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Torah Thoughts: Parashat MIketz – Hanukkah 5779

This week we read Parashat Miketz, which continues the story of Joseph and his brothers. In addition, this Shabbat we will also be celebrating Hanukkah, so I would like to share with you a Hanukkah message in this Torah Thoughts.

How do we light the Hanukkah candles? We first light the Shamash (the “attendant” or “servant” candle). Then we say the proper blessings, and then, with the help of the Shamash, we light the appropriate number of candles for each night. On the first night we light one candle, on the second night we light two candles and so on until the eighth and last night, when we light eight candles. However, this way of lighting the Hanukkah candles was not the only one the sages knew. In fact, the Talmud registers the following discussion regarding how to proceed.

Beit Shammai says:  On the first day one lights eight and from then on one continues to decrease, and Beit Hillel says: On the first day one lights one and from then on one continues to increase (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b).


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Parashat Vayeshev 5779

Joseph’s life’s ups and downs

This week we are starting to read about Joseph’s life. Starting with this week’s parashah until the end of the Book of Bereshit, we will be reading Joseph’s stories.

It is interesting to note that of the fifty chapters that compose the Book of Genesis, exactly half – twenty-five- are about Jacob and his family. Of those twenty-five, thirteen are devoted to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. The Book of Bereshit devotes more space to Joseph than to anyone else. It means that we have a good understanding of his journeys during his life.  We witness his experiences, mistakes, and changes from the time he was a young man until his death.

Joseph had a life full of ups and downs. Starting with his dreams during his youth, which showed how he wished to be a great person and to be highly acclaimed by his parents and brothers.  His pride and arrogance in his early age caused his brothers to throw him in a pit, a very low place. Joseph’s dreams were of a high position, but his brothers brought him down.

After this episode, Joseph was sold and became the right hand of Potiphar. He went up, but then, he went down again this time to jail, accused by Potiphar’s wife for abusing her.


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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayishlach 5779

This week we read the story of the brothers Jacob and Esau’s reunion. Jacob decides it is time to go back to his home, twenty years after escaping from it because of his brother’s intention to kill him. Jacob is very afraid of what Esau’ might   do when he sees him. He carefully prepares his people for the worst after he is told that Esau is coming toward him with four hundred men.

When the brothers finally meet, Jacob bows low before Esau seven times, almost as if he were asking his brother to have pity on him. What does Esau do? The Torah tells us that, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Up Until this point in the Torah narrative, Esau was described as a strong, unsophisticated and rude man, always fighting with his brother and only interested in physical pleasures. Therefore, it is not surprising that the sages were puzzled by Esau’s reaction when he met Jacob. Was Esau really capable of pardoning his brother? Could he really be so moved by seeing his brother that he even cried on Jacob’s neck? Should we believe that Esau’s reaction was an honest one?

In addition, the Hebrew word for “he kissed him” that appears in the Torah Scroll (Masoretic) text has dots over its letters. This is usually interpreted as a sign that the Torah has a hidden message in these words. Maybe the Torah is trying to tell us that Esau had other intentions, ones that were not so pure?


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Parashat Vayetze 5779- “Two are better off than one”

This week’s parashah tells us that Jacob ran away from his family’s home because he feared that Esau would kill him after Jacob tricked their father into giving him the blessing, the blessing that should have been given to Esau.  

Jacob, our patriarch, reached Haran, where his mother’s family lived.  He saw Rachel there, and it was love at first sight. It is written in the Torah: “Jacob kissed Rachel and broke into tears.” (Bereshit 29: 11). He was so excited to find the love of his life that he cried with emotion.

After that, Jacob made an agreement with Laban, Rachel’s brother.  Jacob would work for him seven years in order to marry Rachel. The Torah says, “Jacob loved Rachel so answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18).

This verse is very special, given that there are few places in the Torah that use the verb ‘to love’ between a man and a woman. We could say that Jacob was the first romantic lover to appear in the Torah.

The parashah tells us that Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, as he had promised, and the text adds a very interesting quote: “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Idem, 20).

Jacob loved Rachel so much that he didn’t realize how hard he had worked and the time passed quickly. Despite the fact that Laban cheated him, giving Jacob Leah instead of Rachel, Jacob decided to work another seven years to marry his beloved Rachel. His love for Rachel made Jacob’s life happy and meaningful.

Thinking about the love between Rachel and Jacob, it is interesting to note that in Judaism, in contrast to other traditions, ascetism and celibacy are not cherished values.


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Parashat Toldot 5779

“Esau and Jacob divided by two different visions of the world”

This week’s parashah begins by telling us that Rebecca couldn’t bear a child; Isaac prayed to God and finally Rebecca became pregnant with twins. It is written that during her pregnancy Rebecca felt that the twins were struggling in her womb. She was concerned about this.

What does it mean that “the children struggled in her womb” (Bereshit 25:22)?

According to Rashi, the Rabbis explain that the word ויתרוצצו (struggled) has the meaning of running, moving quickly: whenever she passed by the doors of the Torah (i. e. the Schools of Shem and Eber) Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to come to birth, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to come to birth (Genesis Rabbah 63:6).

According to this Midrash quoted by Rashi, the infants had different visions of the world since they were in their mother’s womb. Jacob wanted to exit the womb to study Torah when Rebecca passed the school of Shem and Eber and Esau wanted to exit when she passed a pagan place of worship.

Jacob and Esau struggled with one another since they were conceived for their different visions of the world.

And then, as they grew, the Torah tells us of further differences: “When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob” (Bereshit 25: 27-28)

When Jacob and Esau grew up, they chose different styles of life according to theirs beliefs and each one of the parents favored one of them: Rebecca favored Jacob and Isaac favored Esau.  The parents recognized, encouraged, and exacerbated the boys’ differences.

After this, the Torah tells us the famous story about the sale of the birthright:

“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished’—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ And Esau said, ‘I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?’ But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob.” (Bereshit 25: 29-33)

In this episode we can see the different visions of the world that Esau and Jacob hold.


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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Chayei Sarah 5779: Show Up for Shabbat

At the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah we are told about Sarah’s death. Abraham then purchases the cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sarah. Right after that the Torah tells us that Abraham was old and God had blessed him in all things. Perhaps confronting his own loneliness and mortality (as the Chumash Etz Hayim suggests), the first thing Abraham does after burying his wife Sarah is try to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his servant to the place he was born to find a wife for Isaac, since Abraham did not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman.
Why does the Torah tell us that the first thing Abraham did after burying his wife was to worry about finding a wife for his only son? As it has been said, perhaps the death of his beloved wife made him think that he himself might die soon. He felt he was responsible for his son and wanted to fulfill his responsibility as soon as he could. Even more important than that, the divine promise of making of Abraham a great nation was in danger should Isaac not form a family and have descendants.


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Parashat Va-Yera 5779: Is it permitted to tell white lies in Judaism?

We know that truth is a very important value in Judaism and that we shouldn’t lie under any circumstances. But, what about white lies? Is it permitted to tell a white lie, a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person?
In this week’s parashah there is an interesting situation related to this theme. The Torah tells us that three men visited Abraham and Sarah announcing different upcoming news to each of them.
One of the men said, “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (Bereshit 18: 10-12)


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Parashat Noach 5779: Noah and Abraham and their different reactions to a similar decree from God

This week’s parashat, which deals with the well known story of Noah, begins by saying:
“This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. “ (Bereshit 6:9)
What does it mean that Noah was righteous “in his generation”? Why does the text include these words? You can understand the text without it. What does the text want to express?
There is a Midrash that deals with this question:
“What is the meaning of IN HIS GENERATION? Some interpret the phrase to his praise, and some interpret it to his shame, i.e., IN HIS GENERATIONS but not in other generations.
A parable: To what is the matter comparable? If one should put a silver coin among [a hundred] coins of copper, the one of silver would seem beautiful. Thus, did Noah seem righteous in the generation of the flood.
Then, how do some interpret it to his praise? The situation is like a jar of balsam which was put in a tomb where its aroma was good. If it had been in a house, how much better would its aroma have been!” (Midrash Tanhuma Buber Parashat Noach 5).


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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Bereshit 5779: Bereshit, Light and Renewal

 Bereshit, Light and Renewal

This week we begin again the annual reading of the Torah with Parashat Bereshit. This parasha begins with the creation of the world. The first thing created by God is light. As it is written,

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3)

Without light we would not be able to see and survive. That is why we thank God every day, during the morning prayers, for having created light. The first blessing before the reading of the three paragraphs of Shema Israel says,

Praised are you Adonai our God, who rules the universe, creating light and fashioning darkness, ordaining the order of all creation (see for example the Siddur Sim Shalom we use every Shabbat, on page 107)

The famous Chassidic rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Ukraine, 1740–1809) noticed that the blessing is written in the present tense. It says that God creates the light, not that He created it. Why is that? According to Rabbi Levi, this reminds us that the creation processes are constant. They did not cease even for a moment since the creation of the world. That is why we say in the weekday morning blessing before Shema Israel, “in Your goodness, day after day You renew creation.”


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Torah Thoughts: Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot 5779

A Fragile Sukkah, a Fragile Life

This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot. The main symbol of this festival is of course the Sukkah, the booth in which we live, or at least have our meals, for seven days.

If you build a sukkah every year, or if you ever built a sukkah in the past, you know very well that sometimes it is hard to keep your sukkah in good condition for seven days. Rain, wind and other climatic factors make it difficult to have the sukkah at the end of Sukkot looking the same way it did before Sukkot began.

The question is, should we feel bad because we cannot fully guarantee our sukkah will hold up during the festival? My answer is, not only should we not feel badly about it but, in fact, one of the most important lessons we learn during Sukkot is that nothing in this world is as strong and durable as it seems to be.


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