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
To this day, almost 29 years later, I still remember the dream clearly. It was January of 1988 and I was about to enter my final semester at the University of Massachusetts, with the intent of studying in Israel the next year. I was serving as a Resident Assistant in the dormitory and we were back for a week of in-service before the students returned for the spring semester. It was Friday night and I was alone in my dorm room and I dozed off. I had a dream. I was seated in front of a table. The only thing I could see was an old book on a table in front of me. I opened the book and began to turn the pages. It was a Hebrew book, but I was opening it from the back. I turned a few pages and suddenly there were no more intact pages. It was as if someone had cut out the middle of the remaining pages leaving only the edges, which were still in the binding. The rest of each page was crumbled up and left in the book. I put my hand into midst of the crumbled pieces and let them sift through my fingers. I heard my great-grandfather’s Jewish name, I heard the word Talmud, and then I awoke.
In this week’s parsha, VaYeitzei, Yaakov has a dream. While he is on his way to Haran, fleeing his brother Esau who wants to kill him for stealing the blessing he thought was rightly his, Yaakov envisions a ladder with its top in the heavens. HaShem was at the top and there were angels going up and down on the ladder. HaShem tells Yaakov not to be afraid, that his progeny will spread in every direction. Yaakov wakes up in a start and realizes the intensity of the dream, “Surely HaShem is in this place, but I did not know . . . How awesome is this place, this is the gate of the heavens.”
Dreams are part of Jewish tradition. Many of the commentators say this was Yaakov receiving prophecy. The midrash says that the ladder represents Mount Sinai for the numerical equivalent (known as gematriya) of the Hebrew word for ladder, sulam, and that of Sinai are identical, 130. Just as HaShem stood at the top of Mount Sinai when the Torah was given, HaShem is at the top of the ladder. Angels in Jewish tradition are really messengers for HaShem who are assigned to fulfill certain tasks. Some of the commentaries point to Yaakov, and the Jewish people as a whole as agents, here on this world to complete a Divine task.
While I would never say that my dream back in 1988, was a prophetic message, as vivid as it was. I am simply not on the level of Yaakov. I did, however, write about the dream at the time (which was published in a newspaper in the area) and I did interpret the dream for myself in such a manner that it spawned a lifetime of study and teaching the beauty of Jewish tradition. Yaakov’s (the Biblical Yaakov – not me) dream was prophecy. The Jewish people are spread through this world, and despite all the trials and tribulations the Jewish people have endured throughout the ages, we are still here, vibrant, with a rich and beauty heritage.
Jewish tradition places a premium on dreams. In fact there is a practice to fast due to a nightmare. Dreams are part of the human condition. Whether our dreams are prophetic messages or not – I truly can’t say, but may we look at our dreams and allow the symbols to bring us to new heights.
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
Yesterday was the 2nd Grade’s Chumash Ceremony. The children were all dressed up and the room was filled to capacity with smiles from parents, grandparents, teachers and the students themselves. The children performed their songs flawlessly (thank you Morah Etty and Morah Dassi). The room itself was decorated beautifully reflecting the Torah (thank you Mrs. Jaffe) I was given the privilege of presenting the students with their Chumash. Before doing so, I spoke about how wonderful it is to receive a Chumash. I held up one of the brand new Chumashim, opened it up and showed it to the children. Suddenly upon the face of one of the girls in the class there appeared the widest and brightest smile (even wider than was already there) that one could ever imagine; a “Wow!!” expression.
In the blessing recited directly before the Shema in the morning service we request from the Divine, “And enlighten our eyes in Your Torah.” If ever there was a fulfillment of this phrase, the expression of this little girl was it. In that instant, this precious child brought to life what it means to have Torah enlighten one’s eyes. Pirke Avot opens with “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai, and gave (transmitted it) to Joshua and from Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets . . . “. That transmission of our holy Torah has continued down to us and yesterday continued yet once more to the 2nd grade students at GBDS.
That smile reminded me why this school is here. GBDS is here to continue that transmission of Torah, to enlighten the eyes of children with Torah. That little girl’s smile reminded me why I am here, why I have dedicated more than a quarter of a century to Jewish education.
To that little girl who gave the widest smile in the world when she saw her Chumash – thank you. To all of the 2nd grade who will take their chumashim and begin to learn Torah, and their families, - mazel tov!!
Rabbi Yaakov Traiger
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