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SMS Torah

A project of Hillcrest Jewish Center

Vaygash – Benjamin´s children

When Yaakov and his family start the move towards Egypt the Torah names the offspring of all his sons. About Benjamin it is said, “And the sons of Benjamin were Bela, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Na’aman, Ehi, and Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.” (46:21). According to the Midrash when Yosef, still without revealing his true identity, found Benjamin he asked him if he had children. He answered affirmatively, that he had ten children all of whom were named in memory of his lost brother:

“I had a brother whose actions were seemly and pleasant and he was taken away captive from me, and so I named my sons after what had befallen him: Bela because he was swallowed (nibla), Becher because he was the firstborn (bechor) of his mother Rachel, Ashbel because he was kidnapped (nishba), Gera because he lives (Gar) in a strange land, Naaman because his acts were pleasent (naim), Ehi because he was my real brother (ahi), Rosh because he was my leader (Rosh), Muppim because he was very good (Iafe) in all chores, Huppim because he could not be in my marriage (Chupa) or I in his, Ard because it resembled a rose bloom (vered). (Bereshit Rabbah 94: 8)

Ten children, ten memories. 22 years have passed since these brothers, Yosef and Benjamin, were separated. Benjamin was still young when they told him that his brother “was devoured by a wild beast” but he never forgot him. And each of his children is named after an event or quality of an uncle that until now they never knew. Benjamin according to the Midrash honored his brother by ensuring that the following generations would never forget Yosef, his beautiful qualities and his terrible misfortune.

Naming a son or daughter in memory of a loved one is an ancient Jewish tradition. The Ashkenazim do it only with relatives already deceased while the Sefaradim do it even when they are alive. This beautiful tradition allows us to make immortal here on earth those people we love.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rab. Uriel Romano

Miketz – Going up and down!

Joseph’s brothers come twice to Egypt to buy food for their family. The second time they say: “Please, my lord, we came down at first to purchase food…” (Gen. 43:20). The literal meaning of this phrase is that they physically come down, from north to south, from Canaan to Egypt, to buy food. But the Sages choose to read the Hebrew expression Yarad Yaradnu (we certainly came down) as referring to their status, “This is degradation for us. We were accustomed to sustaining others, but now we must rely on you.”  (Rashi, based on Genesis Rabbah 92:3). They not only go down physically to Egypt but they also descend in their hierarchy in society; at one time they were rich and able to provide food for others in need now they are the ones in need.

The Talmud teaches us that “the world is like a revolving wheel” (b. Shabbat 151b). Sometimes we are at the top but suddenly we can fall to the bottom. This is the story in a nutshell of Joseph and his brothers, a continuous wheel going up and down; Joseph from being the favorite, to the pit, from there up again in the house of Potiphar, then to jail and later on up again to become the viceroy of Egypt. And this is why Joseph feels compassion towards his brothers, because he understands what it means to be up and then to fall very low. He has been there.

From the words of Joseph’s brothers and from his personal story we should learn the value of generosity in order to give when we are able to do so, and the nee for humility in order to be able to ask when we are in need. Let’s act when we are up like we would like to be treated when we are low.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Uri

Vayeshev – The Sins of Er and Onan

Yehuda had three children: Er, Onan and Shelah. According to the Torah, the first two sons did what was “evil in the eyes of the Lord” and for that reason they died.  The Torah is explicit about the transgression of Onan: “Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother.” (Gen. 38:9) But what was Er’s transgression? The Torah is silent about it but the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, tells us that his transgression was the same as Onan’s: “Now, why should Er waste his semen? So that she (Tamar) would not become pregnant and her beauty be impaired.” (Yebamot 34b). Er and Onan sinned in the same way but with different purposes: the first did not want to make his wife pregnant so that she would not lose her beauty and the second did not want to have a child named after his deceased brother. In other words, the Sages want to tell us that “doing evil in the eyes of God” is often related to selfishness and pettiness. Er and Onan were punished for thinking only about themselves without thinking about others. While there is no certain and accurate criteria to be sure that our actions will find grace before God we can venture to say that if we act only on self interest to the detriment of others, surely those actions will not find favor in the eyes of God.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Uri

Vayshlach – Who does the sun shine for?

At daybreak, after fighting all night with the angel, Yaakov’s thigh is injured.  The angel blesses him, changes his name to Israel and then disappears. After this event the Torah tells us:the sun rose for him (Yaakov) …” (Gen.32: 32) Rashi uncovers the subtlety of the biblical text and presents us with two possible scenarios. The first is that the expression “the sun rose for him” is simply a colloquialism, that the sun shone as it does every day for each of us and not just for Yaakov. The other possibility is that truly that day “the sun hastened and rose especially for Yaakov” to cure him of his limp. Who does the sun shine for? For Yaakov or for everyone equally? Rationally we can all agree that the sun, or any other weather phenomenon, simply happens. Without taking any of us into account. However, each of us sees each event we experience from a personal perspective and according to our own reality. In the same way that it is not technically correct to say that the sun “comes out” or “sets” because it is the earth that rotates, each one of us lives his life from his own particular outlook. The sun shines for everyone but everyone feels that the sun caresses him/her. That day, as every day, the sun again became visible in Penuel but that day Yaakov felt that the sun transformed him, that sun brought him the necessary clarity to understand that he was no longer Yaakov, that his new name and destiny was Israel.
 
May the sun always shine for you too!

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

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

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