Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stop and think

Parshat Va'Yetzei

We read about Yaakov deciding to gather his family and belongings together and leave Lavan's house to go back to his homeland. In 31:19 as they are leaving, the passuk tells us, "ותגנב רחל את התרפים" - and Rachel stole [Lavan's] idols. Eventually Lavan notices they are gone and when he catches up with them this becomes a point of contention resulting in Rachel's untimely demise due to a curse Yaakov placed on her for the theft.

What was Rachel thinking? Did she think she could get away with it? Did she think her father would notice them gone and wave them off?
At least when Avraham messed around with his fathers idols, the midrash tells us that he smashed them all to pieces, so there was nothing to chase after to retrieve, and it helped Avraham concoct a story in his defense. Rachel did not even smash them up. She just took them? Did she think Lavan would not want them back? They were probably expensive so he would not just wave it off! And even if he would not chase them, what good is taking them anyway - Lavan could just go to the idol store and buy new ones?

I think Rachel was making a point. Sure, she knew Lavan would look for them. I think her idea was just to make him pause and think about whether he really needed the idols.

Oftentimes we get into routines and we just continue doing the same thing using the same methods and putting out the same efforts, even if situations have changed. We continue following the same minhagim even if they are not relevant. We continue in the same path we have always followed, just because that is what we are used to doing.

By taking Lavan's idols, she is making him stop and think. Yes, he can chase them down and find them. yes, he can go buy new ones. But all that takes effort. You do not just run off and do those things. He would have to think about whether it was really worth it.

By making Lavan stop and think, she was creating a new situation in which Lavan would be forced out of his routine worship of these idols and re-evaluate whether he really needed and wanted these idols.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

test of faith

Parshat Va'Yetzei

Yaakov wakes up from his dream of the laddr and Hashem speaking to him and declares in 28:20-21, "If Hashem will be with me and guard me on the way that I am going and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear and if I will get home to my family safely, then hashem will be to me for my God and I will..."

This is our forefather Yaakov? The "איש תם יושב אהלים"? This is the same Yaakov who just had a dream in which Hashem spoke to him and he woke up and said he only now realized how holy the place was, etc..? he is making his acceptance of Hashem conditional on Hashem giving him bread and clothes? Wasn't Hashem already his God?

And how is this different than what many of us do? We "test" Hashem and say if I pass this test I will keep shabbos, or if I win the lottery I will do x y or z, etc. Was Yaakov doing the same "test of Hashem" and is that what his faith was based on?

Jewish Geography

Parshat Va'Yetzei

Ever wonder who started Jewish Geography? How it began?

I think I found the first instance of Jewish Geography.

In Parshat Va'Yetzei (this weeks portion of Torah reading) we find Yaakov running away from his home to avoid Esau's wrath, and to find for himself a wife. Yaakov finds his way to a well outside of Haran and sees a bunch of sheperds.
In 29:3 he asks them where they are from. They respond that they come from Haran. Yaakov says, "Hey! I have an uncle in Haran!! You guys knows Lavan my uncle??!!"
They said yes.

There you have it. The first documented case of Jewish Geography that started a great tradition to be kept in all Jewish gatherings for all future generations.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

brachos and Esau

Parshat Toldos

In 27:33-41 we read about Yaakov fooling Yitzhak to get the blessings. Esau finds out and totally freaks out. He gets upset and threatens to get even with Yaakov. He pleads with his father Yitzhak to find another bracha to bless him with.

We tend to have a picture of Esau as an evil person who was a bit bloodthirsty. Maybe a megalomaniac. Idol worshipper.

Yet Esau ran off to serve his father and fulfill his wishes. Commentaries say that despite Esau's overall bad disposition, the one mitzva he excelled at was honoring his father. He went all out in that regard. That was why Yitzhak thought that Esau deserved the brachos. Even if he did not realize how evil he was, he must have at least thought he is an ok kid and deserving of the brachos, because of the great mitzva of honoring parents that he adhered to very carefully.

But there is more to it than just that. Esau really believed in the brachos. He was not simply scoffing at them when he sold them for the bowl of lentils saying they are worthless. Look at how upset he was when he understood they had been given to someone else. he must have believed they would happen or else he would not have gotten so upset. He pleaded with his father to come up with a new bracha for him. he threatened Yaakov. etc.

It seems to me that brachos are not just someones good wishes for you. It is not that someone, maybe a great person, is just wishing you well and maybe Hashem will isten because he is great and has influence. No. I think brachos are generally indicative of a certain reality that may not yet have come to fruition and the bracha expresses the impetus for the recipient to strive in that certain direction to attain that reality.

Esau realized he lost the brachos. he lost the potential for all that wealth and fortune. that is why he could not understand why Yitzhak could not just give him another bracha. He asks "Is there nothing else for me?" (27:38). He was desperate for that potential and thought there had to be something available for him. But Yitzhak says no I cannot. That bracha is his and proceeds to bless him with another smaller blessing. A bracha is not just a wish of goodwill that Yitzhak could bestow uon whomever he wanted. It is a reality of what Hashem has to offer. Once he gave it to Yaakov, he could not just share it with Esau.

self-sacrifice and risk

Parshat Toldos

Rivka overhears Yitzhak telling Esau to bring him food so he will bless him. She hatches a plan to have Yaakov act as Esau and fool Yitzhak into blessing him. She tells Yaakov her plan and what he needs to do. Yaakov recoils in horror and comes up with reasons why the plan will not work. And the worst of it is that the risk is so great - Yitzhak might realize and then curse me!! The risk is too great. Can't do it.

Rivka's response is that do not worry - any curse he throws at you is on my back. I will take the curse. You just go ahead and do what I told you.

I find two aspects of this story fascinating:
  1. The level of self-sacrifice Rivka had on behalf of the future nation of Israel. She knew it was crucial for the future of Israel that Yaakov get those blessings and not Esau. She was willing to take the curses on her own head, just as long as it would effect the stewardship of the blessings be in Yaakov's hands.
  2. Yaakov was a naysayer. He was not an aggressive risk-taker. Rivka hatched this great plan, albeit risky. Yaakov found every excuse why it would not work and is not a good idea. We often find ourselves at a juncture where we could take a risk and end up with great success or avoid the risk and settle for less. Most of the time we are too cowardly to take the risk. Yaakov, the "איש תם יושב אוהלים" was the same way. If it was up to him, he would not have taken the risk, Esau would have been blessed by Yitzhak, and who knows how history would have turned out. The most successful people are usually the people who take the risk. Rivka told Yaakov not to worry about the risk. He followed her advice and it paid off.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

dinner in bed

Parshat Toldos

In 27:3-4 Yitzhak tells Esau that he is soon going to die and he should go trap a deer and make food so he can bless him. He was very specific about what he wanted Esau to bring him.

Was Yitzhak really so concerned on his deathbed about what his last meal would consist of? Why didn't he just say bring me something to eat so I can bless you? Whyw as he so concerned with the specifics? And why is he so concerned about what's for dinner at such a critical time?

The Seforno suggests that he requested food from Esau because he wanted Esau to perform this mitzva of honoring his father so the blessing would have a mitzva to take effect upon, because Yitzhak knew that Esau was not really a worthy person (even if he did not know how bad he actually was, he at least knew this).

But it still seems out of place that Yitzhak gave such specific instructions. He could have just said to bring him dinner and the mitzva would have been accomplished the same.

Still thinking

different attitudes

Parshat Toldos

It happened again. In Chapter 26 we see Yitzhak going to the city of G'rar. He followed in his father's footsteps and told the people (and Avimelech the king) that Rivka is his sister so they would not kill him and take her. Avimelech played sleuth and figured out that they are husband/wife and not brother/sister.

Avimelech chastised him for the lie saying somebody could have possibly approached Rivka and we all would have been punished for it. "How could you do this to us?" He then told his people to leave Yitzhak and Rivka alone. They continued to live there and prospered.

This is consistent with how Avimelech reacted with Avraham. When Avraham pulled the same trick of saying Sarah is his wife, Avimelech nearly got killed for it and when he found out he gave Avraham great wealth and a choice of land to live on.

Yet when Avraham pulled the same trick on Pharoh, the Egyptians threw him out of Egypt. They gave him money and told him to get lost.

I find the different reactions interesting and telling regarding their attitudes. At the time Avraham went down to Egypt we are told that Egypt had a decadent society and therefore Avraham had great fear for his life. That might be consistent with the Egyptians throwing Avraham out after having duped them. Yet Avimelech had a positive attitude and understood Avraham and Yitzhak's concerns and allowed them to continue living in his country.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

chasing the wealthy

Parshat Hayyei Sarah

Eliezer, servant of Avraham, goes to Aram Naharayim to seek out a wife for Yitzhak from the family of Nahor. After the whole story of meeting up with Rivka and her offering water to him and his camels, Eliezer requests a place to sleep the night. Rivka offers lodging and then goes home to tell her family of the guest.

The passuk in 24:29 says, "וירץ לבן אל האיש" - Lavan ran to the man...

Rashi explains why Lavan ran. He explains, "Why did he [Lavan] run and for what did he run? "When he had seen the nose ring," he said, "This one is rich" and made plans to get at his money. "

The Seforno as well discusses this running of Lavan and explains that he wanted to see the wealthy man who came to town (the Seforno does not ascribe nefarious plans to Lavan as Rashi did, so it could have been for the purpose of finding a way to get his money or he possibly just wanted to see a wealthy person).

The Torah is clearly describing this act of Lavan, as it continues to portray Lavan, in a negative fashion, as an act of an evil person plotting and scheming.

Yet this is something we all do and commonly find in practice among the best of us. When someone wealthy comes to town we are all curious. We go out to see him and hope for the opportunity to shake his hand, let alone if one would have the opportunity to exchange a few words with him.

Warren Buffet just recently came to Israel and his every move was watched by all. Celebrities with their paparazzi and who knows how many more examples.

I think most of the time it is out of curiosity with a bit of hope that his luck/fortune will rub off a bit on me. But sometimes there is also a bit of nefariousness involved. We are jealous, possibly, as well.

Regardless of the intentions, we see from Lavan and how he is written up here in the Torah, that it is not a good thing to chase after the wealthy, whether simply to watch them or worse.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Parshat Va'Yeishev

We read about the akeida. Hashem tells Avraham what he wants from him. In 22:2 Hashem says, bring your son, etc.. " והעלהו שם לעולה" - bring him up there as a sacrifice.

Rashi already tells us that Hashem never said to actually slaughter Yitzchak. He only told him to bring Yitzchak up.

Did Avraham misunderstand Hashem and what He wanted? Did Avraham make a (nearly fatal) mistake?

I guess that for it to be a good test, Hashem had to find a way to say it ambiguously, using a word that implies offering it up for a korban but could be interpreted differently, so He could retract later. Avraham seems to have misinterpreted the ambiguity of God, but that was the point.

my responsibility

Parshat Va'Yeishev

We read about the incident in which the angels show up in Lot's house in S'dom.. Lot brings them in. The people of the town hear that Lot has guests and they come to "arrest" them. It is unclear what they really wanted to do with the guests, some opinions say sodomistic purposes, others say torture. Lot says in 19:8 not to take the guests rather I have two daughters, take them.

How could Lot offer his daughters to them? If you say he felt responsible for hsi guests and could not give them up at any cost (as Rashi says) and therefore he had to offer his daughters in their places, should he not feel responsible for his daughters well being as well? He should have offered himself in their place!

Maybe he knew they would not take him because he was one of them, so the only alternative was to offer his daughters. I just fail to understand how a father could offer his daughters to such an evil plan..

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

where he is

Parshat Va'Yeira

Avraham, at Sarah's behest, throws Haggar and Yishmael out of his house and sends them packing. We read about how they go through the desert and Yishmael falls ill and is dieing. Haggar distances herself from him so as not to se him in his death throes. An angel appears to Haggar and says that Hashem has heard her prayers and the child will recover. In 21:17 the angel says that Hashem has heard the prayers of the boy where he is.

Rashi explains "where he is" to be a reference to the idea that Hashem listened to his prayers and judged him in his current status, and ignored the fact that he would later be evil and cause trouble and do bad. His current actions are ok and therefore his prayers have been accepted.

But Rashi already told us in 21:9 that the reason Sarah wanted him thrown out of the house was because she saw him involved in idol worship, murder and inappropriate relationships. These are the three worst sins a person can be involved in! How can Rashi say that he was currently ok and being judged for now rather than later?

I do not have a good answer to explain Rashi, btu was thinking that this might be the reason the Ramban (and others) suggest a different, more basic, explanation. They say that it simply means he will be healed right where he is.

Anybody out there who can explain Rashi?

did he know or not?

Parshat Va'Yeira

The parsha starts off with the story of the three angels who come to Avraham appearing as men. They eat, drink and make merry and give over the information they need to give over. In 18:9 the angels ask Avraham "Where is Sarah your wife?"

If Avraham did not know they were angels, how was he not curious how they knew he had a wife and her name was Sarah that they should ask about her? And if he did know they were angels, why did he bother with the trouble of making lunch for them, slaughtering a bull and baking bread, etc, knowing they would not eat it because they are angels?


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

By association

Parshat Lech L'cha

In 15:18 at the conclusion of the Brit Bein Ha'B'sarim, Hashem promises to Avram his children would be given "From the river of Egypt until the great river the river of P'Rat".

Rashi says that the P'rat river was seemingly the smallest and most minor of the 4 rivers as it is the fourth and last river mentioned (and had no description ascribed to it). Yet it still calls it here "the great river, the river of P'Rat".

Rashi explains because it is connected to the Land of Israel it deserves the title "The great river". Just by association.

Associate with good people and ideas and you will be thought of and considered to be good. Associate with evil and you will be thought of that way as well...

important decisions

Parshat Lech L'cha

Look how important a decision can be. In 13:8-12 we read about Avram and Lot splitting ways. Avram let Lot choose first which direction he wanted to go and Avram would go the other way.

What does Lot choose? How does he come to that decision? The Torah tells us he lifted up his eyes, saw the beautiful grazing land with rivers and babbling brooks and lush grass and fertile land and chose that direction.

Nothing else mattered. He did not consider the community or the type of people that lived there. He did not consider where he would want to raise and educate his children and in what society he would live. It did not matter that he would become a resident of a place like S'dom.

None of it mattered as long as he had good grazing land for his sheep. He was impulsive.

And look where it got him. We all know how the story progresses and what happens in S'dom.

It is important not to be impulsive, but make your decisions with careful consideration.

realistic solutions

Parshat Lech L'Cha

We experience Avram and Sarai going down to Egypt due to a famine in the Land of C'naan. As they approach Egypt, Avram devises a plan. He fears for his life, as Sarai is an exceptionally beautiful woman he expects that the Egyptians, desiring Sarai, would have him killed so she would be husbandless and then they would take her for marriage.

In 12:13 Avram comes up with a plan that, "Say you are my sister, thereby they will be good to me for you, and will let me live because of you."

Avram did not want to say they were married because that would put him in danger. They would desire Sarai and if she was married, they would kill her husband to release her from her marriage. By saying she is his sister, they would take Sarai but not kill Avram.

Was Avram so selfish and self-absorbed that he was only concerned about his own safety, and not of Sarai's? Was he so greedy that his concern was first "they will be good to me" which Rashi explains they will give me presents on your behalf even before he says "and they will let me live"?

I found the S'forno which seems to answer this question, at least in part. The S'forno explains that Avram said of we say we are married they will kill me and take you. By saying you are my sister, they will not kill me and they will also not take you. They will beseech me and ask for your hand in marriage and offer gifts as a bribe and goodwill so I will allow them to take you.

But I do not think that is enough to answer the question. Avram should have expected it to be dangerous for her even with the claim that she is a sister. Why? Because we see they claimed she was his sister and yet in 12:15 we see that they still took Sarai. Did Avram predict incorrectly?

I suspect that Sarai being taken by the Egyptians was a fait accompli, and Avram recognized that. He knew that no matter what he did, she would be taken. The only way to avoid it would be not to go down to Egypt, but that was not an option because of the famine spreading in the Land of C'naan. Instead of looking for an unrealistic solution to the problem, he looked for the best way to protect the two of them. By saying they were married, they would kill him and Sarai would be lost for good. By saying she is his sister, they would have no reason to kill him, even if they forcibly take her, and then he would still be around to fight for her release.

Take the lesson from Avram - don't waste your time searching for unrealistic solutions.