Chayei Sarah 5781

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Late night preparations[1]

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
The life of Sarah was 127 years. [These] were the years of Sarah’s life[2]

ותקם בעוד לילה ותתן טרף לביתה וחוק לנערותיה
She would get up late in the night, and provide nourishment[3] for her household and food[4] for her children[5]

A story is told[6] about the legendary scholar Rabbi Akiva. He was sitting and expounding a lengthy and complex sermon to his myriad of students. He raised his head from his book and noticed that a significant amount of the crowd was dozing off. In an attempt to arouse them from their sleep, he said the following: Why did Queen Esther choose to rule over 127 countries? The reason is because she is a descendant of Sarah, who lived 127 years. That’s all we’re told of the story. What message was Rabbi Akiva trying to convey? More than that, how was a statement like that supposed to wake them from their slumber?

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Vayeira 5781

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Serving while sleeping[1]

ותשקין את-אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את-אביה ולא-ידע בשכבה ובקומה

[Lot’s daughters] gave their father wine to drink that night. The elder went and slept with her father, and he did not know of her sleeping or getting up[2]

The episode with Lot, the nephew of Avraham, and his daughters is well known. They got him drunk, and conceived children from him. He was so drunk that he was totally unaware of what was happening, as it was happening. This begs the question, what is a person’s level of responsibility when they are in this state? Obviously a person is accountable for getting themselves this drunk. However, when they are completely not in control, oblivious to their surroundings and to their actions, are they responsible? If a mitzvah is accomplished in this state[3], do they get credit? If they transgress a prohibition, are they punished? These questions are equally applicable to someone who is asleep. They too are totally unaware of what is happening. What is a person’s level of responsibility when they are sleeping?

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Lech Lecha 5781

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Considering proper thoughts[1]

ואברכה מברכיך ומקללך אאר ונברכו בך כל משפחת האדמה
I will bless those that bless you, and he[2] that curses you I will curse, and all the families of the land will be blessed through you[3]

The parsha begins with Hashem commanding Avraham to leave his homeland and to travel to an unknown destination. We know that Hashem intended to take Avraham to the land of Canaan, a prosperous and beautiful land promised to be given to his descendants. However, Avraham didn’t yet know his destination. As a means of an introduction to what was in store for Avraham and his descendants, Hashem promised him tremendous blessings. Wealth, prosperity and fame were to await him. Hashem told Avraham that those that bless him will themselves be blessed, and those that curse him will themselves be cursed. However, the verse is presented with an anomaly. Regarding blessings, Hashem first said what He will do, and then said the subject of His action. He will bless those that bless Avraham. However, regarding curses, Hashem preceded the subject to the verb. Those that curse Avraham will be cursed. Why did Hashem speak this way and change the order[4]?

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Noach 5781

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Not just childrens’ stories[1]

על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים
The world stands on three things: On Torah, on Avodah (Divine service), and on Gemillus Chassadim (bestowal of loving kindness)

הקנאה והתאוה והכבוד מוציאין את האדם מן העולם
[Print]Jealousy, lust, and a desire for honor take a person out of the world[2]

If we analyze the stories that the Torah begins with, we’ll see a recurring theme. Many of them show the shortcomings and failures of mankind. Adam and Eve failed to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Their son Kayin murdered his brother Hevel. The generations in Noach’s lifetime, before and after the flood, were abysmal. Murder and theft were rampant, and the result was the entirety of mankind, save for Noach and his family, were wiped out. Afterwards, their progeny chose to rebel against G-d, resulting in their dispersion. Why were all these failures recorded in the Torah? There must be some reason, as the Torah is the guidebook to living a proper life. What can we learn from all of these sins?
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Bereishis 5781

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The greatest chessed[1]

ויעש יקוק אלקים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבשם
Hashem, G-d, made special clothes[2] for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them[3]

Chazal note[4] that the Torah begins with an act of chessed, loving kindness. The example given is that Hashem clothed the naked Adam and Eve[5]. After sinning by eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve felt ashamed that they were unclothed[6]. As an act of kindness, Hashem formed for them clothing, to remove their shame. This choice of example is very surprising. This is the first act of chessed in the Torah? Hashem literally created the entire universe. He created Mankind. Why isn’t that considered the first chessed of the Torah?

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Shemini Atzeres / Simchas Torah 5781

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The prerequisite of unity[1]

בני, בבקשה מכם עכבו עמי עוד יום אחד. קשה עלי פרדתכם
My children, I implore of you to stay with Me one more day. It is difficult for me preidaschem[2]

Shemini Atzeres is an interesting festival. It follows the climax of the Days of Awe and Sukkos. Rosh Hashana we prayed and blew the shofar. Yom Kippur we fasted. Sukkos we lived in the sukkah and shook our four species. What’s the point of this final holiday? It doesn’t have any paraphernalia. It doesn’t seem to commemorate anything. What message we to take with us from this festival?

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VeZos HaBeracha 5781

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Conflicting acts of kindness[1]

וקבר אתו בגי בארץ מואב בית פעור ולא-ידע איש את-קברתו עד היום הזה
[Hashem][2] buried [Moshe] in the valley of the land of Moav, Beis-Peor. No man knows his place of burial until this day[3]

The Torah ends with the death of Moshe. Chazal note[4] that the Torah starts and begins with Hashem’s chessed, acts of loving kindness. After Moshe dies, Hashem Himself buries him. At the beginning of the Torah, we are taught that Hashem adorned Eve as a bride for Adam[5] [6] [7]. With this insight, we can glean a new understanding of a vague verse in Ecclesiastes, read during this time of year: טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו, better is the final word than its beginning[8]. What is this teaching us?

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Hoshana Rabbah 5781

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Love independent of deed[1]

ביום שביעי שהוא הושענא רבה נוהגים להרבות במזמורים כמו ביום טוב וכו’ ונוטלים ערבה ביום זה מלבד ערבה שבלולב
On the seventh day [of Sukkos], which is called Hoshana Rabbah, the custom is to increase in Psalms, like we do on a Yom Tov…and we take a willow branch on this day, besides the willow found in the four species[2]

The last day of Sukkos is one of the strangest days of prayer on the calendar. It is known as Hoshana Rabbah. On the one hand, it’s still Sukkos, so we shake the four species. Like the other days of Chol HaMoed, it’s like a weekday in that some creative work is permitted[3], and some even wear tefillin. However, it’s not like the other “weekdays” of Sukkos. We add extra prayers, those that are usually only said on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Tunes from the High Holidays are used. A lot of literature has been written on Hoshana Rabbah, likening it to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

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Sukkos #2 5781

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The fallen booth[1]

הרחמן הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת[2]

May the Merciful One raise up for us the fallen[3] sukkah of King David[4]

Sukkos is a time for rejoicing. It’s one of the happiest festivals of the year. We cite Hallel. We encircle the bima with our Lulav and Esrog. We recite extra prayers. One such extra prayer is found at the end of Birkas HaMazon. In the prayer, we ask Hashem to restore the fallen sukkah of King David. This prayer is based off of a verse in Amos[5], which says that on that day, presumably when the Moshiach shall appear, Hashem will raise up the fallen sukkah of King David. I understand we mention this prayer this time of year because it says the word sukkah, but what is it referring to? What sukkah of King David was there, and how did it fall? What does it mean that we ask Hashem to raise it up again?

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Sukkos / Koheles 5781

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Declined desires[1]

בקש קהלת למצא דברי-חפץ וכתוב ישר דברי אמת

Koheles sought to find desired sayings, and genuine recorded words of truth[2]

The custom on Sukkos is to read from the book of Koheles, otherwise known as Ecclesiastes[3]. Various reasons are provided for this. One is that the festival of Sukkos is one of joy, and Ecclesiastes cautions us about the dangers of unbridled joy[4]. The work is attributed to King Shlomo[5]. Indeed, the classical understanding is the protagonist Koheles is none other than King Shlomo himself[6]. Regarding one verse, Chazal share[7] a cryptic interpretation. Koheles, namely King Shlomo, desired to be like Moshe[8]. However, a Heavenly voice proclaimed “וכתוב ישר דברי אמת”, literally: it is written straight, words of truth[9]. What does this teaching mean?

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