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
A couple of years ago during a double period of one of my classes, one of the students asked to leave the room to get some water, s/he was thirsty. I was in the middle of a point, so I asked the student to wait. The student continued to ask, saying s/he was so thirsty. I commented that I was also thirsty, that I would give a short break in a few minutes and could get a drink. During the break another student came back into the room with a cup of water and handed it to me. I looked at the student who said, "You said you are thirsty."
We are back to the beginning of the Torah reading cycle. This week we reading Parshat Noach, the well-known account of the devastating flood which HaShem brings due to the corruption that has overtaken humankind. In fact, this corruption was so pervasive, Rashi tells us that it affected the animals as well. What was the nature of the corruption? The Torah calls it Hamas. What is Hamas? It is such a breakdown of the society to a point that robbery, for example, became so commonplace that it was done in the open. Thieves did not even try to hide. There were no longer societal norms that governed the people.
HaShem sees this Hamas, this corruption. He has Noach build an Ark, bring his family and animals on board with the intent to start the human race over and it is Noach who is to be the progenitor of humanity. HaShem sees something special in Noach, for the Torah says, " . . . and Noach was righteous in his generation." Noach has garnered Divine favor for this righteousness and it is this trait that HaShem wants as the "new genesis" of the human race.
Today is the first day of Rosh Hodesh Marcheshvan. We have just spent the month of Tishrei celebrating, doing Teshuva and reflecting on how to become better people. Marcheshvan is a month without any holidays. Marcheshvan is the month to begin to put into action those promises we made to ourselves for improvement. When HaShem looked for an individual to be the model for the rest of humanity he chose Noach, not for his wealth, not for his brilliance, not even for his charm, rather for his righteousness, for his Chesed. It is chesed, righteousness, that is the first piece of humanity.
Shabbat shalom, Hodesh Tov
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
The day is almost here and one can feel the anticipation. Many of us felt the same last week as the first day of school approached and a new school year lay ahead, but now there is another first day coming. Rosh HaShanah begins next week and again a new year is about to begin with opportunities waiting for us.
This week we read the final parsha of 5777, Nitzavim/VaYelech. In all of these parshiyot in the Book of Devarim the Jewish people have been standing on the edge of the Jordan River listening to Moshe give his final speech before they enter the Land of Israel. For the past eight weeks Moshe has been laying out a vision for the people for life in the Land; the type of society they can create through their continual connection to the Torah and Jewish tradition.
There is passage in the Talmud where the rabbis are debating whether an oven, made from clay, was ritually impure and therefore not able to be used. Rabbi Eliezer argued in favor of its use while the other rabbis were against it. Rabbi Eliezer tried using various proofs that his opinion was correct, calling upon nature to side with him. “If I am correct, let the carob tree prove it” he proclaimed and the carob tree uprooted itself several hundred feet. The rabbis did not accept the proof. Rabbi Eliezer tried again. “If I am correct, let the canal water prove it,” he called out and the canal water began to flow backward. However, yet again, the rabbis did not accept the carob tree as proof. Finally Rabbi Yirmiyah declared, quoting from this week’s parsha, “It is not in Heaven!”
What did Rabbi Yirmiyah mean? The Torah was already given to human beings and Rabbi Yirmiyah was telling Rabbi Eliezer, who was using Divine acts to demonstrate the correctness of his point, that it was up to human understanding of the Torah that would decide whether or not the oven could be used. The Torah was Divinely given to humans to apply their wisdom through study to render decisions for the society. Human beings were to be HaShem’s partner in the creation of a community.
In the Jewish people parsha, the Jewish people are standing at the threshold of a new era, in the same way we are standing on the threshold of a new school year, and a new year, all with incredible opportunities waiting for us. Our connection to Jewish tradition partners us with the Divine; to widen the circle of opportunity, to deepen the meaning of our Judaism, for form that more perfect community.
Just like the Israelites, our best days lies ahead.
With blessings for a sweet, healthy and fulfilling 5778.
Wishing all a Ketiva, v’chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Shabbat shalom and Shana tova.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
There was once a man that walked into a clothing store. He told the store owner his measurements and was brought a fine suit. The man went into the fitting room to try the suit on. The man came out and complained that the suit didn’t fit – it was too tight. The owner of the store looked closely at his customer and discovered the problem. “Sir,” he said to the man, “in order for the new suit to fit, you must first take off the old one.”
This week we read Parshat Ki Tavo, which translates “When you come . . .” Last week’s parsha was Ki Teitzei, “When you go out . . . “ There is something poignant about the names of these two parshiyot. It is Elul and 5777 is quickly waning only to be replaced with 5778. As we hear the sound of the shofar each morning we are reminded that this is the season of reflection. It is a time to look back and think about what we have done – the good as well as the not so good. It is the time to ask the important questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How can I improve? The Rambam, in his Laws of Teshuva, says we must acknowledge our mistakes, know they were wrong and honestly strive to improve and fix them. This is the opportunity to become even better, to reach farther than we thought we could.
In order to do this when we come out of the old year we must shed ourselves of the old suit - those habits that prevent us from putting on the new one for if not when you come into the new year it will still be the old suit. This requires change – and that is hard. A former principal for whom I worked said at his retirement dinner, after more than 40 years of running the school, “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.”
The new school year has begun. 5778 is only a few days away. I want to welcome our new students, our new families and our new teachers. I welcome back all those returning. May this be a wonderful, productive year, a fulfilling year, a year of good health, and a year of peace.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger