In my previous school, where I taught for nine years prior to coming to GBDS, I had a well-intentioned colleague who insisted on giving everyone, students and faculty alike, a yellow star sticker to wear every year on Yom HaShoah. Every year I bristled at this and kindly refused to wear the star sticker. The teacher always took my refusal as some kind of insult towards those who endured the Holocaust. While I have my faults to be sure, anyone who knows me hopefully knows that I would not do anything to insult the memory of those who suffered, yet for many years I was never sure why I would not wear the yellow star.
The second chapter of the Talmudic tractate Shabbat discusses the type of oils one may use to kindle the Shabbat lights. Within the midst of that discussion, the rabbis begin to review Hanukkah lights. After discussing the number of candles to be lit, the placement of the candles, and the need for "another light" which we know as the shamash, the rabbis ask an interesting question, "What is Hanukkah?" Rashi expands on this question and asks "On which miracle did they (the rabbis) establish it (meaning Hanukkah)?" The rabbis then tell the famous story with which we are all familiar, the story of the Jews defeating the Greeks who defiled the Holy Temple, and finding one small container of pure oil, enough to last one day, but a miracle took place and the oil lasted eight days.
Is the miracle the oil, or something more significant? What was it that Antiochus wanted? He wanted to extinguish Judaism and have Jews assimilate into the Hellenistic society. He saw Judaism as a threat to his culture therefore he outlawed those practices that ensure Jewish survival and continuity. Without Rosh Hodesh Jews would not know when the holidays would begin and therefore could not celebrate them. Shabbat and Torah study are fundamentals of Judaism and without them Jewish tradition would fade. Many Jews obeyed these decrees and did assimilate. These Hellenized Jews began to dress as Greeks, speak Greek, and give their children Greek names. It was Mattitsyahu and his five sons who rallied Jews together and led a military campaign against not only the Greeks themselves, but also the Hellenized Jews. They fought to keep Jewish tradition intact, they fought to learn Torah, to keep Shabbat, they fought to preserve the Judaism they knew and loved.
What is the miracle of Hanukkah? Not the oil, but rather the survival of Jewish tradition. It was easier to give up Jewish tradition and become part of the surrounding culture. The Maccabees were a David against a Goliath in going against the Greeks. The miracle is that there were Jews who refused to assimilate and that there were Jews who fought to maintain a pristine Judaism. The miracle of the oil was an expression of Divine approval for that fight.
Why did I refuse to wear the yellow star sticker? The yellow star was a symbol of Jewish oppression. The yellow star identified the Jews so they could be ridiculed, and worse. I refuse to wear a symbol of oppression. I wear Jewish symbols of pride; my kippah and tzitzit are symbols of Jewish strength and continuity. The Talmud teaches that the Hanukkah candles were to be placed outside by the door, and indeed in Israel many people still maintain this custom, in order to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. The prevalent custom to place the Hanukkah candles in the window facing the street is to remind us that Jewish tradition is rich, vast and vibrant and we want to proclaim that beauty.
Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Hanukkah Samayach to all.
In this week's parsha, VaYeishev we are introduced to Yosef who will remain the central figure throughout the remaining chapters of the Book of Bereshit. We see a transformation in Yosef from a seemingly spoiled 17 year old who according to Rashi, spends his time fixing his hair and adorning his eyes to look handsome, into the second most powerful man in Egypt, the most powerful nation in the world at that time.
There is a phenomenon that features prominently in this parsha, and again in next week's parsha, Miketz, that of dreams. Yosef has two dreams which he related to his family, causing even more ill feelings than were already held. Yosef is an interpreter of dreams. Much later, in Egypt, he acknowledges HaShem's role in his ability to interpret dreams as he explains those of the chief baker and chief butler who were in the Egyptian prison with him. Yosef will also interpret Pharaoh's dream through which he becomes second only to Pharaoh himself in Egypt.
Dreams certainly have their place in Jewish tradition however it is difficult to have a concise understanding of the significance of dreams. The Talmud, the repository of Rabbinic law and wisdom, is full of seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of dreams. On the one hand, dreams are considered 1/60th of prophecy. In fact, the Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer ha-Levi Idlish known as the Maharsha (1555-1631) referred to dreams as the channel for which prophecy is given. On the other hand, others thought dreams to be merely manifestations of whatever people were thinking about during the day. The Talmud relates the Rav Chisda held that bad dreams were better than good dreams. Why? Rashi explains that a bad dream can move a person to do teshuva, repentence. Dreams can be the catalyst for self improvement.
When the brothers referred to Yosef as "The Dreamer" they did so in a pejorative sense. They did not take kindly to his dreams. We have other dreamers in our history as well, but these were dreamers in the sense of having a vision for the Jewish people. Two such dreamers were Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, about whom I have written before, and Dr. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist Movement. Both believed that things could be better for the Jewish people, whether in a messianic religious sense as Rav Kook held, or in a political sense according to Herzl. They each spent their lives working towards the fulfillment of their dreams. Interestingly, like Yosef, there were many who scoffed at Rav Kook and Herzl. However, one only has to look at the State of Israel to know that their dreams have been realized.
We need to be dreamers. We need to have a vision for ourselves to work towards, to help carry us forward. Many of the rabbis considered dreams about objects or events to be symbols for something larger. We see this in Yosef's dreams and in his interpretations of other's dreams. Rav Kook and Herzl were the visionary type of dreamers. They dreamed of what the Jewish people could be. What are our dreams? Who do we want to be? Herzl said it himself: "If you will it, it is not a dream."
Shabbat Shalom to everyone.
In this week's parsha, VaYishlach, Yaakov undergoes a transformation. He is about to meet his brother, Esau, whom he has not seen in 20 years. He has been informed that Esau is coming with 400 men. Yaakov, understandably is frightened especially since the last time he saw his brother, Esau wanted to kill Yaakov for stealing his blessing.
To prepare for his meeting with Esau, Yaakov divides his camp into two so if Esau should indeed attack, one of the two halves would survive. He sends 200 she-goats, 20 he-goats along with a number of other animals to Esau as a tribute to appease him. Finally, Yaakov prays to HaShem. However, this prayer is entirely different than his prayer of last week when he left Haran years earlier. At that point Yaakov's prayer had an arrogant quality to it as if he were bargaining with HaShem. If HaShem helped him, then he would recognize HaShem as his G-d.
One aspect of this transformation is evident in Yaakov's prayer this week. He now acknowledges that he is afraid and he needs HaShem's help to get through this encounter. Whereas in his earlier prayer, it seemed as if Yaakov was asking HaShem to help him so that HaShem would be worthy of being Yaakov's G-d. Now there is no arrogance, there is no question, and Yaakov needs his G-d to protect him from his brother.
The night before the brothers meet, Yaakov has another encounter which would result in yet another transformation. Yaakov had crossed over a stream at Yabbok and suddenly he became embroiled in a physical struggle with a stranger which lasts until dawn. At the end, the stranger realizes he cannot overpower Yaakov. Yaakov asks for a blessing and in doing so the stranger gives Yaakov a new name, Yisrael, meaning "you have wrestled with the divine."
Much can be said about this wrestling match that Yaakov had with the stranger, but I want to focus on a basic question. Since Yaakov had just brought his family over the stream of Yabbok for the night, why did he return to the other side of the stream? Why not just stay with his family? Rashi, the 11th Century, French commentator quotes a passage from the Talmudic tractate Hullin which says that Yaakov went back over the stream at Yabbok to retrieve some small jugs that had been left there. The rabbis explain that Yaakov was being careful with his possessions.
There is an important lesson from Yaakov's retrieval of these small jugs. These were small, seemingly inexpensive jugs that probably no one would have missed. However, Yaakov demonstrated that small things are important; small things make a difference. In fact, Yaakov's transformation into Yisrael shows that small acts can have a big impact. Indeed often in life, it is the small things we do for others that can have the biggest influence: reaching out to another whom needs a smile, or someone to listen for a few minutes, a quick note, (or in our day a text message) to say hi, let another person know you care, they are valued for who they are and what they do. These small acts of kindness can make all the difference in the world. These are the small jugs in life that can transform another person's day.
A true story - About 25 years ago there was an older couple, who had made aliyah with their four daughters in the early 1970's living on a moshav outside Jerusalem. A few months after their youngest daughter was married, she lapsed into a deep coma, the result of complications during a minor surgical procedure. During the 10 weeks of the coma, friends from all over Israel came to be with the family, to sit with them, bringing them food and other necessities as the family stayed at the hospital around the clock. One particular young yeshiva student brought the family wine and challah every Friday afternoon so they could make the best Shabbat possible during those nightmarish weeks. Unfortunately, the daughter did not survive. During the shiva at the moshav, the yeshiva student brought the family their wine and challah for Shabbat. While many people came to be with the family to try to ease their pain, they remarked that the wine and challah from this yeshiva student made their tragedy a bit less traumatic.
Yaakov teaches a great lesson - We have all types of Chessed programs which are wonderful. The ultimate chessed is to reach out to someone and brighten their day. It's about the small jugs; it's about the small things.
Shabbat Shalom to all.
As this week's parsha, Toldot" opens we make that transition to the next generation, that of Yitzchak and Rivka, whom he takes as wife when he is 40 years old. Like Sarah, Rivka too, does immediately conceive childen, but after Yitzchak prays on behalf of his wife, Rivka finds herself not just pregnant, but with twins, and not ordinary twins.
The Torah says, ". . . and the children struggled within her" and as they did so Rivka inquired of HaShem as to what was taking place. She is told, "two nations are in your womb, and two nations shall separate from your insldes . . . " Indeed two nations do emerge from Rivka, Eisav, the elder twin, the hunter, is the ancestor of Edom which would become Rome, the empire which tried to eradicate the Jewish people by prohibiting the study of Torah during the period after the destruction of the second Temple. The younger twin is Yaakov, the one "who sat in tents," the father of the 12 tribes, the Jewish people.
According to Rashi, the "tents" in which Yaakov sat, were the tents of Shem and Eiver, tents of Torah study. Of all the nations that were part of the Biblical world, it is only the descendant s of Yaakov that not only continues to exist but thrive. Why? It is the connection to Torah that has nourished and sustained the Jewish people through many, many years of travail. It has been our attachment to the Torah that has given the Jewish people its vitality.
Yesterday the 2nd grade had their Chumash Ceremony. After the kids lead tefilot for the Elementary School and their parents I had the privilege of speaking to them. As is often the case, I try to inspire, but I came away inspired. I spoke to the 2nd graders about receiving their first Chumash, their first piece of Torah; that they are part of the Torah. As I spoke, I watched the faces of these precious children light up. Their excitement for receiving their share in the Torah shone forth; it was palpable. That light is indeed the light of Torah. This is why we are here.
The Torah is described as "a tree of life for those who grasp onto it." Yaakov, the man of the tents, and the Jewish people testify that this is indeed true. May the Torah that emanates from this school continue to nurture and sustain its teachers, staff and students and families.
This week's Torah reading is in many ways a watershed moment for the Jewish people, for with the passage of time we say goodbye to Avraham and Sarah. As the parsha begins, Avraham is purchasing a proper burial plot for his beloved Sarah. The Torah does not describe the full extent of Avraham's grief for Sarah, stating only that he wept for her. However, commentaries point out that his deep pain was in fact infinite, but only expressed in private. Later in the parsha we learn that Avraham joins Sarah for eternity.
The parsha is entitled Chaye Sarah, which literally means the "Life of Sarah." This is interesting because the parsha tells of her passing, relating to us only her age. The Torah is scant with details of her life.
We know that originally her name was Sarai which, according to the Talmud, means "My Princess." Like Avraham, whose name was changed from Avram because he would be the "father of many nations," Sarai's name was changed to Sarah meaning "the princess," for now she would be a princess for the world. In this role, she joined Avraham in spreading a new message. The Talmud teaches that calling Avraham by his former name is prohibited; however, there is no such prohibition to refer to Sarah as "Sarai."
The rabbis teach that Avraham and Sarah were prophets. In fact, they suggest that Sarah was on a higher prophetic level than Avraham. Both were charged with bringing a special divine message to the world, though their approaches were different. Avraham taught the world the universal nature of Judaism - the belief in One G-d and the importance of helping others, ideals that are relevant to everyone. It is for this reason that we may not use Avraham's original name.
Sarah, on the other hand, taught the same principles as Avraham, yet even more. The midrash teaches that when Sarah lived, a cloud of glory remained over her tent (like the clouds that hung over the Israelites in the desert). It is told that a light burned in her tent from one Erev Shabbat to the next and the dough with which she baked her bread was blessed.
Commentators understand from this passage that Sarah taught the same universal aspects of Judaism, which is the "Sarah" part of who she was. In addition, she also taught the mitzvoth of Judaism, which make us unique as a people. This is the "Sarai" that remains. We are not prohibited from using the name Sarai because the universal and the particular principles of Judaism, the "Sarah" and "Sarai" are crucial to our vitality and continuity as a people.
Therefore, the entitled parsha, Chaye Sarah, is not merely about Sarah's life. It is about her legacy. It tells about what Sarah ultimately left behind for us to learn and from which to draw inspiration and strength.
Perhaps this is a personal mandate for each of us. Once we have left this world for the next, what will we leave behind for others? It will not be money, jewels, or stock options. The true inheritance we leave will be how we touched other people and made the world a little better because of our having lived. Like Sarah, that will be our true legacy.
Shabbat Shalom to everyone.