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Vaietze – Thanksgiving and being Yehudi

 In this Torah portion most of the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel will be born. The fourth son of Leah is called Yehuda (Judah) and she chose that name saying “This time, I will thank (Hode) the Lord!”  (Gen. 29:35). According to Rashi Leah said to herself, “Since I have taken more than my share. Consequently, I must offer up thanks”. How does she know that she has “more than her share”? Because according to the Rabbis Leah and Rachel were prophetesses and knew that twelve boys should be born from Jacob, and because he had four spouses (counting Zilpah and Bilah) each one of them should have had three children. For that reason when she has the fourth son, one more than her predicted “fair” share, she decides to thank Hashem and she puts the name Yehuda (“the thankful one”) to this baby.

And this is the name of our people until today. We are called Yehudim because of Yehuda. The term Jew in English is a derivation from the term Yehudi in Hebrew. And we read about the origin of our name this year during the weekend of Thanksgiving. This is like a message from Hashem telling us to remember the deep connection of being a Jew and giving thanks. Our essence is to be a thankful people and thankful human beings.

This Thanksgiving Shabbat let’s look around and realize that we all have a little bit more than our share. We don’t only have what we need but we always have more and that is why we should be thankful. But like Leah did, we need to stop, contemplate what we have, and then we will be able to thank Hashem for everything He has giving us.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving,

Rabbi Uri

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Toldot – Who can change and who dosen´t?

More often than we may like to think children, imitate their parents. The same was  true for our patriarchs. We are told that once Abraham sojourned in Gerar and he thought “Surely, there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (Gen. 20:1). For that reason he presented Sarah not at his wife but as his sister. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, subsequently took Sarah to be part of his harem. God threatened to punish him for this and he gave Sarah back to Abraham. A very similar story occurs in this week’s Torah portion. Once again a famine  afflicted the land of Canaan and Issac, at God’s request went with Rebbeca to sojourn in Gerar. When he arrived at the city “the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “[She is] my wife,” [because he said,] “Lest the men of the place kill me because of Rebecca, for she is of comely appearance.” (Gen. 26.8). In this instance nobody took his wife but one day the King, the same Abimelech of Abraham’s story, saw them having sex and said to Isaac, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” And Abimelech commanded all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death.”  (Gen. 26:10-11)

Both stories are strikingly similar: same place, same king, and same theme. There is however one important change and one important conduct that remains the same. What changed was the way the society, and especially the king, conducted themselves. In the first story Abimelech took Sarah but in the second story he did not take Rebbeca. Something had changed. He learned a lesson. The one who didn’t learn a lesson was Isaac who imitated his father like a mirror image. He still believed that the people of that place had no fear of God and if he were to tell the truth they would kill him.

More often than we might like to think, we are like Abraham and Isaac, even though that society and people around us may change for the good, we still cling to the same prejudices we already had. Even though others’ behavior may prove us wrong we still are unable to change the way we see them. Abimelech changed, the people of Gerar changed; but our patriarchs couldn’t do it. This should teach us an important lesson: let us be very careful in transmitting to our children, students or congregants our own prejudices because they are very hard to eliminate. As always, we should learn not only from the good actions of our forefathers but also from their flaws.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,

Rabbi Uri

Chaye Sarah – What was Itzchak doing in Be’er Lachai Ro’i?

When  Abraham’s servant finally approached the land of Canann with Rivkah, the Torah tells us that “Now Itzchak was on his way, coming from Be’er Lachai Ro’i” (Gen. 24:62). What was Itzchak doing in Be’er Lachai Ro’i?  Some say he was studying in the Beit Midrash of Shem who was located in that city (Targum Yonathan), other scholars say that this was the place where he usually prayed (Nahmanides and Seforno), others suggest that he use to live there (Rashbam), and some even suggest that he in fact lived with his father in Hevron (Radak) but “He was looking for a suitable place to move with his future wife” (David Tzvi Hoffman).

The most well known answer, however, is the one that Rashi quotes from the Midrash: “he had gone to bring Hagar to Abraham, his father, that he should marry her (Gen. Rabbah 60:14).” The spot were Be’er Lachai Ro’i was located was the place where Hagar met with the angel when Abraham and Sarah threw her out of the house. Is it Hagar who gives this place it’s name which means:  “You are the God of seeing” (Gen. 16:14). That is why according to many commentators this was a special place either to study or to pray, because the presence of God appeared in that place. Rashi suggested that this was also the place where Hagar and Ishmael lived after being driven out of the house.

Following the lead of Rashi I would like to suggest that Izchak travelled regularly to Be’er Lachai Ro’I, not to see Hagar but rather to see his brother Ishmael. After Ishmael was expelled from the house the Torah never mentions Ishmael and Itzchak meeting again until Abraham dies (25:9) but I would like to think that Itzchak, for many years, went to visit his brother and that they spent quality time together. Itzchak wanted to  maintain contact with his only brother. The quarrel  belonged to their parents and he didn’t want to lose a brother, a friend.

Itzchak and Ishmael are the heroes of the story in being able to set aside the family dispute to elevate friendship and brotherhood over conflict. And according to the Midrash (Gen. Rabbah 38:12) this is why we are told that Abraham expired and died in a good old age” (Gen. 25:8) because he was able to see both of his children overcoming the family discord, fulfilling the verse of the psalmist, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together!” (Psalm 133:1)

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Uri

Vayerah – Leadership 101

 If God is in charge, why does He consult with Abraham? Hashem saw the evil and wickedness of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and He decided to destroy those cities but before doing so He has an urge to share his plan with Abraham. Why? God is the creator of heaven and earth, why does He need to share his plan with a human being? The answer is, to teach us a lesson. It´s true that He can do it by himself but when you are leading that is usually never a good idea. God as with a president, a rabbi, a C.E.O or any leader has the power many times to make decisions without consultation.  Although it may be his prerogative, a good leader knows that he or she should engage his or her followers in the plan. They need to “buy in”. The leader needs to build consensus. And the followers need to know that they are being heard.  A careful reading of the story shows that from the beginning to the end Abraham is not happy with God´s decision but because God shows concern and respect towards him Abraham decides to accept the final verdict.  
 
A good leader like Abraham speaks out when it is needed. A good leader like Hashem hears when necessary. 
A good leader like Abraham accepts the decision of a superior. A good leader like Hashem consults with his inferiors. 
 
Good leaders work together. 
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Uri

 

Lech-Lecha – The eternal people

In a strange ceremony to prove to Avram that Hashem will certainly cause him to inherit the land of Israel,  Hashem asks for the following, “…Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle dove and a young bird.” And he took for Him all these, and he divided them in the middle, and he placed each part opposite its mate, but he did not divide the birds.” (Gen. 15:9-10) Avram prepares a pathway for Hashem breaking the animals in half and putting one in front of the other… but he did not cut the birds in half. Why? Some commentators take a rational approach and say that because the birds are so tiny if you cut them in half nobody will be able to see them and for that reason he just placed one whole bird in front of the other (See the Rashbam and Bechor Shor among others).

The Midrash provides us with a different interpretation, “Because other nations are compared to bulls, rams and goats…and Israel is compared to young doves… he therefore divided the animals indicating that other nations will gradually perish but “the birds split he not”, suggesting thereby that Israel will live forever” (Rashi based on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 28). In order to demonstrate that the people of Israel will be eternal, Avram does not break the birds. The Radak (David Kimhi, Provence, S. X) explain this powerful metaphor saying that gradually the nations of the world “would successively fight wars, the younger one against the older one, one wiping out the other eventually… All of this would be caused as a result of their competitive spirit, each nation trying to achieve dominance over the others.” And in the last 4000 years, since the beginnings of the Jewish people, this is exactly what happened but despite all, and with all the adversities possible, the Jewish people, like the birds in this story are still standing full and complete.

The last question is how we were able to remain united as one people while many other nations divided themselves into many different cultures and people? The answer, according to Radak, is also found metaphorically in our story: “The word bird includes both the pigeon and the turtle dove, seeing that the Jewish people are scattered in the four directions of the globe and have yet remained a single people, clinging to their Torah and their faith in spite of being scattered all over the world.” We remained like the bird, undivided, because we put the Torah and the Mitzvot in the center of our lives. This is the secret of our eternal existence.

Mark Twain, in his own words, reflected about the eternity of our people:

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Persian, rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream stuff and passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, p. 249)

We have the answer to his question? Living a life of Torah and Mitzvot.

Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai!

Rabbi Uri

Noah – Who is your mate?

Before the flood Hashem commanded Noah to bring into the ark two of each “living thing”, a male and a female (Gen. 6:19). This idea inspires our Sages who said that at one point Falsehood also desired entrance into the ark but Noah said to Falsehood, “You cannot enter until you wed a proper mate”. Apparently, in my mind, the corruption of the earth before the flood was as due to a lack of consequence for wrongdoing. People lied and nothing happened. People stole, and nothing happened. People worshipped idols and nothing happened. They became used to wrongdoing. Hashem knew that he could not eradicate these bad qualities of human beings once and forever but he wanted to teach humanity a lesson: actions have consequences. And for that reason Noah said that if Falsehood wanted to enter into the ark, and be part of the “new world”, it needed to have a mate. Who could be the perfect mate for Falsehood? According to Rabbi Levi:  it is Vexation (worries/troubles/anger). Falsehood and Vexation got married and they are allowed to enter into the Ark (Midrash Tehilim 7:11). 
The Rabbis through this beautiful and elaborated Midrash are teaching us an important lesson: we can lie, but we should know that lying leads to worries, troubles and aggravation. This is the key difference from the world before the flood and the world after the flood: our actions now have consequences. God swore that He is not going to destroy the world again supernaturally but we should know that every action is “married” to a consequence, and in that way we may be the ones who destroy the world. By the same token positive actions are connected to positive consequences that could improve our world. 
Today, think of your life as an ark and yourself as a seeker of love.  Think about the consequences that you seek. When you know what results you want, you can start acting in the way that will lead you to the consequences you desire. 
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Uri
This Dvar Torah was developed with the help of Cantor Moti and Leslie Fuchs.

Nitzavim-Vayelech: What song will you hear this year?

One of the most beautiful names that our Torah receives appears in our Parsha, “Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel” (Deut. 31:19). The Torah is referred as a song/shirah. And this verse is the source-text for the individual commandment upon every Jew to write for himself a Torah scroll (BT, Sanhedrin 21b). In our times according to the Shulkhan Arukh [it] is a commandment to write for ourselves a Chumash, Mishnah, Gemara and its commentaries” (Ioreh Deah 270:2). According to the glosses (interpretation) this is because we don’t study directly from the Torah scroll anymore but from all these other Jewish books.  
  
But why is the Torah compared to a song? The songs to which we listen say a lot about who we are. The discography we display in our living rooms express a big part of who we are too. The music we hear connects us with other people that have the same musical taste; in the same way, our own personal libraries and the books we read say a lot about who we are, and establish relationships with people with similar literary tastes. 
 
Approaching the New Year let’s take a look at our bookshelves; let’s see which book is resting on our night table. Let’s ask ourselves how many “Jewish” books we have read during the last year. Paraphrasing a well-known Spanish saying, “tell me what library you have and I’ll tell you who you are”. Take an opportunity this upcoming year to enhance your Jewish library, to fulfill this last commandment, to make the Torah a song in your life.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah!
Rabbi Uri

Ki Tavo – Heads and not tails

This Torah Portion is filled with blessings and curses that sealed the covenant between the people of Israel and Hashem before entering into the promise land. The seventh, and last blessing, says, “And the Lord will set you at the head, and not at the tail…” (Deut. 28:13). Our vast majority of Sages understood this verse to mean that if we follow God´s commandments the people of Israel will be at the top of the nations and not dominated by them (Nachmanides). The Targum Onkelos translates the verse from Hebrew to Aramaic as follows: “and the Lord will make you strong and not weak” and a later translation to the Aramaic reads as follows: “And the Word of the Lord will appoint you to be kings and not subjects” (Targum Pseudo Jonathan).

Interestingly this verse is also the source of the invocation we recite over the head of the fish in our Rosh Hashanah tables: “May it be Your will, Lord our G‑d and the G‑d of our fathers, that we be a head and not a tail.” But here the meaning changes, it´s not about the people of Israel as a whole anymore but a plea from each individual; and is not about power and dominion over others anymore but about control ourselves. At the beginning of the year we pray that we should be blessed to be at the vanguard of our life and not look at it from behind. We pray to be at the forefront of our projects and dreams and not just passive spectators of our lives.

Rosh Hashanah is the reminder that we must be the head and not the tail of ourselves, not of others.

Shabbat Shalom and an early Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Uri

Shoftim: Do you want to be a judge?

Have you ever dreamt of being a judge?  According  to our Torah portion God will designate judges for each one of our cities. In the times of the Temple the judges were the priests. After the destruction of the Temples the rabbis assumed that position. And today, who is the judge? In an open, free and democratic society many of us take the liberty to become judges in a daily basis. Hashem did not designate us to hold that position but we took it for ourselves because we think that we are entitled to do it.

The ideal situation will be that none of us should act as judge if anyone else–or at very least we should do it in the right way. Twice in this Parsha the Torah reminds us that when we are about to condemn someone we should, “…hear it, and investigate thoroughly…” (Deut. 17:4)  Further it tells us,  And the judges shall inquire thoroughly” (Deut. 19:18). This is called by our rabbinic tradition Drisha veChakirah, inquiry and examination (M, Sanhedrin 4:1). The judge before condemning someone should do a very thorough investigation, looking for witnesses, evidence, and proof that will verify the complaint.

So before you judge someone else just remember two things: (1) God did not put you in that position–you took it for yourself; (2) but if you still decide to judge another person’s behavior, behave like a true judge by investigating and making every effort to discern the truth.

Concrete action from this Dvar Torah:  never share a story or a post on Facebook, or in any other social media, until you verify the source.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

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