Lech Lecha 5778

Avoiding gifts[1]

ויאמר אברם אל-מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל-יקוק קל עליון קנה שמים וארץ: אם-מחוט ועד שרוך-נעל ואם-אקח מכל-אשר-לך ולא תאמר אני העשרתי את-אברם
Avram said to the King of Sedom: “I raise up my hand to Hashem, the Divine G-d, owner of Heaven and Earth [and swear][2], [such and such should happen to me] if I [take even] a string or a shoe-strap or I take anything of yours, [so that] you will not say that I made Avram wealthy”[3]

Some time after settling in the Land of Israel, Avraham encountered an intense war between various Kings[4]. His nephew Lot was taken hostage, and Avraham felt responsible for his rescue. A side-effect of defeating the Kings and rescuing his nephew is that Avraham had saved the King of Sedom. The King wanted to give all the spoils from the war to his rescuer, but Avraham strongly refused. He went so far as to make an oath not to even take a shoe strap from the King of Sedom. Why didn’t Avraham want to take the gifts from the King of Sedom? What was the problem? One explanation is based on a concept known as שונא מתנות יחיה, someone who hates gifts will live[5]. The idea is that a person who wants to live a life only relying on Hashem, never taking from others, will only gain. It’s considered a lofty way to live[6], and Avraham followed it. As a result, he didn’t want to take gifts from the King of Sedom[7].

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Noach 5778

Issues of faith[1]

ויאמר יקוק לנח בא-אתה וכל-ביתך אל-התבה כי-אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה: ויעש נח ככל אשר-צוהו יקוק: ויבא נח ובניו ואשתו ונשי-בניו אתו אל-התבה מפני מי המבול
Hashem said to Noach: “Come to the ark, you and your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation”. Noach did according to all that he was commanded by Hashem. And Noach went, along with his sons, his wife, and his son’s wives, into the ark, due to[2] the flood[3]

Noach was told by Hashem to build an ark for himself and his family. That generation had proven itself to be entirely wicked, so Hashem was going to bring a flood to destroy the world. Noach and his family were the ones chosen to rebuild civilization. When the time finally came to enter the ark, Hashem commanded Noach to do so. The verse then testifies that Noach did all that Hashem had commanded him. Rashi explains[4] that this refers to his coming to the ark. The Torah then says that Noach and his family entered the ark because of the flood. Rashi points out[5] that this teaches us that Noach was of little faith. He believed and he didn’t believe that the flood would occur. He only brought his family into the Ark when the waters forced them inside. How can this be reconciled with the earlier verse, which praised Noach for following Hashem’s command to enter the ark[6]?

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VeZos HaBeracha 5778

Sometimes the basis of the Torah comes through its annulment[1]

ולא-קם נביא עוד בישראל כמשה אשר ידעו יקוק פנים אל פנים: לכל-האותות והמופתים אשר שלחו יקוק לעשות בארץ מצרים לפרעה ולכל-עבדיו וכל-ארצו: ולכל היד החזקה ולכל המורא הגדול אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל
No prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, who knew Hashem face to face. [As shown by] all the signs and wonders that Hashem sent him to perform in Egypt to Pharaoh, all of his servants, and his entire land, [and all] the mighty hand, as well as all the great astonishments that Moshe performed before the eyes of all of Israel[2]

The conclusion of the Torah describes the uniqueness of the prophecy of Moshe, as well as all the amazing feats that he performed in his life. The last words, לעיני כל ישראל, before the eyes of all of Israel, are understood by Chazal[3] to be hinting to the breaking of the two tablets after the sin of the Golden Calf[4]. Upon witnessing the Jews worship the idol they had made, Moshe took the tablets which contained the Ten Commandments, which he had received directly from Hashem, and smashed them on the ground. The Jews witnessed this dramatic reaction of their leader, and immediately halted their idol worship. One would have expected the Torah to end on a more positive note[5]. The incident of the Golden Calf was one of the lowest points in the Jews’ history in the wilderness. Why did the Torah end with a hint to the breaking of the tablets?

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Sukkos 5778

Finding joy in exile[1]

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים כל-האזרח בישראל ישבו בסוכות: למען ידעו דורותיכם כי בסוכות הושבתי את- בני ישראל בהוצאתי אותם מארץ מצרים וגו’
You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkos. [This is] in order for your generations to know that I placed the Children of Israel in sukkos when I took them out of the land of Egypt…[2]

During the festival of Sukkos, Jews are obligated to leave their permanent dwelling place and to live for seven days in sukkos[3]. The Torah tells us[4] that this is so we will remember that Hashem placed our ancestors in sukkos when He took us out of Egypt. There’s a tannaic dispute[5] as to the meaning behind the word sukkos in this verse. In general, the word sukkos refers to a temporary booth, usually made of wood[6], with a roof made from the waste from the harvest[7]. Rabbi Akiva holds that Hashem placed the Jews in literal booths when he took them out of Egypt[8]. However, Rabbi Eliezer holds that the verse refers to the Clouds of Glory which Hashem provided them in the wilderness, as a sort of protection from the elements. We are then commanded to make literal sukkos to represent the metaphorical sukkos of the past. The halacha, Jewish law, follows Rabbi Eliezer[9].

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