Why we are called Jews
יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך וגו’
Yehudah, your brothers will admit to you
In a few weeks’ time, we’ll read Yaakov’s blessings to his kids in parshas Vayechi. The blessing given to Yehudah is that “your brothers will admit to you”. This is somewhat of a play on words, as the name Yehudah has the same root as the word מודה, to admit. What this blessing is referring to is elucidated by Targum “Yonasan”. The blessing is that since Yehudah admitted his collusion with the incident with Tamar, the descendants of Yaakov will all be called by Yehudah’s name. The word Jew, or Yehudi, comes from the word Yehuda. What was the incident with Tamar, and why was it so meritorious for Yehudah that for thousands of years there would be a nation called the Jewish people?
Continue reading “Vayeishev 5781”
ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו וגו’
Yaakov was very afraid, and it was distressing to him
As Yaakov was nearing the end of his journey to his parent’s home, his worst fear came true. His wicked brother Eisav, who had a known death threat against him, was approaching with four hundred men. The Torah tells us that Yaakov was very afraid and distressed. Why are his emotions given these two descriptive terms? Rashi tells us that he was afraid that he would be killed, and was distressed in case he would have to kill others to defend himself. It’s understandable that he didn’t want to be killed, but why should he be distressed from the thought of defending himself? If someone is coming to kill you and your family, it’s the proper thing to do defend yourself. The Torah says that if someone is planning to kill you, get up before them and beat them to it. What could he be distressed about?
Continue reading “Vayishlach 5781”
Late night preparations
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
ותקם בעוד לילה ותתן טרף לביתה וחוק לנערותיה
She would get up late in the night, and provide nourishment for her household and food for her children
A story is told 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?
Continue reading “Chayei Sarah 5781”
Serving while sleeping
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
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, 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?
Continue reading “Vayeira 5781”
Considering proper thoughts
ואברכה מברכיך ומקללך אאר ונברכו בך כל משפחת האדמה
I will bless those that bless you, and he that curses you I will curse, and all the families of the land will be blessed through you
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?
Continue reading “Lech Lecha 5781”
The greatest chessed
ויעש יקוק אלקים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבשם
Hashem, G-d, made special clothes for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them
Chazal note that the Torah begins with an act of chessed, loving kindness. The example given is that Hashem clothed the naked Adam and Eve. After sinning by eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve felt ashamed that they were unclothed. 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?
Continue reading “Bereishis 5781”
Rebuking the impetuous
ראובן בכורי אתה כחי וראשית אוני יתר שאת ויתר עז: פחז כמים אל-תותר כי עלית משכבי אביך אז חללת יצועי עלה
Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength, the first of my vigor. [Potentially] exceeding in position and exceeding in might. Hasty as water, you will not exceed, since you went up on your father’s bed. Then you profaned that which went upon my couch
As Yaakov’s life was ending, he took the opportunity to give his children their final blessings. While accenting their unique traits, he also informed them of their shortcomings. He started with his firstborn Reuven by rebuking him for an incident that had happened decades earlier. When Yaakov’s wife Rochel died, he moved his bed into Rochel’s maidservant Bilhah’s tent. Reuven felt this was an affront to his mother Leah, who should have become Yaakov’s primary wife. Reuven audaciously moved his father’s bed out of Bilhah’s tent and put it into Leah’s. At the time, Yaakov said nothing. Now that Yaakov’s life was ending, it was now or never to rebuke Reuven.
Continue reading “Vayechi 5780”
ויאמר יוסף אל-אחיו אני יוסף העוד אבי חי ולא-יכלו אחיו לענות אתו כי נבהלו מפניו: ויאמר יוסף אל-אחיו גשו-נא אלי ויגשו ויאמר אני יוסף אחיכם אשר-מכרתם אתי מצרימה
Yosef said to his brothers: “I am Yosef; Is my father still alive?” They weren’t able to respond, as they were dumbfounded in front of him. Yosef said to his brothers, “Please come close to me”, and they came close. He said: “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt”
After fooling his brothers into thinking he was a tyrannical Egyptian viceroy, Yosef finally revealed his identity. He had risen to power after his brothers sold him as a slave, and he was in a position to save his family from the regional famine. Upon revealing himself, the brothers were dumbfounded. They weren’t able to respond, as they were embarrassed. They saw the error of their ways, and felt terrible. They started to back away, and Yosef tried to comfort them. He told them to come close. What words of comfort did he choose? He reminded them that they sold him as a slave. How can that be comforting? They were embarrassed enough, and now he has to remind them of their misdeed?
Continue reading “Vayigash 5780”
The goblet of the wise
הלוא אשר ישתה אדני בו והוא נחש ינחש בו וגו’
Is [this goblet] not that which my Master drinks from? He also divines with it…
Yosef, as the viceroy of Egypt, had his brothers fooled. They didn’t recognize him as their brother, and he sent them home without a clue. More than that, Yosef had a plan to set up his brother Binyamin. Yosef had someone plant his precious goblet in Binyamin’s bag. As the brothers journeyed home, they were arrested for theft. What was Yosef’s purpose for this whole ruse?
Continue reading “Mikeitz 5780”
Commemorating a tragic childbirth
ויהי בצאת נפשה כי מתה ותקרא שמו בן-אוני ואביו קרא-לו בנימין
As [Rochel’s] life departed (since she was dying), she called [her son’s] name Ben-Oni, [whereas] his father called him Binyamin
The death of Rochel during childbirth was tragic enough on its own. However, it was further marred by what seems to be an awkward case of spousal disagreement. Rochel decides to name her second child the name Ben-Oni, which literally translated seems to mean “the son of my mourning”. Her intent would appear to be to call to mind the fact that this boy was the cause of her death, which caused others to mourn for her. Yaakov had a different name which he intended to call their son, Binyamin, which literally means “the son of [my] right hand”. Yaakov appears to want his son’s name to have a more positive connotation. What exactly was their disagreement? What were they both thinking?
Continue reading “Vayishlach 5780”