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Yitro

The Torah tells us in this week’s parsha, Yitro, that the Jewish people receive the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai (the actual mountain, not to be confused with the shul here in Washington Heights). However, in the beginning of that narrative the Torah spends verses setting the stage.  “In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain.” (Exodus 19:1-2)

What’s significant about the time? The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) notes the predominance of the number three: “A threefold Torah, to a threefold people, through a third-born, on a third day, in the third month.” “One” implies conformity; there exists only a single reality. “Two” implies divisiveness and disparity, two rival approaches. “Three” on the other hand finds a unity between disparate entities. Chana Weisberg, columnist at Chabad.org, points out in the intro to the Sifra, when two biblical passages contradict each other, the meaning can be determined by a third biblical text, which reconciles them both by finding their deeper, concealed harmony. On the surface, the two verses may seem to disagree. But the third verse resolves their disagreement, not by “taking sides” and agreeing with one verse over the other, but by showing that the two are actually in consonance.

Why does the Torah tell us where the people are coming from? Rashi notes (Shemot 19:2) the Torah already told us that the people were in Rephidim, why the need to repeat it? One interpretation that I read from Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, another columnist at Chabad.org, is that the people were in a Rephidim state of mind. The root of the word Rephidim in Hebrew, rifyon, means slackening. In other words, the people’s enthusiasm slackened as they approached Mt. Sinai. Refidim is also the same place that the people were attacked by Amalek, which is compared to doubt. However, we also know that the people arrived at Mt. Sinai “as one man with one heart” (Rashi ibid 19:2) singular in purpose. How? They focused on their positive traits and they did not dwell on their faults. In other words, they changed how they viewed themselves and were able to be at a better place and ready to receive the Torah.  
 
Written by Jason Botvinick.


Beshalach

Worse things happen at sea.
 
A recent study by researchers at the London School of Economics found that: “...as they moved from paid employment to setting up their own venture, business owners with above average optimism ended up earning 30% less than those with below average optimism.”
 
This is nothing new. Yossef’s Divine ability to forecast 7 years of doom and gloom sets the stage for his political and financial success. As the story of the Yerida and eventual Yetzia from Mitzrayim unfolds we encounter many other examples of pessimism (and Pharoh’s unbridled optimism). At the burning bush, Moshe receives a prestigious job offer as G-d’s ambassador, but cannot envisage success. He argues that he’s not eloquent enough for the role. Later, he exclaims, “how will Pharaoh possibly listen to me? Even the Jews don’t believe they’ll be redeemed.” As the Jews see the Egyptian army chasing them in our parsha, there’s a communal “I told you so” moment where they ask why Moshe took them out just to let them die in the desert. Commentaries point out that after safely crossing the sea (only) the women danced with musical instruments. Before leaving Egypt, they had been the optimists foreseeing eventual redemption and the desire to celebrate with gusto. Ergo, the men – not so much.
 
If it seems like redemption is far away, or like the light at the end of the tunnel is just another train hurtling towards you, you aren’t alone. Maybe it’s true that ours are 1st world problems and worse things are happening in the lives of others, but that doesn’t magically erase our pain. If you are someone who has a predisposition to always look on the bright side of life and see the silver linings in everything, remember that others may be colorblind and just see clouds. Like our ancestors, at times we may be guided by the energy of light and hope – the pillar of fire, and at others, all we see is a pillar of cloud in front of us. Whatever we are experiencing, during uncertain times we can stand fast to our beliefs and heed Moshe’s timeless guidance imparted by the yam suf: “Do not fear. Stand fast and see Hashem’s salvation…”

Written by Daniel Coleman, 
chaplaindaniel@gmail.com, l’ilui nishmas my mother, Shaindel bat Yitzchak whose Yahrtzeit is on 20 Shvat.


Bo

This week’s Parsha begins the Jewish people’s 40-year journey from Egypt, to the Promised Land. God led the Jews through the uninhabitable desert in order to instill complete loyalty and faithfulness in them. They saw with their very eyes how God lovingly provided for their every need. This message was essential, because once the Jews arrived in the VERY fruitful Promised Land it was possible that they would rely on their own handiwork for success and forget that God alone provides for all our needs.
 
In this week’s Parsha we see the fall of Pharaoh, who truly believed that he was divine and was above all applicable law. God reversed nature during the Ten Plagues to show Pharaoh that he was not the master of creation. After Moses told Pharaoh in no uncertain terms that the Jews will leave Egypt with all possessions, Pharaoh tells Moses that if he ever dares to see him again he will die. Moses answers (per Midrash), “Very well. I will never see you again. Instead you will come see me!” And indeed Pharaoh comes crying to Moses, in pajamas in the middle of the night, and expels the Jews from his land for good.
 
In every generation there are nonbelievers, evil people who oppress others, and rulers who seriously believe that the rules do not apply to them. Yet, as much as we would all like Him to, God is not sending lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) after these people, nor is He infiltrating government residences with frogs. God altered nature during the Exodus in order to inculcate His power and kingship in humanity. There is no power or force in the world but God Himself. The Haggadah goes into great details on how God Himself punished the Egyptians and not a messenger or angel, etc.
 
Of course we must all make the proper efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 (masks, hand sanitizer, social distancing, avoid travel etc.). However, we must remember especially in these turbulent times, that our only true protection is from God (perhaps symbolized by the crown on the coronavirus?). 
 
This coming Thursday is Tu B’shvat, the New Year for Trees. The Talmud mentions that there are four New Years, one of which is Rosh Hashanah, the day of declaring God king, and one of which is the first day of Nissan, mentioned in this week’s Parsha. This first day of Nissan is the day in which the Jewish people received the mitzvah of the New Month. The Talmud describes how two witnesses would see the first sliver of the New Moon and a new month would be declared.
 
Tu B’shvat is the day in which the sap in the trees begins flowing anew, symbolizing the end of winter. Both the New Moon and Tu B’shvat are reminders of how God is always present and how He is intricately involved in every step of what seems to be nature. Never give up hope; nothing is beyond God!
 
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Robin Singer.


Vaera

Freedom of Faith

By Sara Schatz

This Dvar Torah is dedicated לזכר נשמת אלעזר בן ישראל צבי and בנימין משה בן רבקה.

Nearly thirty-five years ago, on February 11th, 1986, Natan Sharansky was released from prison after nine years of being detained and tortured by the Soviet government for his “dissident” Zionist beliefs. Sharansky’s story, without a doubt, is deeply fascinating, yet the way he describes his journey with faith is starkly straightforward. In an interview, he once explained, “[T]he moment I found my identity, the moment I found my roots, the moment I felt that, in effect, there is a long history which is behind me, it became the first source of strength to speak my mind openly. The first time you start speaking your mind, you become free.”

As Sharansky hints, the struggle to find one’s identity and roots is not a new phenomenon. From the times of Avraham Avinu, Jews have investigated identity, G-d, and faith in a myriad of ways.

This is precisely the disturbance that Moshe Rabeinu experiences in the beginning of Parshat Vaera. Immediately following Pharaoh’s rejection to Moshe’s request and the people’s disappointment toward his actions, Moshe questions G-d, for the first of many times in his career: למה הרעתה לעם הזה?, “Why did You bring harm upon these people?” (5:22). 

G-d replies in a remarkably ambiguous way:

וָֽאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶל־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה' לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם. גַ֨ם הֲקִמֹ֤תִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתָּ֔ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן אֵ֛ת אֶ֥רֶץ מְגֻֽרֵיהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־גָּ֥רוּ בָֽהּ:

“I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned.” (6:3-4)

Our Sages in Shemot Rabbah interpret this language to mean that G-d is criticizing Moshe. He tells Moshe, “חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין - We suffer a great loss for those [the Avot] who are lost and [whose replacement] cannot be found. [...] Many times I revealed Myself to them as ק-ל ש-קי and they did not ask Me, ‘What is Your name?’ But you asked me [that exact question]!”

According to the midrash, it was quite problematic for Moshe, the leader of the Jewish people, to challenge G-d’s judgment. This response, on the outset, is mind-boggling. Did the Avot never question G-d? Merely a few parshiyot ago, we witnessed Avraham Avinu openly arguing with G-d about destroying people of Sodom. In a similar language to Moshe Rabeinu, Avraham pleads with G-d, “Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Bereshit 18:23). How can G-d be critical of Moshe for having morals, and questioning the seemingly evil actions G-d is imposing upon the Jewish people? 

Rashi, too, finds this midrash quite perturbing, but from a contextual lens. He notes that it would be much easier not to read G-d’s response from a critical standpoint because it simply does not make sense with the plain reading of the text. The midrash accuses Moshe for asking for G-d’s Name, but we don’t actually find this in the text itself. Moshe is merely asking why G-d is doing this to the Jewish people, and G-d responds, “I did not make My actions known to the Avot, and therefore I won’t do it with you either.” Therefore, Rashi maintains that G-d isn’t critiquing Moshe; rather, He is explaining to him why He cannot directly respond to Moshe’s question. 

Both explanations, however, teach us something quite profound about the human psyche. G-d is not expressing that it is never okay to question. Indeed, Avraham Avinu questioned and G-d was not critical of him. However, the question needs to be purposeful. Moshe is coming from a place of despair. He is upset at Pharaoh’s rejection and Bnei Yisrael’s disappointment in him. From this standpoint, he cries out, “Why did You bring harm upon these people?” True faith, however, does not come from a place of rampant emotions. It stems from years of self-discipline. This is what Moshe, and the Jewish people, needed to learn in order to establish their own faith through these trying times.

In 1988, Sharansky wrote about his struggles of faith in the Gulag in a memoir entitled Fear No Evil. When facing his father’s death in isolation, he turned to his small book of Psalms, which he recited for forty days. He expressed, “Day after day I reconciled myself with the past, and my feelings of grief and loss were gradually replaced by sweet sorrow and fond hopes.” 

Viewing faith as a discipline rather than a fleeting emotion is not easy. However, it is a foundational necessity. Moshe and the Jewish people had to undertake this journey in order to leave Egypt. We have to undertake this journey in order to leave our own Egypts. At times, it can be isolating, challenging, and sometimes painful. But, in the words of Sharansky, it is perhaps the most “freeing” experience one can ever fulfill in life. 


Shemot

Many scholars like Robert Alter and Judy Klitsner have popularized a literary method of Tanach study which encourages the reader to consider how a certain narrative can be in conversation with parallel stories, namely stories which share a similar narrative arc, language, or themes. The comparison motivates a new, creative read: how the two narratives are in conversation with each other. Robert Alter calls this the “Type Scene” while Judy Klitsner calls this process “mining” and “undermining” two narratives.
 
One such example of this inter-biblical conversation is the miraculous birth narrative:
G-d promises children; the couple tries to conceive; they can’t; the couple prays; the couple suffers from complex family dynamics when the husband conceives through a maidservant; eventually, after this long and arduous journey, HaShem eventually gifts the couple a child. It’s a miracle. Examples include the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis and Channah and Elkanah in Samuel. However, Moshe’s birth story breaks this paradigm. Bnei Yisrael have no trouble at all conceiving. Actually, the population is exploding (Shmot 1:7)! The trouble is that Pharoh is irrationally worried that the Israelites will ally with another nation to threaten Egypt’s safety (Shmot 1:10). Pharoh eventually “solves” this problem by throwing the Jewish baby boys into the Nile.
 
Chazal want Moshe to remain paradigmatic with the other miraculous birth narratives. If in the other birth stories the miracle is that the couple can conceive at all, so see how the midrash in Sota 12a includes Moshe into this construct: “It was taught by the Tanaim: Amram was a leader of the generation. When the evil Pharoh decreed that ‘all the baby boys should be thrown into the Nile’ (Shmot 1:22) Amram cried, ‘We’re suffering for nothing!’ He got up and divorced his wife and others followed suit. His daughter Miriam said, ‘Father, your decree is harsher than Pharoh’s etc.’” The midrash here suggests that Amram and Yocheved separated when Pharoh made his decree for infanticide. If separated, it would be impossible to bear a child, no? Thus the challenge for Amram and Yocheved to conceive was emotional, not physical. While most infertility stories center on the couple’s dysfunction or reliance on HaShem, with Amram and Yocheved, that is not the case. Now reunited, bearing the child is the easy part. Instead, the pshat narrative will focus on this: how can we keep the baby alive?
 
When Yocheved can no longer hide Moshe, she puts him in a basket and places it in the reeds. But the plan falls apart. Pharoh’s daughter goes down to bathe and she spots the basket! If you were Bat Paroh, what should you do? The law says she should grab the infant and drown him. What does she do instead? She has compassion for him (Shmot 2:6). But why? If there’s anyone in the world who should have drowned the baby -- it would be Pharoh’s daughter, no? This midrash in Sota 12a asks the question quite well: ‘And she saw the ark in the reeds’ when her servants saw that Bat Paroh wanted to save Moshe they asked her, ‘Our Mistress, it is the practice of the world that a king of flesh and blood makes a rule and everyone follows it and certainly the king’s children follow it. And you transgress your father’s rule?!’ The midrash imagines a conversation between Bat Paroh and her maidservants where they inquire why she chooses to disobey her father and keep the baby alive. What could compel a powerful Egyptian woman, living in Pharoh’s home, to save this boy? 
 
Rav Hirsch suggests a gorgeous pshat alternative. Though Yocheved and Bat Paroh’s lives couldn't have been further apart, they do share this in common: they are women who feel an impulse to have compassion for the child, even at great risk and danger for their own lives. This is why, Rav Hirsch suggests, that the words “רחם - womb”  and “רחמים - compassion” share the same 3 letter root -- because bearing and caring for children induces our ability to be compassionate. The womb is the organ whose purpose is to nurture and enable life. Thus, explains Rav Hirsch, the etymological connection between רחם and רחמים hints to a profound symbolic connection. Phrased differently,  Bat Paroh saved Moshe because she allowed her  human impulse for compassion to dictate her choices; she didn’t let her father’s tyrannical rules ossify her heart. 
 
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Sarah Robinson.


 

Vayechi

The Duality of Family and Nation
This Dvar Torah is dedicated
לזכר נשמת אלעזר בן ישראל צבי בנימין משה בן רבקה.

Parashat Vayechi does not only mark the end of Sefer Bereshit, but the transition of the Jewish narrative from familial to national. In a state of reflection and prophecy, Yaakov marks the occasion by blessing each of his sons. This is preceded by the blessing of his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. Right before this, an awkward encounter ensues between Yosef and his father - Yaakov dramatically evolves from treating Menashe and Ephraim as his own children to complete strangers:

“And Yaakov said to Yosef… Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine no less than Reuven and Shimon.” (Bereshit 48:3,5)
“Then Yisrael saw Yosef’s sons, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ Yosef said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom G-d gave me here.’ So he said, ‘Now bring them near to me, so that I may bless them.’” (Bereshit 48:8-9)

While many commentaries bring their own unique approaches, the Malbim has a seemingly distorted perspective on this pasuk:

The clothing of the Jews were different from the clothing of the Egyptians, and Yosef, who was associated with the kingship, as well as his sons, were dressed like Egyptian officers… and therefore Yaakov was astonished and said, “Who are these?” And Yosef responded “They are my sons, and they are righteous and G-d fearing. And what you see is that they are different in their clothing because this is how G-d gave them to me: they were born in this place [Egypt] and the place and situation necessitates it. 

This is nowhere near the peshat understanding of the pasuk. From where did the Malbim develop such an idea?

There are two pivotal moments in Yaakov’s life where clothing played a tremendous role. As a young man, his mother told him to dress in goat skin in order to steal the blessing from his brother Esav. Then, after the death of his beloved Rachel, he made for Yosef a ketonet pasim, a multicolored coat, to show his devotion toward him. Both of these experiences led to harrowing moments in his life. In one circumstance, he was forced to flee home from his brother’s wrath. In the other, the ketonet pasim became the symbol of Yosef’s assumed death. An ailing grandfather with a traumatic past begins the process of reflection on his deathbed, Yaakov has a natural hesitation, wondering if foreign clothing will leave a vehement impact on his descendants as well. His dear son Yosef assures him, stating, “They are my sons, and they are righteous and G-d fearing.”

The hesitance of Yaakov and the subsequent reassurance of Yosef has profound implications on how we are meant to view other Jews. There is famous adaptation of a midrash in Vayikra Rabba (32:5) formulated by the Ritva and the Kol Bo in the Haggada shel Pesach that Bnei Yisrael did not change their names, language, or style of clothing in Egypt, which prevented them from assimilation. Yet astonishingly, we see that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest of that generation, also dressed like an Egyptian like Menashe and Ephraim, as he is characterized by Yitro’s daughters as an “Egyptian man” (Shemot 2:19). When we view this midrash in the context of our parsha, however, literal accuracy doesn’t matter. Mark Twain is famously attributed to saying, “Clothing makes the man.” While this is true to an extent, it is not the defining factor of a Jew. What signifies our peoplehood goes past our outer garments: the covenant Yosef pledges at the end of the parsha (50:25), “פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם,” “G-d will surely remember you,” testifies to this. This is the ultimate transition from family to nation: though we expand in population and establish diverse communities through the rest of our history, we must always remember to look past the shallow impact of clothing and recognize our underlying bond as the Jewish people. 
 
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Sara Schatz.


 

Vayigash

Friday December 25, 2020 is the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, commemorating the siege of Jerusalem, the first step in the First Temple’s destruction.
Seventy members of Jacob’s family descended to Egypt.  The Torah describes Esau’s family as the “souls,” while Jacob’s family is described as “soul.” Rashi explains that Esau’s descendants worship many gods, while Jacob’s descendants all worship one God. We see that Jacob’s family consists of seventy people with God at its head.

This is the arrangement of the Jewish Supreme Court of 71 judges, 70 regular and a supreme judge. There are 70 nations with the Jews on top and 70 languages with Hebrew on top. Jerusalem is known by 70 names with God on top, per Psalms. “Unless God watches the city, the guards watch in vain.”
The end of the First Temple was the first time since Egypt that the Jews lived in a non-Jewish country. The center of Jewish life was gone One major obstacle that the Jews had to combat was the belief that God abandoned them.

God gave us the perfect antidote: Shabbat. One Shabbat song states, “Lovers of God who long for the rebuilding of the Temple rejoice on Shabbat as if receiving the Torah!” Yes, Shabbat is a comfort for the Destruction of the Temple!

The Ninth of Tevet was the deaths of Ezra and Nehemiah, who spearheaded rebuilding the Second Temple. People feel abandoned and forsaken after the death of a powerful and charismatic leader. Life moves on. One generation passes away, BUT God is always here. Simba expressed it beautifully. “You said you’d always be there for me! But…you’re not…” However, God will always be there for us.

 The Eighth of Tevet was the translation of the Torah in Greek. King Ptolemy put 71 sages in a different room and miraculously all copies were identical! Once the Torah became available to non-Jews, they claimed that God forsook the Jews for refusing to accept Christianity, using the Torah as “proof.”

The Christians, for the most part, failed to convince the Jews that God abandoned them. Up until 75 years ago even the simplest Jew knew what to answer upon being asked about Isaiah Chapter 7:15! These challenges strengthened the Jewish people’s loyalty to God’s promise never to forsake them.

I feel the pain of exile the most at this time of year. It is difficult to be excluded from all the holiday festivities. This has been a very difficult year. Perhaps it was not coincidental that the Fast of Tevet fell out on Christmas and on Friday this year.  
Per Yerachmiel Begun (Miami Boys Choir):
So no matter what misfortune arrives,
The message for us is clear,
We have one constant in our lives,
No reason for worry or fear. The Torah’s light is here to stay,
It has kept us safe for so long,
Perhaps this Shabbos came out on this day, To teach us our faith must be strong.
 
Easy and meaningful fast! Shabbat Shalom!

This week's Torah Tidbit is written by Robin Singer.


 

Miketz

Mikeitz – preparing for the (beginning of the) end.
 
Is there a parsha involving our Avos & Imahos that does not make reference to a (contentious) property or monetary transaction? Finances are central to Sefer Bereishis and the life of Yossef Hatzaddik. Last week he literally loses the coat off his back, is sold into slavery, and then ends up ‘forgotten’ in a prison. Next week, the tables are turned: Yossef controls the entire money supply of Egypt, acquiring all the property, and enslaving all its people (except the Priests who were supported by a stipend from Pharoah). Inbetween, in our parsha, Yossef introduces us to the concepts of insurance – taking Shimon to guarantee Binyamin’s appearance in Egypt, and rebates (in the brothers’ sacks).
 
This is all predicated on Yossef’s ability to put his money where his mouth is – calling the end of 7 good years (in his interpretation of the dreams), and preparing by stockpiling commodities; in particular he “…amassed grain like the sand of the sea…” while everyone else seems to have ‘forgotten’ that a 7 year recession lies ahead promising to eclipse the years of plenty.
 
As well as an interpreter, perhaps he was a student of history. Since world economies began, they’ve followed this boom and bust pattern (often on a 7-10 year cycle). While everyone else thinks that this time will be different and (7) years of past performance (the years of plenty) will continue indefinitely, Yossef thanks Hashem for his blessings (naming his son Ephraim for “G-d has made me fruitful…”) and prepares to grow his wealth during the coming bear market.
 
Yossef’s depiction by the Chief cupbearer is spot on: “Na’ar Ivri” - a youth with the ability to see or experience the ‘other side’ – to be a contrarian.  Like Avraham Ha’Ivri before him, and like the Maccabees generations later, the ability to prevail (Rabbim beyad me’atim) against the masses and hold true to contrarian values is a hallmark of our history and destiny.  
 
This week's Torah Tidbit is written by Daniel Coleman.
Daniel Coleman, MBA, teaches Financial Literacy to students and parents in addition to College and Career guidance.  Following Yossef’s contrarian investment philosophy, he is preparing for a severe market drop by gradually accumulating HDGE whenever it dips below $3.15. He can be reached at daniel . coleman @ 
yu.edu


Vayeshev/Chanukah:

We know that the Maccabees fought against the entire Greek army (legions and legions) and miraculously won. There was no reason for the Maccabees to assume that their mission would be successful. This fight was, for all intents and purposes, a bunch of yeshiva guys fighting against the entire US military Yet the Maccabees honestly believed that their job was to make an effort and try. They were not aiming for success, rather for sincere effort.

We could apply the same principle to the Menorah as well. They could have said, “What’s the point if we only have enough oil for one night and it takes eight days to produce more?” Yet the Maccabees honestly believed that their job was to make an effort and try. They were not aiming for success, rather for sincere effort.

 We can certainly apply this idea to the Parsha. Jacob only used a few coins to purchase fabric in order to sew Joseph an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (you’ve seen the movie, now read the Book!). However, this garment aroused the brothers’ jealousy and the whole clan eventually descended to Egypt.

Let us look at some other episodes. Reuben manages to convince his brothers not to kill Joseph, rather to throw him into a pit. The Torah actually states that Reuben fully intended to return to rescue Joseph later. However, the Talmud writes that if Reuben knew that the Torah would record his good intentions forever, he would have given Joseph a piggyback ride home to Jacob!

After Joseph’s sale Judah leaves the family. The Midrash states that the brothers immediately regretted selling Joseph and blamed Judah, the unofficial leader, for initiating the idea. They said to him, “if you would have just suggested returning him home to his father we would have listened to you!”

Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law Tamar initiates relations with him and is pregnant. She is sentenced to burning. Tamar sends Judah 2 items, a goat and a garment and asks, “Do you recognize these?” Judah indeed does and confesses his guilt. Tamar saved herself and her descendants (King David and eventually the Messiah) by the smallest action and 2 Hebrew words!

Now let us look at the end of the Parsha. Joseph is thrown into prison in Egypt and forms a connection with the chief butler and the baker. One day he sees that they look upset and asks them, “Why are you so sad today?” This is very strange question, as they were in a dungeon! However, Joseph figured that he was imprisoned for a reason, perhaps to help cheer up his fellow prisoners. Joseph’s empathy, which consisted of 4 Hebrew words, encouraged them to share their dreams, which eventually led to Joseph’s rise to royalty!

We see this effect more than ever now in our COVID world. One word (positive or negative) can change our entire lives! Let us use the power in us towards building a better world, as we will leave COVID.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Robin Singer.


Vayishlach:

When Yaakov Avinu prepared to meet with his brother Esav after his long sojourn in Charan, he was told that Esav was headed towards him with four hundred men. The Torah tells us, “Yaakov became very frightened, and it distressed him, and he divided the people with him… into two camps” (Gen. 32:8). The Daas Zkenim offers one interpretation that Yaakov was distressed because he had become frightened by Esav despite the knowledge of Hashem’s assured protection.

Sometimes, even when one believes in Hashem, knows that Hashem runs the world, and trusts that everything Hashem does for us is for the good, even with all that, it is still possible to be afraid. And it’s okay as long as we maintain perspective. We can do our maximum hishtadlus (effort), we can divide the camp into two, if we then turn to Hashem afterwards for help and salvation, just as Yaakov then turns to Hashem and says “Hatzileni nah – Please rescue me” (Gen. 32:12)

That night, Yaakov finds himself alone, and an ish, a man who is actually an angel, wrestles with him until the break of dawn. Yaakov defeats the angel and asks for a blessing. The angel blesses Yaakov with a new name, Yisrael, “because you have struggled (saritah) with Elokim and with mankind and have surmounted” (Gen. 32:29). Yisrael learned to balance the spiritual and the physical, and to not be overwhelmed by them. He studied at the knee of Yitzchak and of Avraham, but was able to face against the deceitful Lavan. He had amassed a fortune, but remained humble and appreciated everything that Hashem had given him.

Avraham and Yitzchak underwent the episode of the Akeidah, when Hashem had asked Avraham to bring his son as an offering, each proceeding with absolute trust in Hashem. But we are not called Bnei Avraham, the Children of Avraham. Nor or we called Bnei Yitzchak, the Children of Yitzchak. We are Bnei Yisrael, the Children of Yisrael, the one who struggled. We are the ones who continue to struggle between bitachon (trust) in the divine and pachad (fear) of man, always striving to maintain our emunah (faith) in Hashem.

It’s okay to be afraid, but what we can’t do is let that fear defeat us. As the Children of Yisrael, we have inherited the ability to conquer our fears and doubts, knowing that Hashem will provide for us. Therefore, may we each be blessed to learn to trust in Hashem and merit His salvation in all times of trouble and fear.

This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Chana Lapidus. 


Vayeitzei:

Not all those who wander are lost.

Interpreting this line leaves much for debate. But I believe it is a simple commentary on how a person can explore the world with purpose, by a guiding light, and maintain a sense of direction even without a specific destination in mind. I find it hard not to think that Jacob found himself in a similar situation in this week’s parshah.

As we pick up the story this week, Jacob is both hastily running away from Esav but also running toward his distant family in Charan, with the hope of finding a spouse, a career, and perhaps some sense of belonging in this world. But in the first few pesukim we also see that he is lost, confused, and alone. In the end though, well, you know the basic story. Things, more or less, work out pretty well for him. A couple of decades in Charan and he’s got a nice big family, immense wealth, and he’s ready to return home. He’s also ready to face his final challenge and reconcile with his brother Esav.

But if we only look at this story at face value, I think we miss something. Jacob almost certainly didn’t actually need to go to Charan to find a wife or acquire wealth. He is the son of Yitzchak, the grandson of Avraham, and someone who directly communicates with G-d – a shidduch resume almost any of us would look at with envy. Couldn’t G-d have just sent the women of Charan to him and gifted him riches in his own hometown?

G-d could. But that isn’t really the point of any of this. The Torah has chosen to recount the challenges and the journeys our ancestors survived before they settled into a life of peacefulness because the struggle is what allows them to build the stable and comfortable homes they end up occupying. It is noteworthy that the Torah only records the problems of our forefathers, and almost entirely skips over the decades of calm and plenty that could just as easily provide valuable lessons for how to be a good, decent, and honest person. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the Torah recounts Jewish history by the cliché: the real treasures of our destination are the friends and memories we made along the way.

My favorite line in the Rosh Hashanah davening is a quote from Jeremiah 2:2, when G-d tells Bnei Yisroel “I remember the early days . . . [when] you followed me into the wilderness.” It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment (and a really sweet song you can find on youtube). But it speaks volumes to what G-d wants to remind us about ourselves on one of the holiest days of the year; even a journey through the empty wilderness is beautiful when it is accompanied by close friends and loved ones. This is what G-d wants to remember about us; not the Temples, not the conquering of Israel, not even the awe-inspiring and dramatic escape from Egypt. Instead, G-d remembers just the simple moment of extending a hand to Bnei Yisroel to come along for a journey. And we all reached back to hold that hand and knew everything would be ok.

On a personal note, I celebrated my 30th birthday this week and Vayetzei is my bar mitzvah parshah. To the friends I’ve met here in Washington Heights and who have been my guiding light these last few years, much love. I may still be wandering. But with you, I’m not lost. Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Zack Schrieber. 


Toldot:

Forgive me for beginning with a rather offensive question, but here goes: If people want to improve their negative character traits (greed, jealousy, aggression, etc.) what should they do? The answer is very simple and very sad. They should do nothing at all. Unless people follow a set of moral values and strive to live by them, the natural human impulses will instinctively direct their behavior.
 
We see this concept in this week’s Parsha. Isaac follows the footsteps of his father Abraham and travels to Gerar (the Philistines) because there is a famine in Canaan. King Abimeleh remembers what happened when his (grand)father abducted Sara (all kings of Gerar were called Abimeleh) and does not bother Rebecca, but he eventually figures out that Isaac is her husband. Isaac prospers in Gerar and the locals become jealous, so they make trouble for him regarding the wells that Abraham had dug. Eventually, Abimeleh expels him from Gerar and there are other disputes about the wells. Finally, Abimeleh along with his entourage go to Canaan to sign a peace treaty with Isaac. Naturally, Isaac is not pleased to see them and asks why they are coming after they expelled him.  Let us look at Abimeleh’s answer: “Let us make a treaty with you so you do not harm us as we have not touched you and as we have done with you only good and we sent you away in peace…”
 
There are two possible ways to interpret this verse.  1. Abimeleh tells Isaac we have only been good to you AND we sent you away in peace. 2. The ONLY good act we did for you is PRECISELY that we sent you away in peace. My subjects and I had the potential to do so much harm to you. Yet we restrained ourselves and we kindly sent you away unharmed. We know that the second interpretation is correct based on the melody of the Torah reading.
 
Abimeleh gives Isaac the parable of the lion with a bone stuck in its throat who promises a great reward for whoever removes it. A bird with a long neck sticks its head in the lion’s mouth and removes the bone. The lion then tells the bird that there is no actual reward; its reward is that it stuck its head in a lion’s mouth and lived to tell the tale! Similarly, Abimeleh tells Isaac that your reward is that we didn’t hurt you.  Natural appetites will instinctively dominate those who do not answer to a Higher Authority. Abraham immediately described Gerar as a place without fear of God.
 
Interestingly, this is the only story in the Torah in which Isaac is the main star. Isaac’s main characteristic in Rabbinic literature is strength or power. Ethics of the Fathers describes a truly mighty person as one who overcomes his/her impulses. While none of us fantasize about robbery or other serious sins we all have opportunities to guide our impulses towards kindness and helping others.
 
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Robin Singer. 


Chayei Sara:

When Sarah dies, Avraham publicly beseeches the Chittim to give him a burial plot for his wife. After being told that he could have anything he desires, he specifically requests the cave owned by Efron. Efron is in the crowd and hears Avraham’s request, so he offers his property over. While Efron initially offers the cave as a gift, Avraham surmises that he really wants to sell it. Efron only pretended to be magnanimous because he was standing before a crowd, so he could not say what he really wanted to say. Avraham then offers him a vast sum as payment. The deal is made. End of story.

Why did Efron say one thing when he really meant another? What if Avraham had not understood Efron’s true intentions and accepted the free gift?

We see in others our own defects (Baal Shem Tov). Efron was standing and listening in the crowd when Avraham singled him out (Gen. 23:10). Efron, due to his own personal greed, assumed that this was a ploy by Avraham to take advantage of the situation while not losing any esteem in the eyes of the people; after all, it was their idea. Efron went along so he would not seem like the bad guy, but he would have forever held a grudge against Avraham.

Avraham picked up on Efron’s train of thought and therefore made clear that this was not his intention at all by instead going in the opposite direction and not only offering money, but overpaying for the land (Bava Metzia 87a).

When the three angels came to visit Avraham in the beginning of last week’s parsha, the verse (Gen. 18:2) uses the word “vayar – and he saw” twice. Rashi explains that first Avraham saw the three figures in the simple sense of the word, and then he noticed and understood that they were hesitant to bother him so he therefore ran to greet them. We can see from his various interactions that Avraham is able to assess the current situation and astutely observe the thoughts and feelings of others.

A similar scenario as his conversation with Efron occurred to Avraham previously. In the war of the four kings against the five kings, Avraham entered into battle and was victorious, and therefore was entitled to all of the spoils of war. The King of Sodom realized that Avraham was about to walk off with all of his possessions, so he told Avraham: “Give me the people, and take all of the riches for yourself” (Gen. 14:21). Of course, Avraham was entitled to everything, but he understood the king’s true meaning and feelings, so he vowed that he would not take anything at all.

When one person upsets another, we are told that he must go to great lengths to assuage the feelings of the other person, even if it means heavy expenses or exerting great effort. Avraham was willing to give up his full rights and spend vast amounts of money in order to ensure that no one would be bitter towards him. Therefore, the Jewish people should learn from Avraham Avinu to always pursue peace and goodwill with others.
 
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Chana Lapidus.


Vayera:

Parshas Vayera features what may well be the climax of Avraham Avinu's "story" in the Torah: Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. Despite the seemingly outrageous order by God that Avraham sacri-fice his son, Avraham immediately follows through the next morn-ing in a seemingly innocuous way: he wakes up and saddles his don-key, preparing for the journey to the mountain. The commentator Rashi, however, points out that this would have been unusual. Av-raham, a wealthy man, surely could have had a servant prepare his donkey rather than do it on his own. To explain this unusual behav-ior, Rashi explains that love causes one to act in a way they normal-ly wouldn't. Avraham's love for God, and his desire to fulfill God's commandment, caused him to act in an atypical fashion. The gemara in masechet Sanhedrin (105b) notes that the same language for saddling one's donkey is found elsewhere in the Torah: regarding Bilaam, in parshas Balak, as he sets out to curse Bnei Yis-rael. The gemara makes an observation similar to the one that Rashi quoted: hatred negates the standard that one of prominence is used to, just like love does. Bilaam, a wealthy man, saddled his own donkey, degrading as it may have been for him to do so, because of his hatred of Bnei Yisrael, and his desire to curse them. Interesting-ly, the medrash in Bereishis Rabbah (55:8) links these two incidents, stating that the merit of Avraham's saddling his donkey on his way to the Akeidah stood against the incident of Bilaam saddling his donkey and attempting to curse Bnei Yisrael. It is clear from these two instances that people are willing to act in a seemingly irrational way, not befitting their station, for something they feel strongly for. Perhaps the lesson we can take from Av-raham and Bilaam is to make sure that the things that we're most heavily invested in, that we'll forego our own honor and well-being, should be proper things; we should be motivated by our love of God, and not by hatred of others.
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Yitzi Diskind.


Lech Lecha:

In this week’s parsha, Hashem tells Avraham “Lech Lecha,” or “go for yourself” and proceeds to tell him to leave his land, his relatives, and his father’s house (according to the Artscroll definition of the terms). Rashi explains “lech lecha” to mean “l’hanaascha u’letovascha” – “for your pleasure and for your good.”
When Avraham was told to leave his home, do you think he wanted to? Do you think he was quite happy where he was? He was married, rich, and had a bunch of “souls that he had created."
Actually, we know that this would not have been his first choice. The chachomim teach us that this was one of the ten trials that Avraham Avinu faced. As the Artscroll commentary points out, “by definition, a heavenly test is one that forces a person to choose between G-d’s will and his own nature or understanding of what is right.” This was some-thing hard for Avraham. Something he didn’t intuitively think was right, but did because he was putting his trust in G-d. He had a mission that Hashem wanted him to fulfill.
When Avraham returned from Mitzrayim, he went to the same exact place where he had planted his tent to begin with (Perek Yud Gimmel, Pasuk Gimmel). It could almost seem like maybe he never left, but it’s not true. He went through trials and tribulations in Mitzrayim, and in the end IT LOOKS LIKE HE’S IN THE SAME EXACT PLACE, but this time he’s so much richer - physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. His experiences have given him so much. He is not the same Avraham that “went down” to begin with.
Each one of us, in our own lives, came down to this Earth to fulfill a mission, our own "Lech Lecha." We too, go through trials and tribula-tions. Sometimes, to the outside world, it looks like we are in the same exact place we were yesterday and the day before, but WE know how much has changed inside of us.
I give us all a bracha that just like Avraham Avinu, who trusted in Hashem's command and saw tremendous growth in all areas as a result of his nisayon, we too should believe in Hashem's love of us and see the growth and expansion in our lives as results of ours.
This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Aliza Sklar.


Noach:

Parshas Noach: A Bare Perspective
By R. Ba'er haDov, a bear who was there
Destruction was imminent as the raindrops started to fall from the sky, leaking like the ceiling of a Washington Heights apartment building, but where was the super? He was putting the finishing touches on the Ark. The great Ark and its 450,000 cubic cubits that carried us and our future generations swiftly and generously through the raging waters, as high as Mt. Ararat, taller than even the top of Bennett Park.
I remember when it began: it was a warm and misty evening when word first reached the bear hive (yes, bears once lived in hives, before the Flood, and we wore hats) that there was to be a flood that would destroy the world. Only some of us would survive. I looked around at my fellow bears: Uncle Fizz was eating the berries he had taken from a poor child he had found, and eaten, on the side of the road; Aunt Buzz had just returned from her nightly appointment with the butcher in town. Alas, it would seem there were not many of us who had an interest in continuing the next generation. But, with aspirations to study astrophysics and to one day write a paper on the effects of atro-pine in Space, I readily accepted the invitation from my good, and righteous, neighbor Noach. Noach, despite the defects that are inher-ent to any of the hairless no-tailed Denisovan branch of hominin, was the Mary Poppins of the generation, practically perfect among his brethren (you'll have to ask Rashi, one of Noach's descendants, what that actually means).
And, despite the taunting from his fellow bipeds, when Hashem, the just G-d of Mercy, after time enough had passed for amending one's ways, told Noach "in 7 more days" I'll bring the Rains upon the earth, Noach was able to leave his grudges aside as he waited for his neigh-bors to repent. For, after all, they were still his neighbors.
As the rains commenced and when Noach acknowledged that we could wait no more, he ushered us all into the dimensionally transcen-dental Ark. To Noach's credit, while he did seem to favor the cud-chewing, fractured-hooved variety more than my whole-footed, effi-cient eaters, Noach overlooked our differences in nature, demeanor, and diet, and treated us all pretty well on the three floors of the Ark. It wasn't all cocktails and Dramamine, of course; here we were, 40 days, 40 nights, in an Ark with neither a rudder nor a router (and no ethernet cable), with the world being destroyed just beyond our gopherwood walls. There was a solemness in the air as we were reminded of why we were here, our mission to rebuild G-d's world and rebuild it togeth-er - not Tower-of-Bavel "together" but together with our differences; the hairless no-tailed apes along with the descendants of Pan and of Caniformia, different goals, different tastes (carrion is great with a healthy, heaping dose of monofloral blueberry honey), so we can rebuild this world and really earn that rainbow.
Shabbos sholom,
R. Ba'er haDov (as handed down to R. Baer haDov)


Bereshit:

The second aliyah of Parshas Breishis begins by summarizing the creation of the world that was recounted in the first aliyah. The verse states: “And these are the story of the heavens and the earth when they were created [b’hibaram]...” (Gen. 2:4). We are taught to read “b’hibaram” as “b’Hey baram,” alluding to the idea that G-d created the world using the Hebrew letter Hey. Why is it significant that the world was established with a Hey? Menachos 29b explains that the letter Hey is shaped as it is to show that sinners who do teshuvah stand on a loftier level than those who never sinned in the first place.

There is another hint to this idea of teshuvah in the above verse, which concludes: “...When Hashem (YKVK) Elokim created earth and heaven.” This is the first time in the Torah that the Name YKVK is used; only Elokim was used thus far. Elokim connotes strict justice, and YKVK connotes mercy. Originally, Hashem intended to create the world using the attribute of strict justice, but saw that the world would not last, so instead did so with the attribute of mercy. Mesillas Yesharim teaches that this quality of mercy means that Hashem gives us the opportunity to do teshuvah instead of punishing us immediately and completely the moment we sin against Him. Because Hashem created the world as YKVK, this made it possible for the letter Hey to become the core foundation of the world.

Chazal teach another interpretation of the word “b’hibaram.” The letters can be arranged to spell Avraham. What is the significance to this allusion? Is there any connection to this idea and that of the world being created with the letter Hey?

After Adam sinned and humanity started to pull away from Hashem, G-d decided to give the world a countdown. If there should arise anyone who would recognize Hashem, then Hashem would keep the world running, and if not, then the world would be destroyed. After twenty generations from Adam, Avraham was the first one to recognize G-d as the Creator and Sustainer of the world. Avraham Avinu embodied the attribute of chesed (kindness). With Avraham in the world, chesed was able to mix within the framework of din (strict justice) to create rachamim (mercy), thus allowing the continued existence of Creation.

Originally, Avraham was called Avram, but Hashem changed his name by adding in the letter Hey to signify that Avraham should be considered the father of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17:5). At that time, a new covenant was established between G-d and Avraham, and as long as his offspring the Jewish people uphold that covenant, then Hashem will continue to uphold the letter Hey with His abundant mercy. “B’Hey baram” - with the letter Hey, Hashem created the Jewish people.

This week’s Torah Tidbit is written by Chana Lapidus.   

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782