Friday, November 25, 2011

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

This week's Parsha opens with the words, "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak."

There is a golden rule in the study of Torah that, as the Torah is perfect, there are no supefluous words anywhere. Each and every word has a meaning. Why, therefore, are we twice told that Yitzchak was Avraham's son?

Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem proposes an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to refer to Yitzchak. We may learn from these words that Yitzchak defined himself as "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham." Yitzchak's respect and love for his father extended to him determining himself by his father.

The next phrase, "אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - Avraham begot Yitzchak" can be understood as Avraham, the father, referring to himself by mentioning his son. While it is inspiring for the son to realise his position by defering to his father, I find it beautiful, and rather poetic, that Avraham Avinu found himself to be fulfilled through his son. Of course the positions of father and son should never be confused, and the son must always defer to the father, but I personally find this expression of mutual love and respect in Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another interesting phenomenon I'd like to point out comes in response to an academic article I read last year during my studies. Written by feminist Susan Moller-Okin, the rhetorical question (more of an attack, really,) is asked why we read of "all those endless begats" such as the one found above, whereby a father (Avraham in our case) has a son (Yitzchak here), born to him without the mother being mentioned at all. When I first heard this, it really bothered me. Truth be told, it still does, but I'm sure that I'll find an answer if I do my searching. People told me that while it is clear that we wouldn't write things in such a way today, at the time that Avraham lived, women were very much marginalised by society. Whether the Torah is divine or not, (and I firmly believe that it is,) it was suggested to me that we can "excuse" this uncomfortable phrase as a sign of times past.

Nevertheless, reading through the parsha this last week, I realised something that does provide an answer of sorts to the allegation that Judaism is intrinsically sexist and discriminatory. Only a few verses after the one quoted above, we read that, " וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב - Yitzchak loved Esav, for trapping was in his mouth; and Rivkah loved Ya'acov."

It is intriguing to note that the two parents developed favourites at all, but I'd like to focus on the fact that while Yitzchak chose Esav, Rivkah favoured Ya'akov. Rivkah chose the 'right' son - the son from whom the Jewish people would emanate, the son who would turn out to be righteous. Responding to claims that Judaism is entirely discriminatory to women, it is important to note that no excuses are given for Yitzchak's "misjudgment" - women are regarded as typically being more insightful and in possession of the trait of בינה, proper understanding. I think that the right conclusion to draw is that there are no explanations given for this simple verse because none are really needed. Yitzchak, great as he was, could never have a woman's perception and understanding. During the Shmonah Esrei we speak of the three forefathers, but we don't mention the four foremothers. But this absolutely doesn't mean that they are of no value, that they had no contribution, and that we don't learn things from them. A glance further ahead in this week's parsha bears that out: Ya'akov, whom we learn represented absolute truth, was forced to bend somewhat after his mother compels him to disguise himself in order to "steal" a bracha from under his brother's nose. It is important not to underestimate the strength of Rivka's role here. She hoodwinked her own husband and forced her son to act against his will, but for a very good reason - she perceived that which the male characters couldn't. Without her guidance this whole episode could never have happened. Although it might seem as if women's roles are very low, if we closely analyse events and view them as a chain, rather than as isolated occurences, we may see just how vital women's contributions are. On a personal note, I may not have all the answers, but I feel that if I learn more about this, there are answers to be found.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parshat Chayei Sarah - פרשת חיי שרה

"ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything."

This week's Parsha begins with Avraham Avinu setting out to bury his wife, Sarah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes in Michtav M'Eliyahu that out of all the challenging events in Avraham's life this episode was the most troubling. He had just passed the test of the Akeidah, whereby he intended and prepared himself to slaughter to his only son on God's word, and now he hears that his beloved wife had passed away.

Avraham set out to bury his wife in a spot in Hevron that we now call "Ma'arat Hamachpela," in a manner that was befitting of such a righteous woman. Unfortunately though, the people of Hevron, the Chitites, knew that Hashem had given Avraham the land of Israel and did their best to inflate the price. The leader, Efron, was a base man who at first told Avraham that he would give the land away for nothing but when Avraham told Efron that he wanted to pay for the burial plot, Efron raised the price well over the acceptable rate. The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes that Efron's name is composed of the root letters "עפר," - dust. Dust is common and representative of the physical; exactly Efron's nature - all he cared about was that which was physical. Efron's initial "polite" refusal to accept any money was soon revealed to be a front for his true nature. (Indeed, toward the end of this episode, the letter ו is dropped from עפרון's name so that it spells "עפרן," which we may note happens to be numerically equivalent to עין-רע; evil eye.)

In the face of this, and despite his intense pain at his wife's passing, Avraham remained calm, respectful and truly polite. He even bows twice to the Chitites. His behaviour is a real lesson for us to learn - even when in the most terribly depressing moment of his life, Avraham was staunchly pious. While it would be hard for us to emulate him, we can learn from his actions.

Later on in the Parsha, we read, "ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything." The word everything seems a bit vague. What is intended? The stock answer is that בכל has a gematria of 52. The word בן, son, also has a gematria of 52 and so we learn that Avraham's reward was his son, Yitzchak.

There's a problem with this though - Yitzchak was born years ago! Another way to read this word resolves our problem. בכל, "with everything," can instead be replaced with בן, but not in the sense of a son. Rather we can read it to mean "with the number 50." Without going too far into things I don't understand myself, I have learned that Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) teaches us that the number 50 has a special significance. There are 50 levels of Kedushah, spiritual levels in which we may ascend. For this reason, for example, we count 50 days until the festival of Shavuot, each day ascending a spiritual level, so that we may arrive at the pinnacle of holiness. Avraham's blessing here was not merely that he was given a son, but also that he attained this fiftieth level of holiness. In that sense, he was completed and we can say that Hashem truly blessed Avraham בכל - with everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Parshat Vayera - פרשת וירא

"ויֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - And said: 'My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant."
(בראשית יח:ג)

The words above form Avraham's request of God after his circumcision: please don't leave me now, even though I have to leave.

The days after a circumcision are supposed to be the most painful, with the pain at its most intense on the third day. Although the pain was great, Avraham was pre-occupied with other things; he was desperate to welcome guests into his tent, and sat watching for weary travellers he could welcome in to his abode.

But if we think about this situation over, something seems amiss. Avraham was sitting in the presence of God, and yet he was searching for people he could bring into his house. What more could he need? Surely being with Hashem is better than being with mere mortals!

The Talmud in Gemara Shabbat (127) learns from this episode that: "מכאן שגדולה הכנסת אורחים יותר מקבלת פני השכינה - from here [we know] that hosting guests is more [important] than receiving the heavenly presence." This still leaves a question, though. How did Avraham know how he should act?

In the book Mayanei HaTorah (a compilation of various teachings) a few Rabbis point out the answer to this question. We have to recognise that Avraham Avinu was a tremendous person. He devoted his life Torah and becoming close to Hashem and he had an incredible level of control over his natural desires and instincts. Avraham was so accustomed to defeating his own will and attuned to Hashem's that his body gravitated towards doing mitzvot. When there was an opportunity for performing a mitzvah, he would find that his body "wanted" to take him there. Avraham was aware that his body wanted to take him there, and so he came to the realisation that the proper conduct was in fact to leave Hashem's presence and seek out people to take into his home.

Personally, I learn a great deal from this. If ever there was an example in the whole Torah of the lengths to which we have to go to make other people happy, this is it. To Avraham, nothing in the world mattered more than being with God. Yet he understood that to become closer with God, there are times when one has to do the simple things.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 04, 2011

Parshat Lech Lecha - פרשת לך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
Hashem said to Avram: 'Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.'
(בראשית יב:א)

There are two parts of this Pasuk that I would like to deal with. The part that immediately interests us is the list of places that Hashem commands Avram to leave - Avram's land, his birthplace and his father's house. After that, Avram we read of the oddly vague "place that I will show you."

There is one obvious question to be asked on the first part of this pasuk. It is posed in the Kli Yakar's commentary: when one lists where one hails from, one normally starts with the most local place and then mentions increasingly bigger areas. For example, I was born in Hendon, which is in London, which in turn is in England. Here however, the list order is reversed. One possible reason for this could be that when moving away from a certain place, a person notices things that he used to take for granted. Personally I have noticed many cases of American and English expatriates assuming an exaggerated persona. I believe that the reason for this is as much to do with being homesick and attempting to compensate for the inability to actually be immersed in the old country's culture as it is to play the culture card on local people. By this I mean that I will often exaggerate my Londoner accent for Israeli and American friends as it is both a talking point, and also reminds people where I come from and what kind of behaviour and customs to expect from me. It also serves to confirm to myself that I am different from Israelis and that although I have moved abroad, I am not a native. To misquote Sting, "I'm an Englishman in Jerusalem!"

Coming back to the point, the word ארץ in Hebrew means land, but it also has another connotation. The word may be read as "א-רץ," meaning "I will run." The concept of the ground in Hebrew is the place you are heading to to, what your goal is. By way of comparison, Egypt is called מצרים, which derives from the word צר, meaning thin. Eretz Yisrael, a very thin strip of land geographically, is called "Eretz tova U'rechava - A good and wide land." How can that be? The answer is simple enough; that Egypt was a spiritually stifling place for the Jews to live in, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, our potential is significantly "wider" and expanded.

It is only natural that a man once removed from his natural surroundings will pine for them and attempt to re-enact them in his mind. For this reason, Hashem first told Avram to leave behind the land he came from. He wasn't telling him to literally leave the land first, that would be impossible! What was meant was for Avram to leave that mentality behind, to abandon it completely. Only after he had left behind this mentality could he truly leave his home and his father's house without feeling the need to come back.

But where shall he go to? We have grasped the fact that Avram had to leave behind all that he used to know, but where was he to head to? The Pasuk simply says the place "אשר אראך - that I will show you." How can Avram go somewhere without knowing where it is that he is to be heading?

To answer this, we may look at the beginning of the Pasuk. The first two words Hashem said, "לך לך," may be translated as "Go for yourself," but it can also be rendered "Go to yourself." Or, alternatively, "Go (to) 50." 50 is known as one of the many numbers of Kedusha. The concept here is not that Avram was being instructed to merely head for a different place on the map, rather that he was being commanded by Hashem to go to his limit, to reach the highest spiritual level he possibly could.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!