In this week's parsha, VaYishlach, Yaakov undergoes a transformation. He is about to meet his brother, Esau, whom he has not seen in 20 years. He has been informed that Esau is coming with 400 men. Yaakov, understandably is frightened especially since the last time he saw his brother, Esau wanted to kill Yaakov for stealing his blessing.
To prepare for his meeting with Esau, Yaakov divides his camp into two so if Esau should indeed attack, one of the two halves would survive. He sends 200 she-goats, 20 he-goats along with a number of other animals to Esau as a tribute to appease him. Finally, Yaakov prays to HaShem. However, this prayer is entirely different than his prayer of last week when he left Haran years earlier. At that point Yaakov's prayer had an arrogant quality to it as if he were bargaining with HaShem. If HaShem helped him, then he would recognize HaShem as his G-d.
One aspect of this transformation is evident in Yaakov's prayer this week. He now acknowledges that he is afraid and he needs HaShem's help to get through this encounter. Whereas in his earlier prayer, it seemed as if Yaakov was asking HaShem to help him so that HaShem would be worthy of being Yaakov's G-d. Now there is no arrogance, there is no question, and Yaakov needs his G-d to protect him from his brother.
The night before the brothers meet, Yaakov has another encounter which would result in yet another transformation. Yaakov had crossed over a stream at Yabbok and suddenly he became embroiled in a physical struggle with a stranger which lasts until dawn. At the end, the stranger realizes he cannot overpower Yaakov. Yaakov asks for a blessing and in doing so the stranger gives Yaakov a new name, Yisrael, meaning "you have wrestled with the divine."
Much can be said about this wrestling match that Yaakov had with the stranger, but I want to focus on a basic question. Since Yaakov had just brought his family over the stream of Yabbok for the night, why did he return to the other side of the stream? Why not just stay with his family? Rashi, the 11th Century, French commentator quotes a passage from the Talmudic tractate Hullin which says that Yaakov went back over the stream at Yabbok to retrieve some small jugs that had been left there. The rabbis explain that Yaakov was being careful with his possessions.
There is an important lesson from Yaakov's retrieval of these small jugs. These were small, seemingly inexpensive jugs that probably no one would have missed. However, Yaakov demonstrated that small things are important; small things make a difference. In fact, Yaakov's transformation into Yisrael shows that small acts can have a big impact. Indeed often in life, it is the small things we do for others that can have the biggest influence: reaching out to another whom needs a smile, or someone to listen for a few minutes, a quick note, (or in our day a text message) to say hi, let another person know you care, they are valued for who they are and what they do. These small acts of kindness can make all the difference in the world. These are the small jugs in life that can transform another person's day.
A true story - About 25 years ago there was an older couple, who had made aliyah with their four daughters in the early 1970's living on a moshav outside Jerusalem. A few months after their youngest daughter was married, she lapsed into a deep coma, the result of complications during a minor surgical procedure. During the 10 weeks of the coma, friends from all over Israel came to be with the family, to sit with them, bringing them food and other necessities as the family stayed at the hospital around the clock. One particular young yeshiva student brought the family wine and challah every Friday afternoon so they could make the best Shabbat possible during those nightmarish weeks. Unfortunately, the daughter did not survive. During the shiva at the moshav, the yeshiva student brought the family their wine and challah for Shabbat. While many people came to be with the family to try to ease their pain, they remarked that the wine and challah from this yeshiva student made their tragedy a bit less traumatic.
Yaakov teaches a great lesson - We have all types of Chessed programs which are wonderful. The ultimate chessed is to reach out to someone and brighten their day. It's about the small jugs; it's about the small things.
Shabbat Shalom to all.
As this week's parsha, Toldot" opens we make that transition to the next generation, that of Yitzchak and Rivka, whom he takes as wife when he is 40 years old. Like Sarah, Rivka too, does immediately conceive childen, but after Yitzchak prays on behalf of his wife, Rivka finds herself not just pregnant, but with twins, and not ordinary twins.
The Torah says, ". . . and the children struggled within her" and as they did so Rivka inquired of HaShem as to what was taking place. She is told, "two nations are in your womb, and two nations shall separate from your insldes . . . " Indeed two nations do emerge from Rivka, Eisav, the elder twin, the hunter, is the ancestor of Edom which would become Rome, the empire which tried to eradicate the Jewish people by prohibiting the study of Torah during the period after the destruction of the second Temple. The younger twin is Yaakov, the one "who sat in tents," the father of the 12 tribes, the Jewish people.
According to Rashi, the "tents" in which Yaakov sat, were the tents of Shem and Eiver, tents of Torah study. Of all the nations that were part of the Biblical world, it is only the descendant s of Yaakov that not only continues to exist but thrive. Why? It is the connection to Torah that has nourished and sustained the Jewish people through many, many years of travail. It has been our attachment to the Torah that has given the Jewish people its vitality.
Yesterday the 2nd grade had their Chumash Ceremony. After the kids lead tefilot for the Elementary School and their parents I had the privilege of speaking to them. As is often the case, I try to inspire, but I came away inspired. I spoke to the 2nd graders about receiving their first Chumash, their first piece of Torah; that they are part of the Torah. As I spoke, I watched the faces of these precious children light up. Their excitement for receiving their share in the Torah shone forth; it was palpable. That light is indeed the light of Torah. This is why we are here.
The Torah is described as "a tree of life for those who grasp onto it." Yaakov, the man of the tents, and the Jewish people testify that this is indeed true. May the Torah that emanates from this school continue to nurture and sustain its teachers, staff and students and families.
This week's Torah reading is in many ways a watershed moment for the Jewish people, for with the passage of time we say goodbye to Avraham and Sarah. As the parsha begins, Avraham is purchasing a proper burial plot for his beloved Sarah. The Torah does not describe the full extent of Avraham's grief for Sarah, stating only that he wept for her. However, commentaries point out that his deep pain was in fact infinite, but only expressed in private. Later in the parsha we learn that Avraham joins Sarah for eternity.
The parsha is entitled Chaye Sarah, which literally means the "Life of Sarah." This is interesting because the parsha tells of her passing, relating to us only her age. The Torah is scant with details of her life.
We know that originally her name was Sarai which, according to the Talmud, means "My Princess." Like Avraham, whose name was changed from Avram because he would be the "father of many nations," Sarai's name was changed to Sarah meaning "the princess," for now she would be a princess for the world. In this role, she joined Avraham in spreading a new message. The Talmud teaches that calling Avraham by his former name is prohibited; however, there is no such prohibition to refer to Sarah as "Sarai."
The rabbis teach that Avraham and Sarah were prophets. In fact, they suggest that Sarah was on a higher prophetic level than Avraham. Both were charged with bringing a special divine message to the world, though their approaches were different. Avraham taught the world the universal nature of Judaism - the belief in One G-d and the importance of helping others, ideals that are relevant to everyone. It is for this reason that we may not use Avraham's original name.
Sarah, on the other hand, taught the same principles as Avraham, yet even more. The midrash teaches that when Sarah lived, a cloud of glory remained over her tent (like the clouds that hung over the Israelites in the desert). It is told that a light burned in her tent from one Erev Shabbat to the next and the dough with which she baked her bread was blessed.
Commentators understand from this passage that Sarah taught the same universal aspects of Judaism, which is the "Sarah" part of who she was. In addition, she also taught the mitzvoth of Judaism, which make us unique as a people. This is the "Sarai" that remains. We are not prohibited from using the name Sarai because the universal and the particular principles of Judaism, the "Sarah" and "Sarai" are crucial to our vitality and continuity as a people.
Therefore, the entitled parsha, Chaye Sarah, is not merely about Sarah's life. It is about her legacy. It tells about what Sarah ultimately left behind for us to learn and from which to draw inspiration and strength.
Perhaps this is a personal mandate for each of us. Once we have left this world for the next, what will we leave behind for others? It will not be money, jewels, or stock options. The true inheritance we leave will be how we touched other people and made the world a little better because of our having lived. Like Sarah, that will be our true legacy.
Shabbat Shalom to everyone.
This week we read Parshat VaYaira. It is a complex parsha because it shows us different sides of Avraham. At the beginning, Avraham is recuperating from his Brit Milah and despite the pain he is experiencing he insists on hosting three strangers, giving them food, drink, and even water with which to wash their feet. We then encounter Avraham arguing with HaShem who has decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah. "Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are 50 righteous people in the city . . ." counters Avraham upon learning of the Divine plan. Avraham is standing up for those who deserve not to be destroyed, and even for those who may indeed deserve destruction. It is for this reason that, at the conclusion of the parsha, HaShem seemingly commands Avraham to sacrifice his son, Yitzchak. We are left perplexed when Avraham seems to not argue at all over this. We are further troubled by the command itself: to sacrifice your own child?
I cannot imagine what it would be like receive such an order. However, what is clear to me is that Avraham did not understand what he was being asked to do. Rashi quotes a midrash which teaches that HaShem was commanding Avraham to bring Yitzchak to the mountain like he would bring any offering, but NOT to slaughter him. The grammatical form of the Hebrew verb simply means to bring him up. The verb itself does not indicate that Avraham should slaughter his son. So Avraham acted without fully understanding what was being asked.
I wonder if this is sometimes our issue. Do we fully understand what someone is telling us, what request is being made of us? In Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of highly effective people, the fifth habit is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." The intention behind this habit is to really listen to one another, to fully hear and comprehend what the other is saying and how they are saying it. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (Germany 1809-1883) taught about 13 Middot (characteristics) that people need to develop within themselves for self improvement. One of these middot is "Shtika," which means silence. We need to really hear people, listen to what they are saying and feeling before responding or acting. In no way do I wish to diminish Jewish tradition's view of Avraham, but what would have happened had Avraham really listened to HaShem's command?
No one questions that Avraham is the paradigm of chesed, of acts of kindness. His actions in Parshat VaYaira demonstrate to us that our task is to listen to people, to hear what they are telling us and how they are telling us. Sometimes the biggest chesed we can do for one another is to listen to them, not necessarily to solve their problems but to share their issues, permit them express how they feel, and gain some clarity for themselves easing their burden just a bit.
With the opening of this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, the Torah begins to tell the story of one man and his family, rather than humanity in general. We are introduced to Avram and his wife Sarai, and their journey, at Divine command, from someplace in ancient Mesopotamia to the Land of Israel. This is more than just a physical relocation. It is a spiritual pilgrimage. Indeed, Pirkei Avot teaches that Avram underwent 10 tests, and both Rashi and the Rambam present a list of the tests. Even though there is some discrepancy, they agree that the last test is the binding of Yitzchak upon an altar, which we will read about next week.
Avram passes all 10 tests, and this is evident when HaShem gives him a new name. “No longer shall you be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I made you the father of a multitude of nations, “ he is told. The new name is indicative of Avraham’s spiritual ascendency. He is a different person. The Torah and Rabbinic literature are replete with examples of Avraham’s character. We are familiar with the midrash of him smashing the idols in his father’s store, in recognition of the One true G-d. Next week we will witness him standing up to HaShem on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gemorah. To a certain extent one may say that Avraham is the first maverick among humankind, swimming against the current of his time. In fact, he known, according to the midrash, as Avraham HaIvri. Ivri is Hebrew for “Hebrew,” but the word Ivri also indicates “other,” meaning that while the world was on one side, Avraham stood on the other, charting a different course for his family and ultimately his people.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are three crowns, the crown of Torah, the crown of the Kohanim and the crown of kingship, however, a fourth crown, that of a good name, is superior to them all. We are known by our name. Unlike Avraham we are not changing our names, therefore for each of us our name is our character, our reputation. Avraham, known as the man of chesed, of kind deeds, a hallmark of Judaism, is the exemplar of a good name, a good character. In the end, we will be remembered not for our grades and our degrees, but rather our character, how we touch, and make better, the lives of those around us.
We live in an uncertain and often times frightening world. We need heroes to whom we can turn for strength, guidance and inspiration. Sadly, sports figures, rock stars and politicians are fleeting at best as many do not embody the values we want for ourselves or for our children to emulate. While he is not perfect, Avraham is the role model we seek. He is devoted to HaShem, to his family; to treating people the right way (again, we will see this next week as Avraham welcomes the three strangers into his tent despite the pain following his brit milah). He stands up for injustices.
This is the time for heroes – let Avraham, the man with the good name, be ours.
Shabbat Shalom, one and all.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger | Assistant Principal