was to deal with Yassir Arafat and arm the PA.  There are many sensible arguments that demonstrate that Rabin's actions actually prolonged the conflict rather than end it.  It can be easily demonstrated that the Oslo Accords lead to the deaths of many Israelis and Arabs, and that the effects of Oslo continue to endanger the security of the state of Israel.  

On the other side there are many people who still contend that Rabin did the right thing just as there are those commentators who argue with the midrash and feel that Avraham was justified.  Different opinions.  That is the Jewish way.

Unfortunately the Rabin memorials use Rabin's memory to silence any opposition and label those who disagree with Rabin's actions as being disrespectful to Rabin's memory.

Ironically, those who politicize Rabin's memory are really the ones who dishonor Rabin.  Because of them, unlike other past prime ministers who are memorialized by all of the Jewish people - Rabin's legacy is limited only to those who agreed with him politically.  That is a true shame.

Rashi Quiz Questions for Vayeira

1. Who taught Avraham how to do a bris?  (18:1)
2. Who helped Avraham entertain his guests?  What do we learn from that? (18:7)
3. When bargaining for Sodom, why did Avraham not go lower than ten righteous people? (18:32)
4. When did the Malachim come to visit Lot in Sodom?  How do we know that?  (19:3)
5. What is the meaning of the word 'Eishel'? (21:33)
6. Did Yitzchak know that he was intended to be the sacrifice? (22:6)
7. What striking similarity did the descendants of Avraham share with the descendants of his brother Nachor? (22:20)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Where He is At

I always had a question about a rashi in parshat vayeira.

Hagar and Yishmael were sent away by Avraham. On the way they get lost and Yishmael is in danger of dying of thirst.
Hashem tells Hagar that they will be saved - that Hashem has seen the boy "baasher hu sham" - "where he is at."
Rashi says the angels complained to Hashem. Looking into the future, we know that Yishmael's descendants will try to destroy the Jews. Why would you choose to save him?
Hashem says that is not a proper way to act. We judge people "where they are at now" and we don't hold potential future sins against them. Even though future Yishmael will be bad, right now Yishmael is a thirsty child who needs water.
While that is a great lesson that can easily be applied to our lives, I have always struggled to square it with the mitzva of Ben sorer umoreh - the rebellious son in parshat ki tetze.
There Rashi says we punish a boy based on the potential of future sins. Does anyone out there have an answer?

Travel Blog #1: Young Rabbis Conference

One of the highlights of my year is when I get togethere with some Rabbi friends from all over the country for our annual young Rabbis conference.  It started out with just six of us in 2003 when I was working as an assistant Rabbi in Los Angeles.  Rabbis came from Berkley, Oakland, Sacremento, Vancouver, and Edmonton.  Since everyone was from the West Coast we called it West Coast Rav. 

Today, our small group has grown to include over forty young Rabbis from across North America (and one from Australia).  Every year we get together in another Rabbis community for three days following the high holidays - when Rabbis can really use a vacation. 

Since the frst year the conference has been in Vancouver, Oakland, Edmonton, Omaha, Charleston, Toronto, Skokie, and now in Kansas City.  It is great for us to see our friends in their natural habitats, as well as an opportunity for the Rabbi to bring some great programming to the community.  When it was in Omaha I believe the community benefitted greatly. 

This year there are just shy of 30 Rabbis here.  We also have the privilege of elarning with Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt and Rabbi Steven Weil.  They were the senior Rabbis who really started the group.  THey have both made a great effort to be a mentoring resource to young Rabbis throughout the world.  I personally consider both Rabbis to have been incredoble resources to me in my short career so far. 

The conference is mostly informal.  We get to discuss all kinds of topics from synagogue poilcies to how to handle personal stresses of the Rabbinate to shring ideas on how we can improve in our ndividual roles.  the group has really gelled over the year.  the members of the gorup have become among my closest friends and the conerence is a place where we can all feel safe and be open because we are in the company of others who understand the specific issues that affect us as Rabbis.

The conference has just begone and so far we have juts been hanging out with one another. We are going into the first session right now. I know this is going to be a great time for all of us!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Answers to Lech Lecha Questions

1. How did the land of Israel come to be known as the land of Cnaan? (12:6) 

The land was originally given to the children of Shem but the decendants of Ham's son Cnaan (hence the Cananites) conquered the land and drove Shem's decendants away.

2. Who was Amraphel? (14:1)


3. Who were Avraham's 318 men? (14:14)

Eliezer.  His name in gematria is 318.

4. Who was Malki Tzedek? (14:18)

Noach's son Shem..

5. How many years were the Jews in Egypt? (15:13)

Rashi says 210.  Hashem told Avraham that his children would be redeemed in 400 yeras.  Rashi understands that to mean 400 years form the birth of Yitzchak.  He provides the calulations:
 The Torah tells us that Yitzchak was 60 when Yaakov was born, and Yaakov was 130 when he went down to Egypt.  60 + 130 = 190.  210 years later was the Exodus 190 + 210 = 400. 
They could not have been in Egypt for 400 years as Kehat was one of the people who went down to Egypt and even if he was a baby when he got there he lived 133 years, his son Amrama lived 137 years, and his son Moshe was 80 at the time of the Exodus.  133 + 137 + 80 is only 350 and that doesn't account for the years taht eaach generation overlapped.

6.Where did Avraham meet Hagar? (16:1)

Hagar was Pharoah's daughter.  Upon seeing the miracles Pharoah said, "Better that my daughter should be a maidservant in this household rather than the main wife in another household.

7. What was Sara's complaint against Avraham regarding Hagar? (16:5)

Sara made two complaints: first she complained that Avraham prayed only for himself and not for her.  Therefore Avraham's prayers were answered with a son, Yishmael, but Sara was seemingly disregarded.  The second complaint was that Avraham did not stop Hagar from disgracing Sara.

8. When Avraham was circumsized what is learned form the words, "on that very day?" (17:23)

Rashi learns that Avraham gave himself a bris in broad daylight to demonstrate that he wanted to fulfill the mitzva as soon as possible and also to demonstrate that he was afraid of neither his friends or his enemies who may try and stop him from fulfilling the commandment.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Great Rashi on Lech Lecha

In parshat Lech Lecha Avraham rescues the five kings who were defeated by the four kings. 
Rashi quotes Midrashim in Tanchuma and comments on the names of the five weaker kings.  The midrash uses a common technique where the names of individuals are taken to describe something about a person's character or personal hsitory. According to Rashi the names of the five kings all have very negative conotations. 

For instance: the name of one king was BeRa - which Rashi takes to mean he was Ra - Hebrew for bad - to the heavens and Ra to people.

One of the kings was named Shem-Ever.  The midrash says his name was from Sam Ever which means "he placed wings."  According to the midrash, SheEver was famous because he invented somekind of artificial wings that he "attached to his body in order to fly and to leap and to rebel against Hashem."

Shem-Ever was some kind of early Icarus.  Sometimes I suspect that certain midrashim may be alegories, but I am inclined to believe that this one may be historic.  It makes sense that mankind since ancient times has been obsessed with trying to fly and that the best inventors of every era put their minds to solving the problem. 

There is a gmeara in Makkot that speaks of a "flying camel" that helped people cross distances very quickly, but was seldom used.  Rashi comments that the flying camel was just a really fast camel that seemed to 'fly' when it went so fast.  In Yeshiva I read a different commentary that suggested that the flying camel was actually a machine that existed in the ancient world that was some sort of glider.  Just like the locamotive was called the iron horse, they named the machine the flying camel.

What is Rashi coming to teach us with these midrashim?

Rashi cautions us not to think that the weaker side was somehow the more righteous side. Even though they were weaker then the four kings, the five kings were evil in their own rights.

In modern times people often assume that the Arabs must have a more righteous claim in the conflict with Israel based soley on the perseption taht the Arabs are weaker and therefore must be the more just.

Rashi comes to teahc us not to fall into that trap. The five kings in the days of Avraham were also wicked. At that point in time they happened to be weak, but as we see, when the people of Sodom (who were represented by these five kings) had the power they used it for evil.