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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Do we have free choice?

Now with Inauguration Day behind us, I hope all conversations about politics can be put to rest, and people can start to get along with one another, even if they come from different political persuasions. However, one can ask: Do we have free choice? Can we really choose to change our ways? That takes a lot of discipline.

 

Well, let us look at this week’s Torah portion to draw some inspiration.

 

When it comes to the eighth plague, we see that G-d tells Moses to warn Pharaoh of the consequences of not listening to Him. In the same breath, G-d says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he doesn’t let the Jewish people out of Egypt. What is going on here? Is this a joke? Why should Moses warn Pharaoh at the same time that he knows there is no chance for Pharaoh to actually listen to him, since G-d has hardened his heart?

 

In life, one can only warn someone not to do something if it is in their power to hold themselves back and not do it. If it is out of their control, why warn them?

 

One way to answer this is by suggesting that Moses was trying to say that the plague will come—yet Pharaoh would have a way to stop it, by changing his behavior.

 

In other words, G-d wanted Moses to lay it on thick, to let Pharaoh know that He meant business. “The plague of locusts is coming” was not a warning, but a fact. However, if Pharaoh decided to send the Jews out of Egypt before the plaque came, then he could avoid it from coming. That was not a threat, but a notification of a fact, that Pharaoh could change.

 

At the same time that this stern warning was given to Pharaoh, and when one would think that he would want to let the Jews go, G-d also says, I will make him stubborn.

 

Why make it difficult for Pharaoh to let the Jews go? Wasn’t that G-d’s plan?

 

Well, it's not so simple. If G-d wanted the Jews to go at that point, He could have just brought them out on His own. He wanted Pharaoh to let them go of his own volition. If Pharaoh let them go because he was afraid of punishment, then he was not letting them go because he wanted them to go, but because of the plagues, so we are back to square one. Therefore, G-d hardened Pharaoh's heart to level the playing field again. That way, if Pharaoh let the Jews go, he did so of his own free will.

 

Here is a lesson for all of us: If G-d had enough trust in Pharaoh that he would break through his evil inclinations and choose to do the right thing, imagine how much more so is our ability to choose to do the right thing!

 

Let us rise above the sparring and choose to be free people. A nation that gets along with one another. A people that has the ability to choose right over wrong. If Pharaoh had the ability to break free, so do we.

Is the choice yours?

Being Jewish is a birthright. However, someone can also choose to become a Jew through conversion. Yet, we see that you cannot choose to give up this birthright of being a Jew. Why not? If you can choose to be, why can’t you choose not to be? 
 

Interestingly, we find that during the first exodus from Egypt, not all the Jews left. Some Jews stayed behind as they subscribed to the ways of the land and were not interested in being part of the Jewish people. They chose another way. 
 

However, it says that when the ultimate redemption comes, every single Jew, even if they are not interested, will be redeemed, meaning that we will have no choice. As the saying goes: No Jew will be left behind. 
 

What changed?   
 

While the Jews were in Egypt before G-d gave us the Torah, our relationship with G-d was based on us, the Jewish people, choosing to have—or not to have—a relationship with G-d. Those who wanted to be close to Him left Egypt, those who did not, stayed behind—and died during the plague of darkness. So, although a Jew who wanted to be part of the Jewish nation did so by choice, it may not have been an easy choice. It may even have been against their nature, but it was something that they wanted to do. G-d embraced them in return and made it worthwhile. 
 

However, at Mount Sinai, something unique took place. G-d chose the Jewish people! A unique bond was formed. Once this connection was established, it was as tight as a parent to a child. In return for this commitment from G-d to us, the Jews reciprocated by committing themselves to G-d as servants to a master. Once such a bond is formed, it is everlasting for all generations to come. It becomes part of our DNA. 

As we embark on reading the second book of the Torah, the book of Exodus, we first read about the suffering of the Jews, and then we read about their redemption, their being chosen, and finally being given the Torah. We, too, should bear in mind that although we might have had a difficult year behind us, a good year is ahead of us, and we pray that we should merit the ultimate redemption with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days. Amen. 

Living in the Moment

Recently, as my family was sitting together, someone shared that when they asked my father what the best day of his marriage was, he answered, “Today.” 

Emphasizing the value of living in the moment makes us wonder why this week’s Torah portion—which discusses the death of Jacob—is called “Vayechi Yaakov,” meaning “and Jacob lived,” but the emphasis is on his death. Shouldn’t we be focusing on his life? 

Reading the details of the story, we see that these seventeen years of his life—his last seventeen—were his best years, because he enjoyed peace and harmony between his children. He witnessed the success of his son Joseph’s rise to power to lead the Egyptians, and he witnessed the growth of his own family. 

However, these blissful years did follow 130 challenging years. Years of pain and suffering under Laban. Years of hard labor. Years of longing for his long-lost son Joseph. 

Yet, it is in his death that we see Jacob’s life come to light. All the pain and suffering were not for naught. It was all a prelude to what came at the end—and even after his passing.  

That is why, although we do read about Jacob’s death, it is his life that is celebrated. A life lived cannot be taken in piecemeal; we should look at the culminative whole, and even more so, we should be looking at the legacy a person leaves after they are gone, what the next generation does in their absence.

This is why we call this portion “Vayechi Yaakov,” meaning “and Jacob lived.” This is what living in the moment is really all about. 

Live in the moment. Enjoy the moment. Shabbat Shalom. 

Sending Gifts

When it comes to sending a gift, especially at a time when it has to be meaningful, time and effort must be invested to make sure that the right gift is given. And especially if a message is meant to be given through the gift.

 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of how Joseph sends gifts to his father – very specific gifts, so that they should be meaningful to him. After all, this is Joseph’s reintroduction to his father. Jacob thought that his son was dead for the last 22 years and now, he is looking forward to meeting him soon. What does his long-lost son send him?

 

Well, first, he has to keep in mind that Pharaoh himself sends gifts, so Joseph has to “out-do him.” In addition, he has to make his gift meaningful. So, what does he send him?

 

Aged wine as well as local prized grains. Both have deep significance to them.

 

From the day that Joseph was sold into slavery, Jacob, as a sign of mourning, stopped drinking wine. So, too, did the brothers. And unbeknownst to them, Joseph, did the same. He too, felt the loss of being without his family, so although he always maintained a positive attitude, he nevertheless refrained from drinking wine. Sending aged wine to his father was not only about sending prestigious wine, it was also a sign that he saved wine for 22 years! From the day of his separation until that day, he had saved the wine for the day of their reunion. We see that this aged wine has a double value: prestige and a sign of longing to be reunited.

 

In addition, he sent local grain, grain that can only be found in Egypt. This gift illustrated that his status in Egypt was not just of a regular citizen, but of a powerful, influential person. That his coming to Egypt, was not a punishment, but a reward of sorts. Although one may not be able to compare the value of grain to wine, wine is clearly much more valuable than grain. But wine can be found anywhere in the world, and perhaps Israel has even better wine than Egypt. But the local grain is unique to Egypt, and Joseph sends both to his father.

 

As 2020 comes to an end, it is a time for us to reflect on the aged wine and the prized grain in our personal lives. We can use wine and grain as metaphors for life. So, what things that matter to us are we are ready to share with others? What things bring us joy and meaning? What things bring us together yet make us unique? This is the time to contemplate, to share, and to celebrate.

When do you pray?

Prayer in Judaism is often misunderstood.  Yes, we pray three times a day, and during those times the words are composed for us. However, is it appropriate for us to pray at any moment of the day when we need G-d’s intervention?

 

In this week’s Torah portion, we see an interesting exchange between Jacob and his sons as he sends them off to Egypt to get food. After he prepares them to travel down to Egypt, the portion tell us that they have their plan all worked out and they have all their provisions ready to go. But then Jacob tells his children, you travel while I stay behind and pray for your safety.

 

From this text, we see that prayer can be, and should be, done at any time. However, looking a little closer at the order of their departure, we see that only Jacob prays, and he does so after the brothers leave. Does this mean to say that Jacob’s prayer is a last recourse? Shouldn’t prayer be part of the plan to begin with?

 

Of course, it should be, and it is.

 

Jacob’s praying is very much part of the plan. His point is that although you have everything taken care of, all your provisions are in place, and you have a plan of action, you may think that there is no need to pray. Jacob teaches us that not only do you still have to pray, but specifically then is when you should pray!

 

From this portion we learn that there are times when we have an obligation to pray, and there are times when we are not obligated to pray. Nevertheless, when the need arises, or if we are inspired to do so, we should go ahead and pray. Not always do we need the words to be composed for us—after all, prayers are words of the soul.

Are you excited about Chanukah?

There is much excitement in the air these days. It is Chanukah!  There is news about a vaccine, which means that there is “light” at the end of the tunnel.  

 

It is tradition to read the newspaper to know the current news.  As Jews, we take tradition a step further and look at the Torah portion to gain a deeper appreciation of that same news. The question is: what can the Torah portion teach us this week about Chanukah and the news of the vaccine? 

 

This week’s Torah portion tells a fascinating story about Judah and Tamar, but that is not for now. However, I would like to point out one seemingly trivial detail in the story—that the city that they lived in, Timnah, was built on a hill.  If you think about that detail, you may ask, why did it matter where the city was located? 

Generally, a city is built either near the road at the foot of a mountain, so that it can trade easily with travelers, or at the top of a mountain, so that its inhabitants can protect themselves well.  Building on the side of a mountain, has neither advantage. Actually, it only has disadvantages since one home is built above the other. The Torah must be telling us something significant here. 

 

Clearly, the Torah is not just telling us some random fact about this city, but a lesson in life.  

In life we have a choice; we can view ourselves as standing on the top of a mountain. proud of ourselves. Or, we can view ourselves at the bottom, thinking that we are small and insignificant.  Judaism teaches us that we should always view ourselves as climbers, trying to make our way up the mountain. We should never be satisfied with where we are, always trying to accomplish more.  However, as we move our way forward, we should do so with pride. 

On the first night of Chanukah, we light one light, but the second night we add one more light, and on the third, we add one more—just as we do when we climb a mountain, every day, we take one more step forward, adding more light into our lives and into the lives of those around us. 

 

The world has gone through a lot this past year. Yet, we see that the world will just get brighter if we do our part by adding light. Just a little light will make the world that much brighter. 

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah! 

 

 

 

Sibling Rivalry

 Siblings trying to position themselves within their family hierarchy is nothing new. This has been going on for centuries. It is human nature. At a young age the arguments might be about who got a better mark or who won a competition, but as we grow up, the rivalry might evolve to more substantial things such as accomplishments in life, etc.

 

This “positioning” is normal; but, of course, it should always be done in a respectful manner, since one should always come to the realization that each and every person is born with talents and abilities that another might not have—or perhaps, have more talent.

 

This makes us wonder, why is it that in this week’s Torah portion we find that Jacob called his brother, Esau, “my master” and referred to himself as “servant?” This, in and of itself, is not what one would expect. In addition, his father, Isaac, gave him a blessing that he should rule over his brother, so even if he was afraid of him, or wanted to be kind to him, using a term like “master” sounds a bit excessive, if not counterintuitive.

 

However, on a deeper, more esoteric level, we have to say that there was a reason Jacob used this terminology, and it wasn’t out of fear.

 

In general, there are two ways that one can have influence on another. Either one can try to teach and influence, by giving as much as possible and hoping something will get through, or one can put one’s self in the other person’s situation, even at the risk of a compromising situation, but this way there is a better chance of getting the message across.

 

The challenge with the second approach is that if the person you are trying to influence is in a bad place, when you allow yourself to relate to their situation in an intimate fashion in order to truly understand them, you are risking the chance of becoming like them. Yet, if you don’t relate to the person on this intimate level, you have a much smaller chance of actually having a positive effect on the person.

 

Hence the dilemma.

 

Jacob had this challenge. How could he have had a positive influence on his brother, Esau? The only chance he had was if he related to him on Esau’s level. But then he might risk his own spiritual wellbeing. Therefore, he did something very different: He elevated Easu. He made his brother feel good about himself! He called him “master” and Easu did not expect that. He thought his brother was going to preach to him, or look down on him, or at most, talk to him as a brother. But to look up to him? To give him a compliment? That was totally unexpected!

 

Perhaps Jacob was unsuccessful at transforming his brother, but he did have an influence on him.

 

Here is where we can learn a powerful lesson. If you want to have an impact on someone, look for the good in the other person, give them a compliment, find a way to see their strengths and don’t just tell them—say it to others as well. Let the world know why you think this person is a good person. When you think and speak positively about another person, it will have positive effects on the other person.

Living in Isolation

It has been eight months already and counting. We were all hoping that by this point we would be back to normal. When the coronavirus appeared on the scene, and we were told that the country would be going into lockdown for two weeks, we never imagined that we would still be here today. Even as things loosened up, we never thought that the school year would open as it did, and that now the schools would be struggling with the debate about whether they should or should not stay open. (Montgomery County schools just closed for two weeks.) All of this is just causing people to be more and more isolated. To feel more and more alone. 

 

Holidays are times for people to spend with family and friends. It was difficult for us to see our loved ones on Passover all alone, then on birthdays that came and went, anniversaries, and other celebrations. New couples held only small weddings, and so on. Even the High Holidays were so unusual! What do we make of all of this? This question has been asked of me with some more urgency this week as we face an uptick in numbers and a Thanksgiving holiday on the horizon. This is an inner struggle for many people, some wanting to say enough is enough, and we cannot deal with the isolation any longer; and yet, no one wants to be a contributor to the reason why COVID is getting worse and not better. 

 

I have no comment on the medical side of this conversation, but I would like to address the isolation issue. This is not the first time in history that people have felt isolated—not only because of a pandemic; sometimes it can happen for other reasons as well. 

 

Let us look at the famous biblical story that we read in this week’s Torah portion, where Leah is married to Jacob but doesn’t feel loved. She feels all alone, isolated. Each time she gives birth, she gives her infants names that express how she feels, her longing for her husband to love her. Her first son’s name, Reuben, means “now G-d has seen my humiliation.” Her second son’s name, Shimon, means “G-d has heard the hatred that is felt toward me.” The third son she names Levi, meaning “finally my husband will feel attached to me.” And it goes on with the other names as well.  

 

Here we see Leah, a lonely woman longing for a relationship, not wanting to be all alone. It is not fun to feel isolated. 

 

However, this is only scratching the surface of the verses. Since we know that Leah is buried together with Jacob, clearly she wasn’t “hated” by him, so what did she mean? Equally important, how does this story relate to us? 

 

At first Leah was sharing her feelings, expressing how she felt. She felt alone, isolated, and unloved. She hoped that one day her husband would notice her, and her feelings would dissipate and evaporate as if they were never there in the first place. Life would be full of roses. Yet, as we delve deeper into the meaning of the names, we see that actually she was not talking about herself at all, but about the virtues of her children. How great they would turn out to be! 

As Leah named her children, she looked into the future, not only at her current predicament. 

True, she felt isolated, but she wasn’t depressed; she made sure that only good would come out of the relationship. In the end we see that her children were all good children—they passed the test of time, and even her relationship blossomed. Take Reuben for example: When his younger brother Joseph is given a “double portion” as the first son instead of Reuben, he doesn’t complain. Reuben not only accepts it, he even tries to save Joseph from the pit (but he is unsuccessful). Here we see how one can take a bad situation and turn it into a positive. 

Here is a lesson for us as well. During life before the pandemic, we might not have had too much time to think about our personal life, and we just went with the flow. We participated in holiday events, community events, and so on. Now, we are forced to think about what our contribution is to our family, to our community, and to society. 

How are we making that difference? 

 

Having a better understanding of our relationships

At times, we can be confused as to what kind of relationships we have with our friends, with our colleagues, and even with our children. Did we communicate our intentions properly? Did they understand what we were trying to share with them? Did the message get lost in our communication? Today such potential miscommunication is commonly called a generation gap. But if it is so, perhaps there is more to it.

Let’s see what the Torah has to say on this subject. We find an interesting anomaly to the way the first words of this week’s Torah portion are written. The parsha says, “And this is the offspring of Isaac,” referring to both his children, Jacob and Esau. Yet, it is not written explicitly.

Here is the quandary: It is clear from the rest of the story that follows that Jacob continues the chain of the Jewish tradition. It is one thing to mention that Esau is a child – facts are facts – but if we are trying to illustrate what Isaac stood for, why hint about the existence of Esau now? When the information becomes relevant, we will say so.

Let’s jump to the end of Esau’s life—perhaps that event can shed some light. In a dramatic episode during Jacob’s funeral, there is a skirmish in which Esau dies as well, and his head, but not his body, is buried along with his brother, Jacob. Why is Esau’s head buried along with Jacob, the wicked with the righteous? Even if it is his head only? Meanwhile, Ishmael, Abraham’s son—who, we should keep in mind, did return to G-d’s way—was not buried at all near Abraham or Isaac?

This only broadens our questions to include not only what is the difference between Jacob and Esau, but also what is the difference between Esau and Ishmael?

We must conclude that the two are not alike at all. Ishmael, although he changed his ways, never connected to Abraham; he remained disassociated from him. Esau, on the other hand, although he might have struggled his whole life, was always connected to his father; it might have been a turbulent relationship, but a relationship it was. In the end, only his “head” remained connected; his “body” never made the association. His head submitted to Isaac & Jacob’s way of life, although his actions did not follow.  

The lesson is clear. We must never give up hope on any child, or on any relationship. We must do all that we can to help even the most troubled souls. Perhaps we can make a difference in their lives. Sometimes, all that we can do is lift up their “head,” hopefully with the help of G-d, and their own initiation, their “body” will come along as well. 

Ease the Tension

Abraham and Sarah. We all know them by name. Two very powerful personalities. Reading the Torah, we can feel the tension in their home. Abraham loved both his sons. Sarah kicked one out. Abraham, not too pleased, turned to G-d for help, and was advised to “listen to your wife.” That is why when this week’s Torah portion tells us that Sarah died and Abraham took a new wife, we are not surprised that he welcomed back his son Ishmael into his home. In other words: Abraham moved on from Sarah. 


However, if this is the narrative, then why is the whole Torah portion called the “Life of Sarah,” when in actuality, Sarah died? We must say that the lesson we learn throughout this week’s portion is that Abraham and his children did live according to Sarah’s world view. That is why the portion is called the “Life of Sarah,” since she continued to live on in their actions.  


How do we see this? 


1 – Sarah’s burial place. Abraham is very specific as to where he wants to bury Sarah. We see his negotiating skills at play. Not to get into the details here, but why was he so desperate to buy this particular piece of land? Because it was believed that Adam and Eve were buried there. Adam and Eve were not “Jewish,” yet it was important to Abraham that his wife, and eventually he as well, would be buried next to them.  


2 – Isaac’s future wife. Abraham was very particular about whom Isaac would marry. He wanted to make sure that Isaac’s wife would live according to Sarah’s wishes. 


3 – Confirmation of his wishes. When Abraham saw how Ishmael’s wives were behaving, he said: I will leave all of my belongings to my son Isaac. If Abraham had had any second thoughts, they were confirmed at that point—he confirmed that his wife Sarah was right.  


From these examples we see the influence that Sarah had not only on Abraham after her death, but on us as well.  


The Tomb of the Patriarchs is the burial place of our ancestors. Every year, the IDF makes it possible for thousands of Jews to visit Hevron and spend their Shabbat in prayer and celebration, although this year that will not be happening. We learned the values of a “good Jewish wife” from Sarah and Rebecca. We also learned how to value Jewish education. These are important lessons that Sarah imparted to us. That is why we call this portion the “Life of Sarah,” since sometimes only after one’s passing is the tension eased, and we come to appreciate the wisdom in their lessons. 

Can I Question G-d?

It can be very frustrating when we try to accomplish a feat but we are not able to finish it. How much more so, when G-d himself gives us a job to do but then stops us in our tracks, as if saying: you are unworthy to do this task. How insulting can that be? Well, that is exactly what Abraham thought to himself as we see when we read this week’s Torah portion, the story of the “Binding of Isaac.” You see, G-d told Abraham to take his son Isaac to the mountain top as an offering. Once there, Abraham was about to slaughter his son—but then he was told to stop.

 

We must keep in mind that up to this point Abraham had never questioned G-d, not even in his own mind. He never asked, “How could this be?” since “G-d promised that my offspring will come forth through Isaac.” He just followed orders. Once he was told to stop, his first thought was that perhaps he was unworthy of fulfilling G-d’s orders, and was being punished.

 

The angel of G-d calmed him down and said, “No, you did not fail at all! Just the opposite, you succeeded.” The angel made a powerful point: “The fact that you never questioned G-d shows that you are a loyal servant, even if you didn’t finish the task. It is not the end result that matters but the journey. More importantly is not probing to understand G-d’s way.”    

 

Often in life we find ourselves disappointed with the way things turn out. A job, a project, whatever. We wonder, Was this G-d’s plan? I thought I prayed on the High Holidays for a blessing. Where is that blessing? Did I mess up? Am I being punished? The lesson that we take from the story of the binding of Isaac is that if we have trust in G-d and we don’t question G-d, then it is not a punishment, we did our job, our task just changed. What we thought we are meant to do, has shifted. Now we are on to our next task.

One Mission

 One thing you don’t want to read about in a Rabbi’s comments on the weekly Torah portion is commentary on the elections. However, I would like to make an observation about an interchange that took place between the two candidates during the last debate. It was quick and seemingly insignificant, but it caught my attention. It was about whether Joe Biden grow up in Claymont, DE or not. (He did live there for a few years; the question is how much of an impact that had on his life.) I am not interested in touching politics with a ten-foot pole, yet this exchange is, in and of itself, very enlightening. Is it important to remember our childhood home? What kind of an impression does it have, or should it have made, on us? 

In this week’s Torah portion, we see a small yet very important change occurring with Abraham and Sarah’s names.  

G-d told Abraham that his name would no longer be Avram; from that point on, it would be Avraham. To Sarah he said that from that point on her name would not be Sarai, it would be Sarah. (Pay particular attention to the change in the spelling.)

The significance of these name changes is that the new names broaden the influence that Abraham and Sarah have on society. They are being turned from ordinary citizens into leaders.

However, we see an interesting differentiation with the name changes. Abraham got an extra letter (in Hebrew), while Sarah exchanges one letter for another (in Hebrew). This may seem insignificant and we can just say that it is done for practical reasons. But on a deeper level, there must be a reason for this. 

AvRam, means the father of Ram, or the master over the city of Ram. That meant that Avram was a very popular man, a powerful and influential person, but only over a select, limited area. AvraHam refers to the word Hamon, meaning large, vast. This means that from that point on, Abraham’s influence should not be limited to Ram, but should spread out over a vast, large area.  He should reach an area so broad, that the whole world should hear and learn from him. G-d is teaching Abraham – and us – that while you are broadening your influence over the world, it is important to remember where you come from. That is why G-d keeps the “Ram” in the name but adds the “h.”   

Sarah, on the other hand, is given a new mission. From being Sarai, which means “master over myself,” to Sarah, “master over others,” G-d gave her a new mission to become a leader to all those around her. That is why she was given a “new” letter. Her childhood home did not matter as much. What mattered was that from that point onward she would become that leader who she was destined to become.

We see from this that Abraham and Sarah were two great leaders—they were a Power Couple. They were also not one and the same, though they did share one mission, but they came to it from different angles. There isn’t only “one way.”  

Perhaps even in our world of politics we can say that neither candidate is right or wrong. Each one brings their style of leadership to the fore.

A Lesson Is Worth Sharing

During this time leading up to the elections you see many people getting involved in politics. The simple reason is because people want to make a difference. Yet, some people choose to limit their influence to just their immediate friends and family, while others extend their influence beyond their tight circle of friends.  

Is one kind of person better than the next? What is in the DNA of the people who become activists?

This week’s Torah portion introduces us to Noah, a righteous man in his generation. Many

commentators point out that in his generation he was righteous, but if you compared him to other great leaders, he would not even come close. In what way was he great and in what way did he fail?  

Over the life span of the Jewish people there were three great leaders. In particular, we can learn from Abraham, our forefather, Moses, our teacher, and King David. By understanding their lives better, we will also have a better grasp on the life of Noah.  

Abraham: He didn’t sit back waiting to find G-d; instead he searched for meaning in the world around him. This active search helped him find and develop a deep faith in G-d and eventually, a drive to teach others about G-d. He, together with his wife, Sarah, were on a mission to teach everyone they met about G-d, the creator of the world.  

Moses: The giver of the laws of the Torah, he not only didn’t find the world to be a hindrance to G-d, he saw the world and everything inside it to be elevated in the service of G-d through the prism of how they can and should be used. Moses taught us that by us learning Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvot with physical objects, we are able to make a connection between ourselves and the divine.  

David: The concept of “kingdom” is not only that we have a king for the nation of Israel, but that we recognize that G-d is the king of the world. This idea we mention on the high holidays that “G-d is our King” is no longer just a string of words; now it becomes a relatable concept to us. From David’s time on and continuing on during his son’s, King Solomon, days, not only did the Jews recognize G-d, but the nations of the world as well came to see the role that G-d plays in our lives. The gift of the Jews became evident to all. 

  

On a microcosmic level, Noah lived these three levels, but he kept them to himself, but only during the time that he was in the Ark. Our lesson is to apply these teachings to our lives today. 

 

We, too, should have a strong foundation of faith in G-d. However, we should not rely on faith alone, but take that faith and turn it into action. When we behave in a way that is connected to

G-d's will, we are not only doing what He wants, we are transforming this world into a G-dly world. 

Finally, it is important that we spread the word, that we share this message with others, so that others too can enhance the world and make this world a more G-dly place. A place where all can see the beauty of G-d and how all creatures of this world can get along one with the other, not only in the “ark” but even outside, in the “real world.”  

What’s in a Name?

William Shakespeare wrote, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This implies that there is more to love than just a name. Yet, we see that we have a need to give names to everything and anything. Where does this innate need come from? 

We find in this week’s Torah portion that one of the first tasks G-d gave to Adam was to name all of the living creatures! That’s right—he was given the task of naming the animals of the land, the birds of the sky, and even the small living creatures. Why was it necessary for Adam to give all of the animals and birds names? It’s not like he was going to be communicating with them.

Perhaps we can answer this question with another question. Did Adam name the fish as well? (It is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah one way or the other.)

On a most basic level, the reason why things in this world need names, be they objects or living beings, is to identify what they are. This basic appreciation of names is what Shakespeare was referring to. However, there is a more significant role that names play in Judaism, and that is that having a name benefits the object itself, as well.  

What kind of benefit does an object get from its name? The name reveals its essence and connects it to its source of life. However, fish are always in water and never separated from their source, so one may argue, they do not need to be named since they are always connected to their source of life. (Perhaps, though, one might want to name fish so that they can be identified, but not for the more meaningful reason of giving it life.)

We can take the power of a name even further. Names not only give a living being a connection to its source, a name reveals within it hidden resources that it might not even know it has. That is why even today we place so much emphasis on giving a Jewish name to a baby. Giving a baby a name is not only a way to identify the baby, it is a way for us to complete the process of creation, to strengthen the bond between creator and created. In a sense, G-d is giving us the opportunity to become a partner in creation, by giving us the ability to give a name.  

Three Days, Three Lessons

 This year the High Holidays have been so different, yet they have been so meaningful. When we are faced with the unexpected, we tend to look deeper inside ourselves, and in those experiences, we tend to find little life messages.

Year after year, we come to synagogue and go through the motions; some years we are more inspired than others. This year though, to be inspired while sitting in a tent at the Chabad Center, requires much more effort.  One really needs to pay attention to the words being read, to the theme of the Torah portion being chanted, and to the songs being sung, to really get in the mood.

If you pay attention to the Torah reading, you will notice that the first day’s portion is about Abraham and Sara. On the surface, we read this section of the Torah since they had difficulty having children and they were blessed with a child on Rosh Hashana.

On the second day we read about the binding of Isaac and how he was saved by a ram. We read this because of the message to be ready to give up one’s life for G-d, as well as because the Shofar comes from a ram. 

However, upon deeper reflection, one can say that the first day is about Abraham and the second day is about Isaac. What is the difference between these two men?

 

Abraham taught us to recognize G-d as the creator of the universe. Once we recognize G-d as creator, we want G-d to become our king. Abraham traveled all over the land and beyond to spread this message, letting every person know that there is a G-d in the world that needs to be reckoned with.  

Isaac takes this message one step further. He internalizes it and makes it personal. G-d is not only the king of the world, G-d is “my king;” what does G-d want from me? Isaac busies himself uncovering the wells of knowledge, fulfilling G-d’s wishes, but he never goes far from home. He stays in the Holy Land of Israel, not venturing away from the source of G-d’s wisdom and blessings. He never shakes off the yoke of heaven.

We can say that this is the essence of Rosh Hashana, recognizing G-d as our creator and trying to come closer to Him. To become one with G-d.

What then is the meaning of Yom Kippur? 

Well, let us see what Jacob, the third of our patriarchs, can teach us. How can one connect to someone else? By doing what the other wants. How can someone connect to someone else’s essence? Learn how they think. G-d gave us the Torah, G-d’s wisdom, G-d’s essence. When we learn Torah, we are connecting to G-d’s essence. Jacob was known for being a “man of the tent” because he spent years studying Torah in a tent. Is it a coincidence that we are spending this year’s High Holidays in a tent?  What better way to connect to Jacob this Yom Kippur? Now more than ever before, you can join a Torah class – virtually – at any time live on Zoom, or a pre-recorded class on our website. The choices are endless. 

Now that we are spending more time at home, let’s take advantage of our time, and make the connection with G-d the way Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did.

G’mar Chatima Tova!

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