When I was growing up in Sharon, Massachusetts, Thanksgiving was always a big deal. As I have mentioned previous, Sharon was the typical New England town with the white-steepled Congregational church in the town center. Across the street is the public library with a statue of Deborah Sampson, a Sharon resident who the only woman to have fought in the Revolutionary War. She disguised herself as a man and using the name Robert Shirtliffe, and served 17 months with the 4th Massachusetts Regiment. I went to Heights Elementary School next to which was an enormous corn farm. Every year at this time besides the annual Thanksgiving play in school, we had our trek to Plymouth Plantation and Plymouth Rock, the epicenter of Thanksgiving.
In Parshat VaYeitze, the Torah says regarding Leah, “She (Leah) conceived again, and bore a son and said, ‘This time I will give thanks to HaShem,’ and she called his name Yehudah.” Rashi, speaking in Leah’s voice says on the words This time I will give thanks to HaShem, “because I took more than my share – Now it is on me to give thanks.”
What does Rashi mean when he writes “because I took more than my share”?
In the Talmud, it says, “And Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: From the day the Holy Blessed One created the world, there was no person who gave thanks to the Holy Blessed One until Leah came and thanked Him as it is stated (regarding the birth of Yehudah) ‘This time I will give thanks to HaShem.’ “
Rashi points out on this passage that Leah had some kind of prophecy that Yaakov would indeed have 12 sons and since there were four women who would bear those sons she naturally thought that each woman (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah) would give birth to three. Yehudah was Leah’s fourth son. Leah realized that she received more than she expected. Leah, therefore, gave thanks to HaShem, so she named her son Yehudah, which has the same Hebrew root as Todah, thank you.
The word for Jews in Hebrew is Yehudim, we are people who give thanks. We are people who express HaKarat HaTov, gratitude, for the blessings we have received.
While Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday, the value of giving thanks is Jewish. Like the Pilgrims of the 17 century who gave thanks for blessings bestowed upon them, we, too, have a day to step back and look at the blessings with which we have been graced.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Mr. Israel Mindick was the shamas (sexton) of the shul I attended many years ago when I still lived in my hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts. Mr. Mindick was, at that time in his 70’s, (almost all the men at the minyan were in their 70’s – my presence reduced the average age by 50 years) a stout, slightly bow-legged man from whom you could hear a slight whistle emanating from his lips as he walked. Each day he made sure the siddurim were in their place in the shul for the three minyanim. On Mondays and Thursdays he read the Torah; he made sure everything in the shul ran smoothly. His most important role, at least according to the regular members of that morning minyan was to ensure that the schnapps (on special occasions he would break out the scotch) and the kichel (flakey, cookie-like pasteries) were plentiful for after davening. Mr. Mindick would still wear his tallis and tefillin and dip his kichel into his schnapps. The only way to describe Mr. Mindick was that he was a nice man.
This week we read Parshat VaYeira and as such we continue learning more about Avraham and in doing so I see similarities between Avraham and Mr. Mindick. Avraham exudes the characteristics we wish for in our children. The parsha opens with Avraham welcoming three strangers despite the fact that he is recovering from his Brit Milah. He invites them in, feeds them, gives them water with which to wash their feet. Later when he is told that the cities of Sodom and Gemorah are to be destroyed he argues with HaShem to try to stop the destruction. This is in contrast to Noah who, when told of the impending destruction of the world, offered no counter argument, no defense to try to thwart the plan. Next week, when we will read that Sarah has died, Avraham’s honesty will be on display as he negotiates the purchase of a proper burial plot, making sure there is never any dispute about the price.
Jewish tradition understands that everything in the Torah is there to teach something, even the chronology of events are significant. At this point, in the narrative of the Torah, there is no “Torah” for it has not yet been given. Even Rashi acknowledges that the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a collective does not come until Parshat Bo, in the Book of Shemot. There is a poignancy to what we learn about Avraham.
There is the concept “Derech Eretz kadma laTorah” which means manners comes before the Torah. It is about character. Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer are all part and parcel of Jewish tradition, they can't be separated from Judaism, but they are given importance, validation by how we act. What would we think of the Shabbat observant person who put on tefillin each day but was an unpleasant individual? Shabbat and prayer would certainly be diminished in the eyes of others. Aside from the mention of Shabbat in the second chapter of Bereshit, there really is little mention of the ritual mitzvot, those will come in the later books of the Torah. To be a Jew means to think of others, treat others with respect, to be honest. Being a Jew means being like Avraham, like Mr. Mindick.
Enjoy your kichel and schnapps, Mr. Mindick. Thank you for being nice to the 20 something year old, looking to find his way in the Jewish world.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I had a great car ride to school this morning. I found my CD of Shabbat Zemirot, slid it in and turned the volume up to near ear-drum blasting decibels. The loudness of the music, while being the sole passenger in the car afforded me the opportunity to sing as loud as I wanted without hurting either myself or anyone else. When I arrived in Oakland, I was happy, Shabbat is coming.
This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha and we are introduced to Avram, the man who will eventually become Avraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people. Avram is commanded “Lech Lecha . . .” “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land I will show you.” Rashi explains that this is for Avram’s benefit and his pleasure. Rashi further says Hashem will make his (Avram’s) name known in the world. What is interesting here is that Rashi uses the word “teva” for name rather than “shem” which actually means name. “Teva” in Hebrew means nature, but it can be used for coin, meaning just as a coin is imprinted, the nature of a person can leave an imprint. Avram’s nature, Rashi seems to teach, will leave an imprint on the world.
Perhaps the same is with us as well. Life is not always easy. We are faced with all kinds of different challenges, some of which are easily withstood, others not so much. Rashi’s comment teaches us that we have the ability to help another through challenges; a kind word, a thank you for something, even a smile can lift spirits high and make those challenges easier to bear. And for those moments of joy, they are all the more sweet when experienced with others. Life is meant to be experienced with community. We leave our imprint on the world in how we touch the lives of others.
Yes, Shabbat is coming. I feel happy. The ear shattering Shabbat Zemirot playing in the car worked its magic. What can I do today to leave others with the same feeling?
Shabbat shalom, one and all.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Do you remember the saying, “When I was a kid, I walked to school every day, and it was uphill – both ways”? In fact, when I lived in Israel, I actually had to walk up hill both ways. The school where I studied was tucked behind the Israel Museum and I would walk down the hill, cross Rechov (Street) Aza and then walk up a hill, take a short cut that brought me to Rechov HaPalmach to get to my apartment on Rechov HaLamed Hey. One night as I was walking home (uphill, of course) there was a very bad rain storm. I was walking into the wind and rain was literally coming at me sideways. Suddenly there was a gust so powerful, a virtual tsunami of wind and rain, that I was knocked over and my umbrella was reduced to shreds. Was this what Noah experienced?
This week we read Parshat Noach, the righteous man who was commanded to build an ark, bring his family and a zoo-full of animals onto it. They would be the survivors of a what would be a 40-day rain storm (probably like the one I experienced in 1989) and a massive flood that would wipe out all living creatures. Noah's family would then become the progenitors of a new generation of humankind, one that would hopefully be morally superior to the one just destroyed.
However, it is the end of the parsha that I find compelling. It is the episode of the Tower of Babel. Rashi and other commentators say that this new generation, the descendants of those saved by the flood, united by the fact that they speak one language decide to build a city with a tower that would reach the heavens. What I find remarkable is the manner in which the people came together towards a common goal.
Why were the people dispersed to other lands and their language changed so that they could no longer communicate with each other? I did notice something interesting in Rashi's commentary. The Torah refers to the people as "Bnai HaAdam" the sons of the man. Rashi comments that just as Adam blamed HaShem for his sin in the Garden of Eden, not demonstrating gratitude for HaShem's kindness, the people were not showing a sense of gratitude for having been rescued from the flood. Despite the unity, HaShem, explains Rashi, viewed the building of the tower to Heaven as an act rebellion. The end goal the people had was ultimately negative and for that the people need to be separated.
This value of HaKarat HaTov, of recognizing the good, of expressing gratitude, is all too important. The people came together to build something great, and to a certain extend they did, but they lacked that sense of gratitude. That was their downfall. We can build physically, like the tower, and we can build in other ways. People are a Tower of Babel, people need to be built up to do great things. How do we build people? Showing gratitude for who they are and what they do? Everyone needs validation, everyone needs to know they matter and what they do matters. This can easily be accomplished with two words, "thank you".
We just finished two days of Parent Teacher conferences. Thank you to all the teachers who spent the time to talk with parents, for their devotion to teaching and giving of themselves to 108 Jewish children who are in our little corner of the world. I get to see, everyday, how hard they work to educate, and do all the other things necessary for our school.
Thank you to the PTO who provided dinner and snacks for the teachers and everything they do for the betterment of GBDS.
Thank you to the GBDS staff who work hard each day, providing support for teachers and students.
And thank you to the parents who entrust their children to us each day.
GBDS is our Tower of Babel, together may we continue to build it and each other.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
I had the wonderful privilege of living in Jerusalem for three years. I had one apartment on HaLamed Hey Street and another in North Talpiot a five minute walk from the Haas Promenade overlooking the Old City. It was really a special time. To actually live in the land where Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov walked and where King David lead the Jewish people, was beyond compare. To be in a country where the language is that of the Torah was amazing, even more so when I finally understood it and was able to let the Hebrew, as broken as it may have been, come from my mouth instead of English. During those years I hiked through the Golan, and rode camels in the Negev. I climbed Masada. I also enjoyed walking through the Machane Yehudah shuk, the open market in Jerusalem, for it was the one place that remained untouched by the western world. I can still hear vendors yelling,“Avati’ach!” (watermelon). One year a friend of mine and I would walk there every Friday morning to shop for Shabbat. We would begin at a little meat place and each week I ordered grilled turkey with hummus and salad in a pita and that would be my breakfast (I was in my 20’s).
When I lived on HaLamed Street I would walk to a shul located at the point where HaPalmach Street met Rechov HaNasi. As I walked I could hear the horn that blew throughout the city to indicate that Shabbat had started. I usually sat on the right side of the shul near the tall, narrow, floor to ceiling windows and in my mind’s eye I can still see the darkness, and Shabbat, gently descend over Jerusalem as we sang Lecha Dodi. That image returns weekly wherever I sing Lecha Dodi.
And there was the Kotel, that magnificent wall. What can one say about the Kotel? It is the one wall that more than we can touch it, that wall touches us.
It has been many years since I have been able to return to the land. But I know it is mine, I know it is ours.
This week we begin anew the cycle of the Torah reading with Parshat Bereshit. The opening words are very likely the most well known words of the Torah, “In the beginning, HaShem created the Heavens and the earth . . .” In his first comment on the Torah Rashi asks why the Torah begins here and not with Parshat Bo in Shemot in which the first commandment to the Jewish people as a whole is given. Rashi answers his own question by explaining that if any of the nations of the world call the Jewish people bandits for taking the Land of Israel, the Jewish people can respond that HaShem created the world and it was (and is) His will that He gave it to us.
As we begin the new cycle of the Torah, I recall that special time, when I dwelt in that special land. It reminds me of a simpler time in my life, of those things that are truly important. I will close my eyes tonight as I sing Lecha Dodi and watch Shabbat blanket Jerusalem, and us, with a gentle peace.
Shabbat Shalom, one and all.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger