The idea of going to Egypt and confronting Pharaoh to let the Israelites go must have sounded even more than an impossible task. So it is understandable why Moshe gave excuses not to go. Pharaoh was the most powerful person in the world at that time and despite the attempts to explain why he was not the one to go, the Divine call remained.
This week we begin the Book of Shemot and we are witness to the birth of the Jewish people’s greatest leader, Moshe. We experience his trip down the Nile in a papyrus box to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. While he is raised in the palace, as one of privilege, nevertheless he knows who his people are, “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens . . . “ Moshe, we learn is a person who stands up for the right thing. He kills the Egyptian attacking a Hebrew slave; he confronts two Hebrew slaves fighting. Later, after having fled Egypt and ending up in Midian he intervenes when the daughters of Yitro are harassed at a well while trying to give their fathers’ flock water.
Things appear to be different when Moshe is given the task to stand up to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites to freedom. He doesn’t want to go. He uses the excuse “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words . . . I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” Rashi says that Moshe actually spent seven days trying to convince HaShem he was not the right person for this. The midrash is familiar, that as small child the Egyptian wiseman foretold that Moshe would be a leader among the Jewish people. As a test, Pharaoh offered Moshe a hot coal or his crown. If Moshe reached for the crown it would indicate that the wisemen were correct. Moshe reached for the shiny, gold crown, but a Divine angel pushed Moshe’s hand onto the hot coal. Moshe burnt his hand, and then his tongue after putting his hand into his mouth. This caused Moshe to develop some kind of speech impediment.
It is this speech impediment that stops Moshe from accepting, at least initially, his role. Interstingly, Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbaum (1085-1158, France), a commentator on both the Torah and the Talmud writes that Moshe simply forgot how to speak Egyptian, having been away from Egypt for many years. The notion of having to stand in front of the most powerful person in the world and speak, in a convincing way, was terrifying to Moshe. While in the end, the person who is afraid to speak, does indeed speak, and speaks, and speaks. In fact, except for the last 8 verses Moshe is the only speaker in all of Sefer Devarim.
Moshe has always been a personal model for me. I know that fright he experienced when given the task of leading the people. Moshe’s first encounter with Pharoah was a disaster. The slaves ended up having to get their own straw to make the bricks. As one who is “heavy of mouth and heavy of speech I, too, have experienced that humiliation of trying to express something, and the words remain stuck. It is HaShem’s response to Moshe that gives me some measure of comfort, “ . . . I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” Moshe is not alone, HaShem is with him.
We all have challenges to face. We all have something that we can use as an excuse not to grow, not to do what we want. Had I listened to two rabbis who told me not to become a rabbi because of my stuttering, or the principal who advised me not to become a teacher because I stutter and students would not respond well, I would be somewhere else, doing something different - and not what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be.
Challenges shouldn't stop us or define us. Challenges should lift us up, strengthen us, make us better.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
It was March of 2005, Parshat VaYikra and my daughter Baila was 3 days old. It was her first Shabbat. That Friday night I held Baila in my arms and for the first time pronounced those words of blessing that Jewish parents have been bestowing on their children for centuries. It was a powerful, emotional moment for me as this tiny little girl, my child, lay in my arms. Fast forward many years and Baila is weeks away from turning 12 and celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. Tonight, she, and her brother Ashie, will stand beside me as I again give both my children a blessing as Shabbat begins.
A theme in this week’s parsha, VaYechi, is indeed blessings. Yaakov is at the end of his life. He blesses his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, Yosef’s children. He then blesses his own sons. While he does take Shimon and Levi to task for their role in the murder of the men of Sh’chem, after the incident with Dina, Yaakov imparts to his sons that each has a unique mission to fulfill, and implores them to remain on a proper path. He says to them, “Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” The 16th century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno writes that Yaakov is asking his sons to accept the path he has spent his life teaching them, for there will be ultimate good if they do.
Yaakov, like any parent, is concerned about what kind of people his children will be. What values will they have? King Solomon, the wisest of all people wrote in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) “Teach a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” What will make our kids good people? What will make them wise? What will make them understand that hard work, responsibility, tolerance, respect are prized values and prejudice, hatred and apathy are not?
Perhaps our greatest tool towards fulfilling Solomon’s dictum is the wisdom and beauty of Jewish tradition. Jewish tradition opens a world to our children. Jewish tradition begets respect, Jewish tradition begets literacy, Jewish tradition begets identity, pride and commitment. Jewish tradition exposes our children, and us, to the wonders and the mysteries of the Divine. Jewish tradition shines a light on the path for their future.
The Talmud relates that after Yaakov blessed his sons, giving over to them his final hopes for their future they responded “Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokaynu, HaShem Echad,” (Listen Israel, HaShem is our G-d, HaShem is One). Yaakov, feeling a combination of relief and satisfaction that his children heard him said, “Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom for eternity.”
Like Yaakov, may we bless our children with the light of Jewish tradition. And at times it will be hard. May we do what is hard, so our children will achieve what is great.
As we end the Book of Bereshit we say, Chazak, Chazak, vNitchazek”
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
We are in the first days of 2017. Every year when that ball drops in Times Square I become contemplative about the past year. I begin to measure time, it has been this many years since this event, since that happened. My mind begins a roller coaster-like ride back in time. I remember good times and the challenging ones. I have been doing so even more as my wife and I plan our daughter's Bat Mitzvah which is quickly coming in March.
This week we read Parshat VaYigash. The brothers are confronting the second in command in Egypt, who they do not know is really their brother Yosef, whom they sold off many years prior. Yosef has accused them of being spies, and now the youngest brother Binyamin has been found with a golden goblet in his sack apparently stolen from the palace. Binyamin is about to spend his life enslaved to Egypt for the theft.
Yehudah stands up and directly speaks to Yosef. In an emotional speech he does not deny that the goblet was indeed in Binyamin’s sack, but they have done everything asked of them, despite hardships. Yehudah offers himself as a slave in place of Binyamin so that his youngest brother can return to his father as Yehudah had promised. Yosef is so overcome by the emotion of Yehudah’s plea that he breaks down and reveals his true identity to his brothers. “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.”
The brothers are in a state of shock. In fact Rashi says that they began to back away. Not wanting them to feel shame, Yosef continues to speak with them and what he says displays how has changed over the many years. “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a supporter of life that HaShem sent me here before you . . . it was not you that sent me here, but HaShem.”
Yosef acknowledges the reality of his brothers having sold him, however he tells them that they were merely a conduit for Yosef to get to Egypt. It was part of a greater plan of which we were told in Parshat Lech Lecha. There, HaShem says to Avraham, “. . . and you shall know that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, they will serve them and they will be oppressed for 400 years.”
Yosef now realizes there was a purpose to his living in Egypt for so many years. Being sold was the precursory incident which led to the Israelites coming to Egypt and serving Pharaoh. What he does not yet know that the prophecy stated in Lech Lecha would soon come to fruition as the Israelites become slaves and then are eventually redeemed.
Life is a book whose chapters are revealed to us as the days, weeks and years go by. Often it is only over time do we realize that events that took place during those early confusing chapters actually do make sense. While we don’t know the end of the story, Yosef teaches us that there is a Divine author and ultimately there is a plot.
May we have the faith that the story will be a classic.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
As strange as this may sound, I have a favorite candle on the menorah. It is the shamash. It stands straight and tall in a majestic kind of way. It is my favorite because this is the candle that serves the others. The Talmud teaches that there needs to be another candle with the Hanukkah candles to provide the light by which to see. The Shamash is that extra candle. It is that candle that provides the light for the other candles. It is the candle that spreads its light so that the others may shine.
My great-grandfather, Tzvi Aryeh Tregor (the 1910 census taker changed our name to Traiger) arrived on these shores in September of 1908 with his eldest daughter Alka. The rest of the family, including my grandfather, remained in their villiage of Anchakrok which was outside Kishinev in the Bessarabia area of Tzarist Russia. They had $10 with them and they settled in Boston. In two years time my great-grandmother and the other children joined them. The Ellis Island documents list my great-grandfather as some type of laborer however, in Boston he became a tailor and opened his own tailor shop so that he would have to give up Shabbos.
I never met my great-grandfather as he passed in 1935 at the age of 70. His life symbolizes what Hanukkah is all about. Though he took the name Harry Traiger, he refused to give up the fundamental pieces of his life. He remained an observant Jew. I have letters from cousins saying that he would learn Chumash as a sewed. He was the gabbai of his shul in Boston. His English name notwithstanding, he did not give up his Judaism. For me, he is a shamash, his light has set a path for me and for my children.
Antiochus wanted to eradicate Judaism. His decrees were designed to ensure that the Jewish people would disappear by their assimilation into Greek culture. When the Jews re-ignited the light in the Temple they sent a resounding “NO!” to Antiochus and all those like him who would follow who tried to squelch Jewish tradition. That light, which lasted eight days, is the light of Jewish tradition that cannot be extinguished. That light shined a path for my great-grandfather to remain true to his Jewish roots; that continues to light a path for me, my wife and my children.
This is the light that I give to my students in my Talmud classes.
Hanukkah is the festival of lights. That light is the light of Torah, a light which shines so bright here at GBDS.
May GBDS continue to be shamash for the Jewish community.
Wishing you all a bright Hanukkah Samayach and a wonderful vacation. See you in 2017.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Several weeks ago as I was teaching my 7th grade Talmud class, one of the boys suddenly needed a drink. I asked him to sit down, allow me to finish a point then he could go to the water fountain. The student persisted that he was thirsty. I said he could go and commented that I too was thirsty. That day I had the 7th grade for a double period and half way through I gave a short break so the kids could use the restroom if needed. As the students were filing back into the classroom, one boy handed me a small plastic up of water. I must have had an inquisitive look my face, for he said, “You said you were thirsty.”
This week we read Parshat VaYishlach and the encounter between Yaakov and Esau after a many year separation. Yaakov has heard that Esau is coming with 400 men and is understandably anxious, so he splits his camp into two. The night prior to the reunion with his brother, Yaakov, having crossed over the fords of Yabbock with his family, finds himself alone and suddenly in a struggle with a stranger. At the end of their wrestling match, the stranger hits Yaakov in the hip, leaving Yaakov with a permanent limp.
The commentaries discuss the identity of this stranger. Some say it was the guardian angel of Esau. Others say the struggle was one of good versus evil. I have a different question. Why was Yaakov alone and not with this family? The Talmud relates that Yaakov went back to retrieve some small earthenware cups that had been left behind. The Talmud explains that righteous people are careful with their possessions, making sure not to lose anything or waste anything. However, I would like to give a different idea.
These small earthenware jugs were just that, small earthenware jugs that on their own were probably insignificant. Yaakov’s going back to get them teaches us an important lesson. Often the small, seemingly insignificant acts make the biggest impact. The 7th grade boy who brought me the water because I happened to comment 30 minutes earlier I was thirsty was a small act that made a big impression on me. He went out of his way to do a nice thing for me. Needless to say, it made my day. That small cup of water told me that I mattered. I don’t remember anything else from that day, but I will always remember that cup of water.
We don’t need to find cures for diseases or solve the problems of poverty to change the world. Small acts of kindness will do just that. If we all try a little harder to do a little something that will brighten another’s day, the cumulative effect of all those acts will change the world.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger