Please use the Search bar to access the archives instead of the Alphabetical / Chronological Archives as we are experiencing technical difficulties with those areas of the website. Thank you.

back to blog home | about Rabbi Buchwald |  back to main NJOP site

Vayeishev 5776-2015

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Joseph

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, the Torah introduces the character of Joseph–the gifted and charismatic son of Jacob.

As the eldest of Jacob’s two sons born to his beloved wife Rachel, Joseph soon emerges as his father’s favorite child. The preferential treatment of Joseph is not at all appreciated by his brothers, who resent him deeply to the point where they actually scheme to kill him. Alas, Joseph’s charisma and special talents are the very factors that lead to Joseph’s rise, decline and rise, throughout his life.

Saved from death and sold to Egypt, Joseph finds himself as a lowly slave in the house of Potiphar. The talented Joseph seems to have the Midas touch, and everything he attends to succeeds beyond any normal measure. His Egyptian master, Potiphar, is convinced that G-d is with Joseph and that the Egyptian’s home is blessed on account of the Hebrew slave (Genesis 39:3). So successful is Joseph,that Potiphar leaves all that he has in Joseph’s trusted hands (Genesis 39:4).

Suddenly, in Genesis 39:6, almost as a non sequitur, scripture relates, וַיְהִי יוֹסֵף יְפֵה תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶה, Now Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance.

Rashi explains that the reason for this out-of-context description of Joseph, is that Joseph’s comeliness is to play an important role in the evolving narrative.

Says Rashi, once Joseph saw himself in a position of authority, he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. As a result of this audacious behavior, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Himself, “Your father [Jacob] is mourning [thinking that you are dead!] and you curl your hair? I will provoke the ‘bear’ against you!” Immediately thereupon, his master’s wife [Mrs. Potiphar] cast her eyes on him.

The Da’at Sofrim suggests that the period of tranquility that Joseph experienced in Potiphar’s house did not last long. Indeed, Joseph was soon beset with pain and suffering. There are those who conclude that Joseph’s suffering was intended to cleanse him from the sins that he had committed against his brothers. Others suggest that these were Divine tests, like the trials of the Patriarchs.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story of Joseph are the Torah’s realistic reflections on life. In real life, those who face challenges never know whether the challenges they face are punishments for something they have done, or tests intended to elevate them to a higher level of perfection. The inability to know the actual answer to this question is often what motivates people to try harder, strive further and achieve more.

Did Joseph really become thoroughly enamored with Egyptian culture and so full of hubris due to his success? Did he forgot his origins and try to repress the fact that his father, believing that Joseph was dead, was home crying over him? If that is the case, then Joseph truly deserved these painful experiences. On the other hand, if Joseph was essentially alone, without any guidance or direction, abandoned by his father and brothers, why should he not try a different path and explore the possibility of becoming a successful Egyptian, rather than remain a lowly Jewish slave boy?

The Torah is particularly perceptive when it comes to fathoming reality. In Genesis 39:7, Mrs. Potiphar makes unwelcome advances at Joseph, which Joseph repels. The verse states, וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַתִּשָּׂא אֵשֶׁת אֲדֹנָיו אֶת עֵינֶיהָ אֶל יוֹסֵף, וַתֹּאמֶר שִׁכְבָה עִמִּי, After these things, the master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and she said; “Lie with me.”

Rashi points out that the expression, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, after these things, signifies a short lapse of time and that the new event [Mrs. Potiphar’s desire for Joseph] is directly related to the preceding event. Joseph’s preoccupation with his own looks results in the unwanted advances of Mrs. Potiphar. Rashi’s midrashic interpretation explains that Joseph’s overconfidence and Mrs. Potiphar’s seductions were a direct result of Joseph’s vain reaction to his success in his new environment.

A particularly insightful observation is made by the Malbim who suggests that Mrs. Potiphar was attracted to Joseph only “after these things.” Surely Mrs. Potiphar noticed how handsome and exceptionally talented Joseph was. But, it was Joseph’s dramatic rise to power in her husband’s house that made Joseph especially appealing. Says the Malbim, Mrs. Potiphar would not have at all been attracted to Joseph and would never have dreamt of consorting with a lowly slave, the position he was in before his dramatic rise. Only when Joseph rose to become a person of stature, did the relationship become plausible.

How revealing this observation is. How easy it is for people to rationalize and justify giving in to their base desires. Yesterday, Joseph was a slave boy; today, he is a gifted administrator with the Midas touch, a comely face and fancy hairdo. Yesterday he was beneath my station in life; today, he is more than my equal, he is a “rock star.”

Much of this delusional justification is without merit. But, the temptations and blandishments of life are so great that they often blind one’s eyes and render rational thinking impossible.

The Torah’s description of the rise and fall and rise of Joseph is filled with these magical insights into the secrets of human nature. Focusing on any one of these insights and learning from the mistakes that Joseph and his brothers made, can serve as invaluable life lessons for all.

These profound messages are to be found throughout Torah, which is all the more reason to appreciate the lessons of Torah, to learn and heed them.

The story of Joseph is not a simplistic narrative. It is a profound handbook of life’s lessons and meanings.  

Chanukah postscript: The rise and fall and rise of Joseph is a timely theme at this time of year, when we celebrate Chanukah. The festival of Chanukah similarly represents the rise and fall and rise of the Jewish people. The Syrian Greeks who attempted to stifle Jewish observance and ban religious practice, succeeded temporarily to impact on Jewish life and impose their Hellenistic values on a large part of the Jewish community. The Maccabees, however, fought back, defeating the Syrian Greeks and their alien culture, leading to the rededication of the Temple and the re-commitment to Jewish values and religious life.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins Sunday night, December 6th, 2015, and continues for eight days, through Monday evening, December 14th, 2015.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!

Vayishlach 5776-2015

“Jacob Tarries in Succot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir to prepare for a reunion after 20 years (some say 34 years) of estrangement.

Not certain whether Esau still wishes to kill him as vengeance for Jacob’s devious acts, Jacob prepares for all eventualities: military action, prayer and a tribute to bribe his brother into reconciliation. The night before the fateful encounter, Jacob wrestles with an angel, reputedly the angel of Esau.

Esau is apparently mollified by Jacob’s magnanimous tribute and the two brothers part ways, each going in a different direction. Esau begins making his way back to Seir and Jacob prepares to return to Canaan to reunite with his mother and father.

Despite the many years of separation from his parents, Jacob does not return directly to Canaan. Instead, the Torah in Genesis 33:17, informs us, וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת, וּלְמִקְנֵהוּ עָשָׂה סֻכֹּת, עַל כֵּן קָרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם סֻכּוֹת, Jacob journeyed to Succot and built himself a house, and for his livestock he made shelters (Succot); he therefore called the name of the place Succot.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinovitz, in his wonderful compilation, Da’at Sofrim,, states that in Succot, Jacob finally merits to experience a short period of tranquility. The fact that Jacob could now put his own home in order after so many of years of wandering, and fatigue from traveling, was an important milestone in Jacob’s life, which he felt was worthy of commemorating. Jacob, therefore, eternalizes the event by calling the location “Succot,” naming it after the sukkot–the shelters that he built for the flocks. After all, as a shepherd, Jacob was forced to wander from place to place in order to find proper pasture. Finally, in Succot, Jacob found a place where he and his flocks could stay without wandering.

At long last, Jacob is now separated from both Laban and Esau. He had been told clearly (Genesis 31:13) by the Divine voice to return to the land of his fathers and to his birthplace. His father and mother surely long for him and would expect Jacob to immediately return to Hebron for a joyous reunion with them and the local people. Didn’t Jacob take an oath in Beth El that he would return, and yet, he does not go? From Pnuel, Jacob turns to Succot where he spends a year and a half, delaying his entry into the Promised Land.

How fortunate Jacob was that Esau went to Seir. The Rabbis say it was a miracle that Jacob was able to separate himself from Esau, who initially was keen to accompany Jacob to Canaan.

Why didn’t Jacob return to Canaan? The Rabbis say that Jacob remained in Succot for a year and a half because he was consumed with fear of Esau, and felt that he needed to continue to appease his bloodthirsty brother. Every month, Jacob would send Esau a gift, a tribute of 550 heads of flock, the same amount that Jacob had sent to Esau in his original tribute.

Jacob now finds abundant excuses not to go directly to Canaan. After all, he is waiting for the birth of Benjamin to fulfill the prophecy of the birth of 12 tribes. Jacob, unfortunately, paid the price for that delay when he was punished with the rape of Dinah.

There are those who say that Jacob tarried in Succot in order to deprogram his children from the encounter with Esau. Perhaps Jacob was influenced by the comfort that he found in Succot, since it says וַיִּבֶן לוֹ בָּיִת which is the first record of anyone building a secure house. Until now, Jacob had always dwelt in tents. While he builds for himself a permanent dwelling place, he only builds temporary dwellings, “Succot,” for the flocks. Other commentators suggest that Jacob remained in Succot to prepare spiritually for making “aliyah,” for ascending to live in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov suggests that Jacob’s travels are mysterious, and that only the Master of the Universe knows the reasons for Jacob’s reluctance to return directly to Canaan. Some propose that Jacobs’s camp was intended to serve as a model for the future camp of Israel. Just as Jacob traveled by the word of G-d and moved only when he saw the Divine Presence moving, so would the future Israelites similarly travel. Since the presence of G-d did not move for 18 months, Jacob’s entourage remained encamped in Succot for the duration. It was in this same manner, at the direction of G-d, that future generations were to depart from Egypt and travel in the wilderness. Jacob was actually preparing the Israelites for those future experiences.

Even after leaving Succot, Jacob stops in Shechem. Jacob must prepare for the future. It was in Dothan, near Shechem, where Joseph’s brothers would conspire against him to sell him. It was also in Shechem that Jacob purchases land, which eventually serves as the burial place for his beloved son, Joseph.

Ramban suggests that the reason that Jacob built a large house in Succot was so that he could build tall defense towers that would protect him against an attack from Esau.

The Ohr HaChaim suggests that the name Succot is so prominently commemorated because not only was the first secure house built in Succot, but it may have been the very first time that anyone had taken the time and trouble to preserve animals from the distress of heat and sudden cold.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5776-2015

“Disclosing Personal Information For Shidduch Purposes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob, who is fleeing from his brother Esau, follows his parents’ advice to go to Haran (Upper Mesopotamia), to the house of his grandfather Betuel, where he is to take a wife from the daughters of Laban, Rebecca’s brother.

After the long journey, Jacob arrives at the well in Haran, where he encounters beautiful Rachel, who is caring for her father’s sheep. Jacob chivalrously rolls the stone off the local well and waters Laban’s flocks.

The Torah then states, Genesis 29:11-12, וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל, וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת קֹלוֹ וַיֵּבְךְּ. וַיַּגֵּד יַעֲקֹב לְרָחֵל כִּי אֲחִי אָבִיהָ הוּא וְכִי בֶן רִבְקָה הוּא, וַתָּרָץ וַתַּגֵּד לְאָבִיהָ, Then Jacob kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s relative, and that he was Rebecca’s son; then she ran and told her father.

In today’s frenetic-paced world, there is much discussion about the so-called contemporary “shidduch crisis,”–-the problem for young Jewish people to meet suitable life partners. Aside from the exploding rates of intermarriage among the non-Orthodox, even the Orthodox community is faced with a host of very serious social issues: young people delaying marriage and the resulting increase in infertility issues, a seemingly large number of women who are not getting married, and the difficulty Jewish singles face in finding the right venue to meet suitable life partners. Despite the many valiant efforts made in the various parts of the Jewish community to help singles by promoting shidduchim, and the now ubiquitous online dating sites, the problems seem to be escalating.

Aside from the many social issues involved in matchmaking, there are also the halachic (legal) issues. There is much rabbinic discussion about what one may reveal when “negotiating” a potential shidduch and what is forbidden. Is one permitted to volunteer information without being asked, or may information only be shared when asked directly and personally, and only when the information is permitted to be revealed?

What kind of details is one allowed to reveal? Does having a seasonal allergy fall under the definition of illness, like diabetes, which one is obligated to reveal, or is it a “weakness” like hay fever, which may not be appropriate to reveal? Questions of character, such as bad temper or dishonesty are even more difficult to classify. What is one allowed to reveal and what is forbidden?

The issue of revealing private information for the sake of matrimony is a serious matter, especially if there are Torah violations involved. Not disclosing information, may violate Torah statutes such as not putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and not standing by idly when the blood of one’s brother is shed.

Revealing or not revealing vital information may also result in broken friendships and bitter family disputes. How angry friends and family members can be when they feel that they’ve been betrayed by people they trust who failed to tell them negative things, and they discover, only too late, the significant shortcomings of the prospective mate.

The very first encounter between Jacob and Rachel that occurs in parashat Vayeitzei has bearing on this issue. The commentators who carefully analyze the nuances in the scriptural text reveal provocative and interesting facts.

Rashi notes that in his initial conversation with Rachel, Jacob describes himself as both her “father’s brother and Rebecca’s son,” which seems to be redundant. Citing the Midrash, Rashi explains that by doing so Jacob is informing Rachel that, “if your father, Laban, wishes to deceive me, then I am his brother in deceit and will match him in everything he does. However, if he is an honorable person, I am the son of his honorable sister, Rebecca, and I will act accordingly.”

The Ohr HaChaim, explains that Jacob is not threatening to act deceitfully or illegally, but rather declares that he will use every legal device in order to protect himself from being deceived by Laban.

The Malbim explains that Jacob’s every word to Rachel is intended to clarify and reveal to her all the necessary information that is needed to proceed with the shidduch. By saying to Rachel that he is her father’s brother, he underscores the fact that he is a blood relative and family member. By informing Rachel that he is the son of Rebecca, he reveals that he is the primary heir to all the blessings of Rebecca.

The Malbim also expands on the Midrash cited by Rashi that Jacob told Rachel that he is her father’s brother when it comes to deception and the son of Rebecca with respect to righteousness. In fact, says the Malbim, Jacob revealed to Rachel the entire history of his family’s difficult relationship. Rachel was well aware of the fact that Jacob had deceived his brother Esau, and acted in a manner similar to Laban’s actions. Jacob, however, explains that by acting in this manner, his intentions were to better serve G-d. Thus, he is to be regarded as the true son of Rebecca.

So we see that Jacob was entirely candid with Rachel about his questionable actions and his ignoble past, adding the caveat that it was all done for the sake of Heaven.

Through this story we see how truly challenging the issue of relating information properly for the sake of a shidduch really is. What may seem to the outside observer as negative traits, may very well be perceived as positive to those who are aware of the intimate details. Although we hope to be helpful when revealing information about possible matches, we must always be vigilant not only about what we say, but also about how it is said.

May you be blessed.

Toledot 5776-2015

“Rebecca Inquires of G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we learn of the births of Jacob and Esau.

Isaac is forty years old when he marries Rebecca, but she is barren. Both Isaac and Rebecca pray to G-d and she becomes pregnant.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:22, describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy, וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי, וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, The children battled within her and she said, “If so, why am I thus?” And she went to inquire of G-d.

The Torah then reports G-d’s response to Rebecca, Genesis 25:23, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ, וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר, “Two nations are in your womb; two peoples shall be separated from your insides; and one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall serve the younger.”

Rashi understands this to mean that Rebecca said to herself, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why do I desire to be pregnant and pray for a child?” Rashi explains that Rebecca went to the house of study of Shem and Eber, the ancient prophets, who inquired of G-d on her behalf. Through the Divine message, Rebecca is told about the two nations that are in her womb and the two peoples who will come out of her, who will struggle with one another.

Rabbi David Holzer in his intriguing book, The Rav: Thinking Aloud, cites a fascinating interpretation of Rebecca’s response, attributed to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

The Midrash states that Rebecca’s profound concern about the pregnancy was due to the fact that her pain was much greater than the normal pain experienced by women who are pregnant. Alternately, the Midrash suggests that Rebecca felt exceptional pain when she went by a house of Torah study or a house of idol worship, and each of her twins wanted to participate in the activities of their own favored house of worship.

The pain must have been excruciatingly great, because after all her prayers to relieve her barrenness, Rebecca still cries out, “Why should I go on living?” It is also perplexing to learn that Rebecca is pacified when she hears that she is carrying twins who will do battle with one another.

While Rashi interprets the phrase, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, to seek out G-d, as meaning that Rebecca went to the prophet to find out what the end will be, the Ramban explains the word, לִדְרֹשׁ “Lidrosh” to mean, prayer.

In order to explain this, Rabbi Holzer invokes a most insightful lecture that Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered on prayer and religious loneliness.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the very essence of nature makes a human feel inadequate and insignificant. After all, a human is composed of the same cellular material from which all the other creatures are created. “Science,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “works hand-in-hand with nature to tell man that he is nothing, just part-and-parcel of nature itself.”

In a fascinating note, Rabbi Holzer cites Freud’s observation that every paradigm-shifting scientific discovery has served to demote and distance man further and further from being the center of the universe. “First Copernicus (literally) removed earth as the focal point of the geocentric solar system, then Darwin removed man from the apex of biology. Freud argued that his own work would unseat the rationality of the human mind in favor of subconscious motivations.”

The nature of the human being is also a subject of ambivalence among the rabbis. On the one hand, the rabbis state (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) that every human should declare, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם, that the world was created just for me. The rabbis in Sanhedrin 38a, however, say, that no human should be overly proud, and one should always recall that יִדְרוֹשׁ כְּדַמְךָ, that the lowly gnat preceded your creation.

When the human recognizes his insignificance, he often finds himself lacking in self-esteem and becomes depressed.

Where, asks Rabbi Soloveitchik, does the human go, to find his uniqueness and to build his self-esteem? Rabbi Soloveitchik responds, “There is only one Intelligent Being Who can do that: G-d!”

Rabbi Soloveitchik sees “religious loneliness” as a positive experience. Religious loneliness is part of the human being’s search to find someone or something that would assure him of his own great power and strength that is inherent in him. It is this religious loneliness that leads one to לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת השׁם, to seek out G-d.

According to Rashi, Rebecca’s religious crisis was resolved by hearing directly from the prophets about her unique role and the unique role of her children. The prophet’s response was clear.

However, according to the Ramban, Rebecca’s prayers allowed her to put things into perspective and restore her confidence. In prophecy, the Al-mighty engages the human being in conversation. In prayer, the human being initiates the dialogue and engages G-d in the conversation.

It was in this manner that Rebecca came to no longer regard herself as an insignificant part of creation. The crisis was resolved by Rebecca coming to the understanding that she has a unique role to play, even if it was to be a difficult one.

May you be blessed.

Chayei Sarah 5776-2015

“The Legacy of Ishmael”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, opens with the death and burial of the matriarch, Sarah, at age 127, and closes with the passing of the patriarch, Abraham, at age 175.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:8, reports, וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ,  וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו, Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people.

The Radak explains that the Hebrew phrase, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, good old age, indicates that Abraham lived to see children and grandchildren, and merited to spend his final years steeped in goodness and honor.

Rashi, explains that the Torah describes Abraham’s final days as being, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ, good old age, mature and content, because of the dramatic change in the character of Ishmael that the Torah reports in the very next verse. Genesis 25:9 states, וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו, אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה, both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried Abraham in the cave of Machpelah. This, says Rashi, indicates that Ishmael repented, and in fact, allowed Isaac to proceed before him, acknowledging his brother’s superiority, even though Ishmael was older. Abraham’s final days were thus days of enormous happiness and contentment.

After Abraham’s death, the Torah, in Genesis 25:11, relates that, וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ־לֹקִים אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק עִם בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי, G-d blessed Isaac, Abraham’s son, and Isaac settled in Be’er Lechai Roi. Apparently only Isaac, not Ishmael, was blessed. Furthermore, the fact that Isaac settles in Be’er Lechai Roi, which is a location strongly identified with Ishmael, is very telling about the unresolved relationship between the brothers (Chayei Sarah 5760-1999).

Now that Sarah and Abraham have passed on and Isaac is settled, the Torah concludes the weekly portion of Chayei Sarah with a list of Ishmael’s numerous descendants.

In Genesis 25:12, the Torah states, וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם,  אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית שִׁפְחַת שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם, These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham.

The Torah, in Genesis 25:16 notes, אֵלֶּה הֵם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹתָם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶם וּבְטִירֹתָם–שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם, לְאֻמֹּתָם, These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names by their courtyards and by their strongholds, twelve chieftains for their nations. It is hardly a coincidence that Ishmael has twelve sons. Esau also has twelve offspring, fulfilling a tradition in Abraham’s family, that a family of twelve children will eventually lead to redemption.

The Torah then records the death of Ishmael at age 137. Despite his penitence, Ishmael is not buried in Machpelah. We are also told that Ishmael’s descendants dwell from Chavilah to Shur, which is near Egypt, towards Syria, and that Ishmael and his descendants dwell over all of his brothers.

Because of the ambivalence noted in the Biblical texts, Ishmael gets mixed reviews among the Bible commentators. Rashi cites a very encouraging statement from the Talmud in Baba Batra 16b, that Ishmael did teshuva (repented) and showed respect to his brother, Isaac. The statement, while very positive, is not enough to erase Ishmael’s lingering reputation as a person of bad character.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, notes that when the Torah, in Genesis 25:12, states, וְאֵלֶּה תֹּלְדֹת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, these are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the Hebrew word, תֹּלְדֹת, (descendants) is missing both “vavs,” a spelling that is rarely found in the Bible. This, says Rabbi Hirsch, comes to underscore the fact that the inner spirit of the children of Ishmael was deficient, and that his children do not have the advantage of having זְכוּת אָבוֹת, merits of their fathers, advocating on their behalf during their lives, as did the children of Isaac.

On the other hand, some commentators find allusions in the Biblical text regarding Ishmael that can be interpreted in a favorable light. The Malbim notes that Genesis 25:13 states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, בִּשְׁמֹתָם לְתוֹלְדֹתָם, These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, with their names by their births. The Malbim suggests that it is common for people to change their names when they become nations, but Ishmael’s children retained their names, indicating that they were endowed with special qualities.

Rabbi Hirsch maintains that the names of Ishmael’s leaders, who are known as נְשִׂיאִים, are names that last forever. The Malbim notes further that both the leaders of Ishmael and Israel are called, “N’see’eem,” meaning “those who bear.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that “N’see’eem” are leaders who are like clouds that absorb from the earth, but give back to the earth in the form of rain. The leaders of Esau, however, are called אַלּוּפִים “Ah’loo’fim,” representing raw power, and seek only to dominate, benefitting only themselves. The leaders of Ishmael and Israel are leaders who take responsibility and are not focused on self-aggrandizement.

The May’am Loez says that the names of Ishmael’s children that are mentioned (Genesis 25:14), “Mishmah, Dumah and Massa,” are sacred names that have hidden meanings, indicating that, “One who bears no grudge and forgives friends, will merit Torah.”

That all of the names of Ishmael’s children are recorded in the Torah is also very unusual. The rabbis attribute it to the fact that Ishmael showed great respect to his deceased father, which is indicated by the fact that Ishmael traveled a great distance to bury his deceased father Abraham.

When evaluating Ishmael, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch finds ambivalent indications in the verse, Genesis 25:16. The Torah states, אֵלֶּה הֵם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹתָם בְּחַצְרֵיהֶם וּבְטִירֹתָם, These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names by their “courtyards” and by their “strongholds.” Rabbi Hirsch concludes that the Torah’s use of the words “courtyards” and “strongholds,” suggests that Ishmael and his descendants are endowed with characteristics they inherited from both Abraham and Hagar. In spirit and intelligence, they are similar to Abraham. However, with respect to morals, they are more like Hagar.

Rabbi Hirsch maintains that the children of Ishmael do not submit to the constraints, חַצְרֵיהֶם, towns, nor to טִירֹתָם, absolute rulers.

The commentators find an alternate interpretation to the conclusion of the verse, שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם, לְאֻמֹּתָם, usually translated as twelve chieftains for their nations, to mean אִמָּהוֹת, referring to mothers–that only the mothers of the Ishmaelites were known for sure, but not their fathers. Again, casting aspersions on the children of Ishmael.

While certain commentators demonstrate that there are numerous negative ways of reading the texts concerning Ishmael and his children, it is clear that the Ishmaelites are endowed with many special and favorable qualities, which they inherited from their noble forebear, Abraham.

Despite the tendency to downplay the positive endowments of our Ishmaelite cousins, it is impossible to deny or disregard the extraordinary powers of Ishmaelite prayer (Lech Lecha 5762-2002). While the values that they inherited from Hagar may be murky, the spirit and intelligence that they inherited from their father Abraham, endowed them with nobility that cannot be denied.

After all the millennia, the descendants of Isaac and the children of Ishmael–the Arabs and the Palestinians, have still not reconciled with one another. Hopefully, that reconciliation will not be long in coming. But, it is certainly important to acknowledge and respect the special qualities of the children of Ishmael that are clearly identified by the Torah and by many of our illustrious commentators.

May you be blessed.

Lech Lecha 5776-2015

“What’s in a Name?—a Change of  Destiny”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, we read of two major covenants that G-d sealed with Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham). In the first covenant, known as בְּרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים “Brit bayn ha’b’tah’rim,” the Covenant between the Pieces, G-d confirms that Abram and his children will experience exile, enslavement and persecution. After 400 years, his descendants will eventually return with great wealth to the land of Canaan, which they will inherit for themselves and for future generations. The second covenant is the Covenant of Circumcision, requiring all the male members of Abram’s household to be circumcised on the foreskin of their flesh. As part of this covenant, Abram receives a new name and a new destiny.

In Genesis 17:4-5, G-d says to Abram, אֲנִי, הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ; וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם. וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם, וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ, As for Me, this is My covenant with you. Your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of a multitude of nations.

G-d also promises Abraham that he will be exceedingly fruitful and that many nations and kings will emerge from him. G-d confirms that His covenant will be between Abraham and his offspring throughout the generations for an everlasting covenant, and assures Abraham that he and his offspring will be given the entire land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.

According to the Hebrew calculation, this all occurred in the Hebrew year 2047, calculated from the creation of the world. At the time, Abraham was 99 years old, Sarah was 89 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old. 24 years had passed since Abraham had set forth for the Promised Land from Haran, and 13 years had gone by since the birth of Ishmael. Sarah’s proposal to Abraham that her husband bear children through her handmaiden, Hagar, had been a dismal failure.

In parashat Lech Lecha, Sarai, Abraham’s wife, also has her name and destiny changed. The Torah, in Genesis 17:15-16 states, שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ, לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי, כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ. וּבֵרַכְתִּי אֹתָהּ, וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן; וּבֵרַכְתִּיהָ וְהָיְתָה לְגוֹיִם, מַלְכֵי עַמִּים מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ, G-d said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife–-do not call her “Sarai,” for “Sarah” is her name. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son through her; I will bless her and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples will rise from her.

The great Bible scholar and historian, Nahum M. Sarna, in his fascinating and erudite book Understanding Genesis, explains the significance of names in the ancient Near East, their meanings, and the implication of a change in name. Professor Sarna asserts that in the psychology of the ancient world, a name was not only a convenient means of identification. In fact, Sarna maintains that, “The name of a man was intimately involved in the very essence of his being, and inextricably intertwined with his personality.” Dr. Sarna notes that in the Genesis creation story, G-d caringly gives names to the first things He created. To be anonymous, without a name, says Sarna, is the equivalent to “non-being.” When a name is cut off it means that its bearer has ended existence, or been annihilated. That is why, Sarna points out, the Torah encourages the ritual of יִבּוּם Yee’boom, “levirate marriage” for a man who dies childless. It is performed in the hope that the first son born to the widowed wife will be named after her late husband, so that the deceased’s name will not be blotted out in Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).

There is a long tradition in Judaism, especially in Kabbalah, that a name given to a child at birth has a profound impact on that child’s destiny. The child’s destiny is also impacted by the moral and spiritual character of the previous name-bearer, the person after whom the child is named.

The Torah, says Sarna, invests name giving with great importance and that a change in name is “an event of major significance.” In the ancient Near East, a king who would inaugurate a new era or a new state policy would frequently assume a new name.

Jacob, Joseph, Hoshaya (Joshua), the two Judean kings–Eliakim (Jehoiakim) and Mattaniah (Zedekiah), the prophet Daniel and his friends all experienced a change of name, symbolizing “the transmutation of character and destiny.” Of course, both Abraham and Jacob experience a name change. However, Isaac, whose name was expressly ordained by G-d before Isaac’s birth, does not undergo a name change.

Professor Sarna also points out the curious fact that the names of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the names of certain great Biblical heroes, like Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon, are never given to any other personages in the Bible. He attributes this to the “notion that the origins and fate of the People of Israel are central to the Divine plan of history.”

In Genesis 12:2, upon leaving Haran and setting out for Canaan, G-d tells Abraham, וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ, וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה, And I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. From this context it is possible to understand what the concept of “a great name” actually means. Clearly, it is much more than a name change. Not only will Abram have an heir and be the progenitor of a nation, he will actually become “the father of a multitude of nations.” An entirely new and rich destiny now awaits Abraham and his descendants.

The new name “Abraham” takes on great importance. The Talmud (Berachot 13a) comments, “Whoever refers to Abraham as Abram (after G-d changed his name), transgresses a positive command, since it says your name will be Abraham.” Such a person also transgresses a negative commandment, since it says: “You shall no longer be named Abram.”

The May’am Lo’ez warns that one should always be careful when enunciating the name “Abraham” whenever it appears in prayer, so that it is not slurred and sound like “Abram.”

So we see, a change in name in Jewish tradition means much more than a change in the letters or spelling of the name. It may very well indicate a major change in the destiny of the person who undergoes the name change, and a dramatic transformation in the history of humankind.

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5776-2015

“The Trials of Abraham”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, includes at least three of the ten trials that Abraham faced during his life.

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers 5:3, declares that Abraham was tested with ten tests and withstood them all. But the Mishnah does not specify what those tests were. In fact, there is a rabbinic dispute concerning those ten trials.

Maimonides, in his commentary to Mishnah Avot 5:3, lists the trials as follows: 1. Abram is told by G-d to leave his homeland and his family, to seek out a new land that G-d will show him. 2. When Abraham arrives in the new land, he encounters famine and has to leave to Egypt. 3. The Egyptians capture his beloved wife Sarai, and bring her to Pharaoh. 4. Abraham has to battle the four most powerful kings of the ancient Near East. 5. Abraham is given Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar, as a wife, so that he may have children with her, because Sarai is barren. 6. Abraham is instructed by G-d to circumcise himself at the advanced age of 99 years. 7. The Philistine king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself. 8. G-d tells Abraham to banish Hagar after she had given birth to his child. 9. Ishmael is also driven out from his father’s home. 10. G-d tells Abraham to offer up his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

Other commentators, such as Ovadiah of Bartenura, include certain events in their list of trials, which are recorded only in the Midrash, and not mentioned in the Bible. So, for instance, the Bartenura lists the fact that Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace by King Amraphel in the Ur of Chaldees.

As noted earlier, at least three or four of Abraham’s trials are to be found in parashat Vayeira. In Genesis 20, when Abraham is in Gerar, Sarah is abducted. In Genesis 21, Hagar and Ishmael are expelled. In chapter 22, Abraham is faced with the final trial of the עֲקֵידָה  Akeida, as G-d commands him to bind Isaac on the altar atop Mount Moriah.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his studies in Sefer HaParashiot, on parashat Vayeira, analyzes the purpose of the trials. Rabbi Kitov notes that of the patriarchs, only Abraham is tested, and not Isaac or Jacob. Despite the fact that Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, the Akeida is considered a test only of Abraham and not of Isaac.

Rabbi Kitov maintains that it is impossible to suggest that G-d really “tests” a person–since G-d always knows the outcome of the test. The true purpose of the test is to enable G-d to show the world Abraham’s righteousness. However, this explanation is not entirely satisfying, otherwise G-d would have tested Isaac and Jacob as well. Furthermore, the trial of the Akeida, which is considered the greatest of Abraham’s tests, was conducted in private. Only Abraham and Isaac witnessed it. The Akeida is only known because the Torah publicized it. So what is the true purpose of the test?

Rabbi Kitov argues that the Divine tests are conducted in order to benefit the one who is tested. The one who successfully passes the test is ultimately strengthened and is enabled to more easily follow his chosen path. The trial purifies the one who is tested from any impurities and distances that person from those roads that might lead one astray. Abraham, who came from an ignoble background, needed the purification, whereas his son, Isaac and his grandson, Jacob, no longer needed those trials in order to be purified since they were themselves descended from the now pure and complete Abraham.

According to Kitov, our rabbis teach that when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, good and evil in the world were intermingled. Both good and evil penetrated all the deeds and acts of all people, even those who attempted to do only good deeds. For the first twenty generations of humankind, from Adam to Abraham, it was impossible to cleanse the evil from the good, or to separate them. At times, evil overwhelmed the good, almost leading to the destruction of the world. This is what happened in the time of the flood and the building of the Tower of Babel.

The Al-mighty, however, wished to renew the world, to give it a truly solid foundation that would never crumble. To accomplish this, it is required that good entirely overwhelm evil. And if even a single person was able to accomplish that, that one person’s merits could swing the scale and save the entire world.

G-d could not create a pure world by fashioning Abraham into a pure new creature, since the evil emanating from the other humans who were yet alive would endure. Therefore, the Al-mighty created Abraham within the existing world, enabling Abraham to purify and repair all the existing creations.

Abraham, the spiritual giant, was that one person who was able to cleanse himself from all evil, so that he could worship G-d fully. Abraham succeeded to use every one of his 248 limbs for goodness and purity. He fought with all his might to overcome any evil that he encountered and to transform it into good. Fortunately, Abraham was also able to call upon the merits of some of his righteous ancestors, Shem, Ever, and Arpachshad, to help him vanquish evil.

It was through the ten trials that Abraham succeeded in purifying himself, to take the good that was in him and to make it even purer, so that he could, in effect, be regarded as a new creation.

In order to succeed, Abraham needed to master the three pillars upon which the world stands, תּוֹרָה, עֲבוֹדָה, גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, Torah, service and acts of loving-kindness, (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:2). Abraham learned from Noah, who fed and cared for all the creatures of the world in his ark, to do acts of loving-kindness. He learned Torah from his grandfathers, Shem and Ever.

His challenge now was to show G-d that he had mastered the art of עֲבוֹדָה Avodah–uncompromising service to the Al-mighty.

From a young age, Abraham was prepared to put his life on the line in order to save others from evil and to redirect them from their wayward ways. In a fateful act, intended to defy the idolaters, Abraham was prepared to be thrown into the fiery furnace. When he could no longer do his outreach work publicly in Mesopotamia, he moved to Haran, where he was out of Nimrod’s reach and influence. It was in Haran that he and Sarai gathered the “souls” of men and women, enabling them to embrace G-d.

But suddenly, G-d informs Abram to go to a land, without specifying which land, a land in which the Canaanites and the Perezites, the brothers of Nimrod, dwell. He was concerned about leaving his spiritual “converts” back in Haran. Who would teach them Torah? Perhaps they would forsake everything they learned? Nevertheless, G-d insisted that he leave the land and leave his followers behind. It was a test for Abraham of immense proportions, in effect, negating all that he had accomplished in Haran where he effectively spread the word of Torah.

Once Abraham reached the Promised Land, he was tested again in another fundamental area of his belief–-חֶסֶד Chesed, when he was instructed to chase out his handmaid, Hagar, and her child, Ishmael. Abraham, who had spent his entire life trying to imitate G-d’s qualities of loving-kindness, welcoming people from near and far, was commanded to perform an act of singular cruelty.

Not a single person ever passed by Abraham’s tent without being invited in for food, drink, sleeping and accompaniment. All of Abraham’s wherewithal was dedicated to his passion for welcoming guests, even if they were idolaters. And now, he must chase out his own wife and son, Hagar and Ishmael, forcing them to leave with a little bread and water. They could no longer remain in his home, and he could not show any compassion.

While it is true that Ishmael was accused of being מְצַחֵק, of trying to sexually molest Isaac, and that Ishmael was a potential killer, yet Abraham had already welcomed idolaters into his home, who had similar evil attributes, and he had compassion for them. But now, for his own son, he was not permitted to show compassion. G-d demands of Abraham, “I am the compassionate G-d. It is not for you to be compassionate. The Al-mighty is compassionate on all His creatures (Psalm 145). You, Abraham, must fulfill the will of the Creator, and chase the child out.”

Ultimately, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael turned out to be for their own benefit. As the offspring of Abraham, Ishmael was given the gift of life and the ability to endure for many generations. G-d would not have tested Abraham if he were not capable of meeting the test.

Now Abraham faced the ultimate test–-the test of service, Avodah (the Akeida). For 137 years, Abraham served G-d with all his might, with every limb of his body. Abraham would encourage all the inhabitants of the world to “taste” the goodness of G-d. Abraham proclaimed to those near and far that the Al-mighty does not want human sacrifice of sons and daughters. Nor is there a need to constantly fast or to do any bodily harm. G-d only wants humankind to taste and see the goodness of G-d.

But now G-d tells Abraham, “Bring Me your son as an offering.” He had already cast out Ishmael, his oldest child. With the Akeida, everything that Abraham had learned in the service of G-d would be nullified. After all, G-d had promised him that through Isaac he will have children, and now he is told to bring that same child up as an offering!

“You, Abraham, must nullify your will before G-d. Take your child and bring him up as an offering!”

It was through the trial of the Akeida that Abraham achieved complete purity. Giving up his own personal will, he renounced his essence to Heaven. The successful test of the Akeida, enabled Abraham to prove to G-d that he had mastered Avodah–ultimate service to the Divine.

It was through this selfless act that Abraham further purified the good that was already in him. He became a new creation, bringing redemption to all humanity by restoring them to the state of purity that preceded the sin of the Garden of Eden.

May you be blessed.

Noah 5776-2015

“Noah – A Hero of Limited Proportions ”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read of the only living person whom G-d considered worthy of being saved (together with his family) from the great flood waters that were to inundate the world.

As we have previously noted, Noah is a man of striking contrasts, which are extensively discussed and analyzed by both the sages and the Bible commentators.

One of the most famous Biblical comments authored by the great exegete, Rashi, is found on the opening verse of parashat Noah. The Torah writes, in Genesis 6:9, אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ–נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק, תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, These are the generations of Noah–Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations.

Rashi comments on the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו, in his generations, by stating that some sages conclude from this seemingly superfluous phrase that Noah was a man of great stature. They argue that had Noah lived in a generation of righteous people such as the generation of Abraham, he would have been even more righteous than Abraham. Others conclude that Noah should be regarded as a righteous person only when judged by the standards of “his generation.” Had Noah lived in a more upstanding generation, such as Abraham’s generation, he would hardly have been considered a person of moral significance.

Over the past few years I have been sharing with you, with increasing frequency, the commentaries of Rabbi Yaakov Filber, who is one of the leading contemporary scholars, educators and expositors of the philosophy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Rabbi Filber astutely contrasts the differences between Noah and his great descendant, Abraham. He dramatically compares Noah’s limited personal vision and outlook, with the broad, visionary ideas and perspectives of Abraham.

Noah had the great misfortune of being born, and to have to live out his life in an environment that was exceedingly decadent and sinful. The Midrash in Bereshith Rabah 25, states that when G-d created the world he placed Adam, the first human being, in charge of everything. Animals that were trained to work in the fields, always responded obediently to the instructions of their masters. The furrows in the fields always followed the proper digging movements of the plow. However, once the human beings defied G-d and sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, nature rebelled. Field animals no longer responded to the instructions of their masters, nor did the furrow follow the path cut by the blades of the plow.

And so the world began its precipitous decline, until it hit bottom in the days of Noah. The commentators conclude that nature itself became corrupt, and deduce that fact from the verse in Genesis 6:3, לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר, [G-d says] My spirit shall not contend evermore concerning Man, since he is but flesh–not only will G-d’s living creatures not obey their masters, nature itself became corrupt. The Midrash states that harvesters could not harvest what they planted. They would plant wheat, and harvest thistles and thorns.

Initially, Noah seemed to be a man of broad vision, who was actually concerned with the needs of his generation. When he saw the great challenges faced by the workers in the field who had to plow by hand, he invented tools to relieve their burdens–a mechanical plow, the scythe and the sickle. Scripture actually testifies that members of his generation generously praised Noah by declaring, (Genesis 5:29), זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ, “This person [Noah] shall comfort us from our work and from the toil of our hands!”

Noah’s attempts to enhance societal life, proved unsuccessful. Members of his generation were thoroughly ungrateful, and Noah’s good deeds were “repaid” with corruption and violence, led by leaders who were known as, (Genesis 6:2), בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים,” sons of gods.” Soon the corruption spread to the multitudes, until the entire earth was filled with violence.

The Torah testifies (Genesis 6:9) that Noah walked with G-d. The rabbis of the Midrash HaGadol interpreted this to mean that Noah walked modestly, in innocence and with honesty before his Creator. Noah not only felt that his generation had betrayed him, but actually felt persecuted by his contemporaries. Refusing to forget how he had been mistreated, Noah finally decided to isolate himself from the members of his generation, and was determined not to forgive.

Becoming increasingly introverted, Noah stopped fraternizing with his former friends and neighbors, and began to focus exclusively on his own family. When G-d announced (Genesis 6:13), קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי, “the end of all flesh has come before Me,” declaring that the world would soon be destroyed, Noah made no attempt to petition the Al-mighty for mercy on behalf of his friends and neighbors and other members of his generation. This is a stark contrast to Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom to be forgiven, and to Moses who prayed to G-d to pardon those who sinned with the Golden Calf.

The Zohar, in parahsat Vayikrah, states that when G-d said to Noah, “the end of all flesh has come before Me,” Noah’s only question was, “What will You do with me?” Noah never asked G-d to show compassion to the other inhabitants of the world.

Without G-d’s intervention, the powerful rains began to fall and inundate the entire earth. The prophet, Isaiah 54:9, calls the flood waters, מֵי נֹחַthe waters of Noah, because everything depended upon Noah, and he did nothing to help the victims.

The Al-mighty had hoped that when the people would see Noah build an ark, they would ask him what he was doing. However, when Noah went out to buy cedar wood for the ark, all he would say was that G-d had told him to build an ark, and that there was going to be a flood. The people consequently paid no attention to him (Midrash Tanchumah).

Rabbi Filber asserts that the same malaise and discontent that Noah felt in his generation, Abraham also felt in his generation. Abraham, as well, was severely persecuted by the people of his generation, who even threw him into a fiery furnace because of his resistance to the idolatrous practices of the people. Abraham, too, could easily have resigned himself to a solitary life and refused to have anything to do with his contemporaries. When he was saved from the furnace, Abraham could have just opted to stay home and to focus on his own family and their needs.

Abraham, however, does not seek to avenge those who tried to kill him. Rather, as Maimonides writes in the Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1, Abraham rose and cried out in a loud voice to all the people, informing them that there was but one G-d for the entire world Who is worthy of their loyalty. Throughout his entire sojourn in Mesopotamia, Abraham, the “victim,” went back and forth, crying out and gathering all the people from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom, urging them to renounce their pagan practices, until he reached the land of Canaan.

Rav Kook in his essay, עֵרֶךְ הַתּֽחִיָּה Erech Hat’chee’yah, (Orot 145), lyrically portrays the character of Abraham,

A great and broad soul appears, filled with all its aspirations. Due to its immense desire for freedom and light, the soul feels the great pain of all the tragedies of the world. This was the soul of Abraham. How profoundly is his soul stirred when Abraham sees the possibilities of happiness and light that awaits each of G-d’s creatures. The lion [Abraham] then breaks out of its cage, takes hold of his staff, destroys the false idols and calls out with passion to the light–to the one G-d, to the G-d of the world.

Abraham, says Rabbi Kook, was not indifferent to the failures of the human being. Instead, he tried to correct them. This quality of Abraham, is what the nation of Israel eventually inherits, and embraces for themselves as the basis of their national way of life and their historic destiny.

Rabbi Filber concludes his essay in which he contrasts Noah and Abraham, by stating that there are many good reasons for those who live today to draw the wagons around them and hide from the many challenges of contemporary life–-to admit defeat and to say that there is little that can be done to change reality. However, we today, also have the choice to boldly stand up, like Abraham, and strive to address the source of the malaise.

We, today, can collectively overcome the depression that infects the world today, and strike out to bring a new positive and optimistic spirit to humanity. We can passionately announce that, with G-d’s help, all the problems we face can be solved. It is, thus, our solemn responsibility to go forth, to light the fire and to spread the spirit of G-d throughout the world.

May you be blessed.

Bereshith 5776-2015

“Seth–Adam and Eve’s Little-Known Son”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bereshith, murder is introduced to the world, and the first instance of fratricide is committed by Cain, who slays his brother, Abel.

In Genesis 4:1-2, the Torah informs us that the first human being (Adam) knew Eve, his wife, and that she conceived and bore their first child, Cain. She then bore his brother, Abel. The Torah narrative notes that Cain became an agriculturalist, who tilled the soil, while Abel became a shepherd.

The fateful confrontation between the brothers takes place in a field. The Torah, in Genesis 4:8, relates, enigmatically, that Cain spoke with his brother Abel, but does not tell us what they discussed. Suddenly, scripture declares, Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.

Although there are numerous theories about why they argued, all are speculative. The only thing known for certain is that Abel is no longer among the living. Cain is then harshly cursed by G-d, and is told that the earth has rejected him, and that he will become a wanderer on the face of the earth. Despite his harsh fate, Cain goes on to become the progenitor of many generations of talented children and grandchildren. (Bereshith 5763-2002).

Eventually Cain, the murderer, is killed by his own great-great-grandson, Lamech, apparently by accident.

130 years have passed since the murder of Abel. During these seven generations, nothing at all is heard of Adam and Eve. It is only after we learn how deeply pained Lamech is about the role he played in the death of his great-grandfather, that we are reintroduced to the “First Couple.”

In Genesis 4:25 we are told, וַיֵּדַע אָדָם עוֹד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, כִּי שָׁת לִי אֱ־לֹקִים זֶרַע אַחֵר תַּחַת הֶבֶל כִּי הֲרָגוֹ קָיִן, Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, saying that: “G-d has provided me another child in place of Abel, for Cain had killed him.”

The Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah, 14:12, maintains that Seth is called, “Seth,” because the world was “set” from him, שֶׁמִּמֶּנּוּ הֻשְׁתַּת הָעוֹלָם. His mother called him, שֵׁת “Sheht” because G-d gave her another child. The Midrash in Genesis Rabbah 23:7 concludes from this, that the Messiah will eventually emerge from Seth, referring to his illustrious descendants, Ruth and King David.

Rashi cites a fascinating Midrash found in Bereshith Rabbah 23:5, which maintains that after the death of Cain, Lamech sought out Adam to confer with him about his marital problems. Apparently, his wives had separated from him (either because he had killed his great-grandfather as well as a son, Tubal Cain, or because the women had calculated that after seven generations the descendants of Cain would all die in a flood).

As a gesture of sympathy to Lamech, Adam reproves his great-grandson’s wives, Ada and Tzeelah, for not fulfilling the commandment of procreation. They sharply respond, “Why don’t you [Adam] practice what you preach. Since the time that G-d decreed (Genesis 3:19) that man will not live eternally, you have separated from your wife for 130 years.” Immediately, Adam knew his wife, and it was then that Seth was born.

In Genesis 4:26, scripture states, וּלְשֵׁת גַּם הוּא יֻלַּד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ, אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם השׁם, And as for Seth, to him also a son was born, and he named him, Enosh. Then it was begun to call in the name of the L-rd.

It is interesting to note that contrary to Biblical custom, it is Seth, not his wife, who gives the name, Enosh, to their son. Although Seth becomes the progenitor of the entire human race, this is all we know about him from the Biblical text.

Two additional references regarding Seth are found in the following chapter that contains the recapitulation of the Biblical genealogy, but they too tell us little about Adam and Eve’s third child. Genesis 5:3 states, וַיְחִי אָדָם שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁת, When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot in his likeness and his image, and he named him Seth. In Genesis 5:8, we are informed that Seth died at age 912 years.

The only other indirect scriptural reference to Seth is found in Numbers 24:17, in the final prophecy of Balaam regarding Israel, Moab and their neighbors. There, Balaam predicts that, “A star has issued forth from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel. He shall pierce the nobles of Moab and undermine the children of Seth.” According to Rashi, the star refers to a Jewish king who will rise, and with his royal scepter bring all those who oppose him under his sway. Not only will he defeat the nobles of Moab, he will actually vanquish the entire world. Since Seth was the progenitor of all humankind, the expression “Children of Seth” is used here to represent all the people on the face of the earth.

The sages note that scripture describes only Seth, but not Cain and Abel, as being born, בִּדְמוּתוֹ כְּצַלְמוֹ, in the image and likeness of Adam, his father. Rabbi Yosi is cited in the Zohar, as saying that this is an indication that it will only be through Seth that the world will continue to exist. Certainly not through Cain or Abel, since Abel, who was childless, was murdered and all of Cain’s children perished in the flood.

Seth is therefore referred to (Zohar Chadash, Ruth 385) as, יְסוֹד הָעוֹלָם “Y’sohd ha’oh’lahm,” the foundation of the world, because of the many good and righteous people who eventually descended from him. According to a Kabbalistic tradition (Zohar, Genesis 371), all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with the exception of the last two letters that compose the name Seth were lost after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The other twenty letters of the Hebrew alphabet were restored, when Israel received the Torah at Sinai.

The Sefer Ha’Ikarim, declares that three diverse ideologies are represented by Cain, Abel and Seth, the three children of Adam and Eve. Cain, the agriculturalist, was convinced that working the land was the ultimate duty of humankind. Land and statehood became ultimate values for him, even if it meant that it would be necessary to kill his brother to obtain them. Abel, the shepherd, felt that statesmanship is the fundamental principle of life, a principle of such great import that one must be prepared to place one’s life at risk, and even sacrifice one’s life in order to become a complete human being. Seth regarded worship of the Divine as the foremost principle, rejecting alien authority and material successes. Because Seth’s philosophy was not easily understood by others, few were attracted to his life’s philosophy (Sefer Ha’Ikarim, statement 3, chapter 15).

What emerges from all of this is that the least-known child of Adam and Eve becomes the progenitor of all of humankind, and introduces good and noble values into the world that survive the flood. It is the barely-acknowledged Seth, who brings about the renewal of humankind, drawing them all closer to the Divine spirit that inhabits each of them.

May you be blessed.

v’Zot Habracha-Simchat Torah 5776-2015

“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”

(originally posted in 5770-2009)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The festival of Simchat Torah, the rejoicing with the Law, is one of two major festivals during which we celebrate with the Torah with great fervor. The festival of Shavuot, observed on the sixth of Sivan, marks the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Many Jews celebrate Shavuot by staying up all night studying Torah showing their devotion to Torah and to atone for our people’s reputed sin of falling asleep on the night before the Torah was given at Sinai. Simchat Torah, on the other hand, appears to be a pure, unadulterated celebration of Torah.

The obvious reason that the Torah is the “centerpiece” of this festival is because on this day, with the reading of parashat v’Zot Habracha, we conclude the Five Books of Moses and start the Book of Genesis with parashat Bereishith, the story of creation. Although the weekly portion of Bereishith will be read in its entirety on the following Shabbat, we show our abiding love for Torah by immediately beginning to read the Torah as soon as the Book of Deuteronomy is concluded.

There is a powerful connection between parashat v’Zot Habracha and the festival of Simchat Torah. It is in this parasha that Moses exhorts the Jewish people regarding the importance of establishing Torah as the center of all Jewish life. In Deuteronomy 33:4, as part of his last testament, Moses says, תּוֹרָה צִוָּה לָנוּ מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, the Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.  Rashi dramatically describes the Jews’ relationship with the Torah by stating:  אֲחַזֽנוּהָ וֽלֹא נַעַזֽבֶנָּה, we grasped it [Torah] and we will never abandon it, underscoring the uncompromising commitment of the Jewish people to Torah and the indispensable role that Torah plays, serving as the lifeblood of all Jews.

So deep is the Jew’s relationship to Torah that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 91b, focusing on the word   מוֹרָשָׁה “mo’rah’shah“-heritage-cites Rabbi Yehudah saying in the name of Rav that whoever withholds a Jewish law or any Torah principle from his disciple is as though he had robbed him of his ancestral heritage. Furthermore, the rabbis boldly assert, the Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance destined for all Israel, from the six days of Creation. That is why it is not at all surprising that the Torah is often compared to water without which we could not survive for any extended length of time. Thus, from the rabbinic point of view, on Simchat Torah we do not celebrate the gift of Torah, but rather the very elixir of life.

The Ramban explains the word “Mo’rah’shah” to mean that the Torah is a heritage of the Jewish people, indicating an inalienable possession of the Jewish people that is passed on from generation to generation through transmission and teaching.

The ArtScroll Stone edition of the Chumash cites Rabbi Mordechai Gifter who explains the difference between the Hebrew word  נַחֲלָה, meaning inheritance, and “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage. An inheritance, says Rabbi Gifter, is for the heirs to use and dispose of in any way they wish. However, a heritage is the property of both the preceding generations and the following generations. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the heirs to preserve the heritage intact for future generations. It may not be frittered away as a common inheritance.

It is because of the fear that Israel would consider the Torah as an inheritance rather than a heritage that Rabbi Yose in Avot 2:17 states, וְהַתְקֵן עַצְמְךָ לִלְמֹד תּוֹרָה, שֶׁאֵינָהּ יְרֻשָּׁה לָךְ, prepare yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not given to you as an inheritance. Although, the words “mo’rah’shah” and יְרֻשָּׁה  “y’rusha” are closely related, they apparently do not mean the same thing. Mo’rah’shah means heritage, whereas y’rusha, like nachalah, means inheritance.

In order to further this distinction, our rabbis in Tractate Pesachim 49b offer an unusual interpretation based on a play of words from Deuteronomy 33:4. They insist: Do not read the word as “Mo’rah’shah,” a heritage, but rather as “M’oh’rah’sah,” betrothed. Since an inheritance is something that the heir never built nor was the inherited money personally earned, the heir might treat the estate in a rather flippant manner, squandering and spending it as he pleases. A M’oh’rah’sah, a betrothed woman, on the other hand, is a bride whose future husband has already assumed [in the first part of the wedding ceremony] a series of serious obligations to love, honor, cherish and support his future wife.

Mr. Irving Bunim maintains in his classic work Ethics From Sinai, that our rabbis wisely chose the metaphor of betrothal. The people of Israel are betrothed to Torah because of the sacred vow that was assumed during the marriage ceremony between G-d and Israel at Sinai. It is not simply something inherited from the past, from grandparents and great-grandparents that loses its relevance in the “WiFi” and digital age, but rather something with which the contemporary generation has a personal bond, as did past generations. Far from being a relic of the past, it is the living embodiment of the present and the future.

The literal interpretation of  מוֹרָשָׁה קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב, meaning a heritage of the community of Israel, raises the issue of “unappreciated” heritages. Unfortunately, Jewish history is replete with examples of noble leaders whose children rejected their heritage. The prophet Samuel’s children did not follow his righteous path. Instead, they chose to pursue wealth, engage in bribery and distort judgment (I Samuel 8:1-3). Therefore, they did not inherit the mantle of leadership.

The great Moses himself, we are told in Avot d’Rav Natan 17:3, realized that his own sons would not be worthy of assuming the mantle of leadership for Israel. In despair, Moses wrapped himself in his tallit and cried out before G-d, “Master of the Universe, tell me, who will lead this people?” (See Numbers 27:16-17). The Al-mighty responded (Proverbs 27:18), “Those who guard the fig tree shall eat its fruits.” Only those who prepare themselves to study Torah are worthy of leading the people. While your children sat idly, Joshua served you diligently and accorded you great honor. Joshua would rise early every morning and remain until late each night in your house of study. He would arrange the benches and lay out the carpets. He served you with all his might, preparing himself for future leadership. It is he who is worthy of leading Israel (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 21:15).

While the verse in Deuteronomy seems to indicate that there is a guarantee that Torah will be transmitted from generation to generation, that guarantee is not assured to each person, but rather to the community as a whole. It is therefore incumbent upon each generation to reaffirm its commitment to Torah. That is exactly what we do on the festival of Simchat Torah, by both individually and communally celebrating the conclusion of the study of the Five Books of Moses and reaffirming our commitment to begin anew with enthusiasm and fervor.

May you be blessed.

The final days of the Tishrei holidays begin on Sunday evening, October 4th and continue all day Monday, October 5th, Shemini Atzeret (click here). The festival of Simchat Torah (click here) commences on Monday night, October 5th and is celebrated all day Tuesday, October 6th.

May this season be a joyous time for all, punctuated by happiness and good health. Chag Samayach!

“The Confluence of v’Zot Habracha and the Holiday”

cheap Jerseys wholesale nfl jerseys wholesale nfl jerseys cheap oakleys cheap jerseys Cheap Jerseys fake oakleys fake ray ban sunglasses cheap gucci replica cheap oakleys cheap ray ban sunglasses fake oakleys replica oakleys fake cheap ray bans fake oakleys cheap gucci replica wholesale jerseys shop cheap fake watch sale replica oakleys replica gucci red bottom shoes cheap jerseys cheap oakleys fake oakleys cheap replica oakleys cheap replica oakleys fake oakleys replica oakleys cheap oakleys wholesale cheap oakleys outlet