Preservation and Sacrifice

Last week, the world lost a great man, Nelson Mandela. One of my favorite Mandela stories happened to a friend of mine in Cape Town. She was standing under her chupa and felt a slight tug on her wedding dress. She looked around to see what was going on. Nelson Mandela was straightening out her train! Greatness is often revealed in the details.

In this week’s parsha, Joseph dies. He is one of the most prominent figures in the Chumash. Mandela’s story is not dissimilar to Joseph’s. Joseph’s brothers hated him. Mandela grew up under the oppression of apartheid. Joseph landed up in prison, so did Mandela. Joseph was freed from prison and became the viceroy of Egypt. Mandela was freed from prison and became the president of South Africa. Joseph did not take revenge on his brothers. Instead, he drew them close and helped them as much as he could (he actually saved their lives in the years of famine). Mandela did not take revenge on his oppressors. Instead, he drew them close and worked together with them to make a peaceful revolution and a new South Africa.

There are some experiences we wish never to have, but if we have them and manage to survive them, they can be of tremendous benefit. I was once on an airplane that prepared for a crash landing. At the time, it was an awful experience, but when we managed a miraculously landing it became — and remains — one of the most defining moments in my life.

I found something absolutely fascinating written by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe from 1920 to 1950, describing the jail sentence he suffered in 1927 in Leningrad. It was the seventh time he had been jailed by the Russian authorities. It sheds a lot of light on how a person can go through so much torment and yet emerge compassionate:

“I will not deny that from time to time the seventh imprisonment brings me particular pleasure. Even now I set aside time to spend alone, to picture in my mind’s eye the sounds and words, the sights and the dreams that I heard, saw and dreamed in those days. In the course of a lifetime, Divine Providence engineers particular periods that sometimes change a man’s very nature. They develop his abilities and set him up at a particular height, so that he can gaze upon the ultimate purpose for which a man lives his life on the face of the earth. Above all, a man’s personality and abilities are most intensely escalated by a period rich in suffering, which is inflicted on account of his vigorous endeavors for an ideal. This is particularly so if he struggles and battles with his pursuers and persecutors for the sake of preserving and advancing his religious faith. Such a period, though fraught with affliction of the body and suffering of the spirit, is rich in powerful impressions. If imprisonment is involved, the resultant spiritual benefit is so great, for every hour and minute of torment gives rise to inestimable benefits: It makes a man so resolute that even a weakling is transformed into the most courageous of men.”

We would do well to learn from this principle without having to go through what these men went through.

One of my students commented recently that Judaism requires effort, work and often sacrifice. It does. But expecting Judaism to be an enjoyable recreation is going to land up in one of two things: either disappointment or the watering down of Judaism until nothing meaningful is left.

It’s not recreation, it’s the preservation and advancing of our values and beliefs. For those we must be prepared to sacrifice.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

Forgiveness

The themes of reunification and forgiveness are reflected in this week’s Haftorah and parsha. The Haftorah features the prophet Ezekiel following God’s instructions — taking two sticks and carving the names of the kingdoms of Ephraim and Judah on each and raising them together as one stick before the people. Ezekiel’s act, as commanded by God, not only symbolizes the reunification of the two kingdoms into “a single nation in the land, on the hills of Israel,” but also God having mercy on the Jewish people. In the parsha, the act of reunification is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers (“I am Jospeh … come forward to me”).

Grave offenses have been committed against God and Joseph prior to their acts of reunification. Before Ezekiel’s prophecy, the Temple was destroyed. The Talmud teaches us that it was destroyed because the Jews failed to follow the word of God. They change their ways after God punishes them. As for Joseph, his brothers had treated him horribly, selling him into slavery to permanently get rid of him. When Joseph saw Judah offer to stay in jail for his brother, he realized that his brothers, too, had changed and Joseph was able to forgive them, just as God forgave the Jewish people after He recognized that they had repented.

In the Torah and Haftorah we see the importance of the relationship between God and the Jewish people and of Joseph and his family. As the oldest child in my family, I know how hard it is to forgive, especially when I think I have been terribly wronged. In these moments of sometimes dramatic conflict — let’s say with a brother or sister — my parents remind me to focus on what is important. I could choose to hold on to the offense or I could forgive in order to maintain and improve the relationship. My goal is to act as God (and Joseph) did by focusing on what’s important.

Focusing on what is important is a recurring theme in this week’s parsha and Haftorah. God’s actions demonstrate the importance of forgiveness to bring the Jewish people back together. For Joseph, forgiveness brought his family together. God and Joseph provide a lesson to focus on what is important. It is a lesson we should all learn.

Zach Zaiman is a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.

The Case Of The Stolen Bicycle

I loved my brand new 10-speed bike, a shiny black Diamondback. I would ride around after school and visit my friends.

When school started, a new kid, Adam, would come over and ask me all kinds of questions about it.

“Where did you get it?” he would ask. “Where can I get one?”

Sometimes his questions were over the top. But I remembered he was a mutual friend of my friend Jeff, so I answered him.

A few months into school, my family and I went on a long Shabbos weekend in Florida. I parked my bike in the backyard shed and checked the lock. We were away for half a week, and when I returned, I went out to the shed to check on my bike. As I opened the door, I screamed.

“My bike is GONE!”

Someone had gotten into the shed; a few of Dad’s power tools were missing, too.

“Looks like someone picked the lock,” Dad said, a frown on his face.

We made a police report. The policeman said he’d comb the neighborhood to look for my bike. He told us there had been a slew of robberies over the last weekend.

On Monday, I saw Adam riding a bike just like mine.

“Hey Eli, like my bike?” Adam said, parking himself a foot away from me. “Rides great!”

My mind started racing.

“Could that be my bike?” I thought.

The tires looked just like mine. Even the reflector on the back matched the one I had on my bike.

“Where did you get that bike?” I asked Adam.

He told me he got it on sale — at a garage sale.

I was hot. I knew he had my bike … but why would he steal it?

“My bike is stolen. Did you hear about it?” I asked, deciding to test Adam.

“No, that’s strange.” His voice cracked. “You’re not accusing me of stealing your bike, are you?”

“Tell me exactly where you got it!” my voice rose.

“A garage sale, really. It was only $50. It seemed cheap, but …”

“Could your parents talk with mine and we can get to the bottom of things?”

Later that night, my parents drove me to Adam’s house. My father had a long talk with his parents and we solved the mystery. Adam’s family was glad we came to talk things out, and they had an explanation. Adam’s family had gone to a garage sale in a not-so-safe neighborhood. There they found a few power tools and a bike, which they had purchased. When we looked at the tools, we realized that they were Dad’s. The bandits had stolen and sold the items at a garage sale on the other side of town. Adam’s parents agreed to call the police and they came and made a report of the newly-found items.

We paid Adam the $50 and some cash for the tools so Adam’s family would not take a loss. The police visited the location of the garage sale the next day. They caught one of the thieves.

As for me, I learned an important lesson: Always judge people favorably.

Discussion Questions
1. Why does the Torah tell us to judge others favorably?
2. How do we benefit when we judge others for the good?
3. What are some ways to practice judging favorably?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

What Is A Miracle?

Today is Chanukah. The holiday we know today first took place around 200 B.C.E. in Judea or what is known today as Israel.

Antiochus III, Greek king of Syria, took over Judea and was fair to the Jews, allowing them to follow their traditions and their beliefs. But when his son, Antiochus IV, took over, the rules of his father ceased. Antiochus IV made the Jews pray to the Greek gods, and he had his army desecrate the Temple, the center of Jewish life in Judea. The Jews, led by Mattathias and his five sons, started a rebellion that turned into a war. Although the Jews were outnumbered, they won by knowing the land and using guerrilla tactics.

After the defeat of the Greeks, the Jews rededicated the Temple. The menorah was a fixture in the Temple that kept track of the days, like a calendar. The menorah ran on oil, and the oil was stored by days. However, while at war, the Jews did not have enough time to collect oil. So despite having only enough for one day, they lit the menorah, and it burned for eight days! It was a miracle.

Chanukah is about miracles. I believe miracles happen all the time.

What is a miracle? According to Webster’s dictionary, a miracle is “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.”

Or “an event considered as a work of God.”

I think from these definitions that a miracle is a supernatural event created by God. On Chanukah, as well as Purim and Yom Ha’atzmaut, we read the “Al Hanisim” prayer during the Amidah and the grace after meals. This prayer is read on these holidays because it is thanking God for helping us triumph during difficult times. The paragraph read on Chanukah is about God giving strength and power to the Maccabees to defeat the powerful Greeks.

There is a difference between the miracle of the oil and the miracle of the war. They are both miracles, but one is not obvious because it has to do with people and war tactics, but we still thank God for helping. The other was supernatural with obvious help from the Almighty. One miracle is not more important than the other; they are both just in different areas. We thank God for both.

Miracles happen all the time. They have happened in the past, and they happen today. In Indiana, a young boy fell into a sinkhole of sand, was buried there for eight hours and survived. That’s a miracle. It is a miracle that so many babies are born without physical problems.

Miracles are important to me because they can’t be explained. They are wonders of the world. Miracles always leave me thinking, “Why did this occur now and here?” There is no answer. That is the glory. We appreciate the Almighty for what Hashem has done, and we thank God.

Eli Wilcox is a student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Learning From Dreams

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Vayeshev, which is in the Book of Genesis. It is a continuation of the story of Joseph. In Vayeshev, Joseph is now in Egypt. Sadly, at this point in the story, Joseph is in prison, where he encounters two new prisoners. One is Pharaoh’s cup bearer and the other is Pharaoh’s baker. They both have dreams, and they ask Joseph to interpret them.

In the cup bearer’s dream, there were three branches of grapes. The cup bearer squeezed the juice into the cup and gave it to Pharaoh. Joseph told him this meant that in three days he would get his job back. In the baker’s dream, there were three baskets of bread on his head, the top basket was filled with lots of baked goods. Later in the dream, birds came and ate the baked goods from the basket. Joseph told the baker this dream meant that in three days the baker would be killed.

On Pharaoh’s birthday, which happened to be three days later, Pharaoh had a feast. Pharaoh sent for the cup bearer but got rid of the baker.

Before he left, Joseph asked the cup bearer to remember him, but the cup bearer soon forgot him.

I found this part of the parsha most interesting because I thought it was really amazing how Joseph could interpret dreams and how he was right about them all.

I think there are meanings to dreams. I sometimes remember my dreams, but most of the time, I tend to forget them.

But I have other kinds as dreams as well. For example, I have the dream of doing well in school because I want to get good grades in order to go to high school and college. I also dream about playing for a successful team in my sports activities. While the Torah tells us about Joseph who could tell what dreams meant and what would happen in the future, I don’t know what my dreams exactly mean, and I definitely don’t know what will happen in the future.

But dreams are still important because they show what’s in your imagination and in your mind, and they show what you might be able to accomplish in your life. Joseph found a way to learn and share what people’s dreams meant; I hope someday I also will know what my dreams mean, too.

Lauren Murdick is a seventh-grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Taking Responsibility

2013-axler-craigThe iconic comic strip “Family Circus” has told the story of the Keane family (two exasperated parents with four exasperating children) for the last 53 years. My favorite character has always been the invisible, gremlin-like character named “Not Me.” Whenever anything is broken or messy, the child confronted with the question,”Who did this?” is likely to answer, “Not me!” Of course, in real life, there is no invisible gremlin running around making the messes we seek to disown.

While “Family Circus” has been telling this story for more than 50 years, the Torah presents a much older version of this response in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. Jacob is returning to the land of Canaan, having fled after stealing the birthright from Esau. Now a man with a large family, the successful shepherd is coming home with abundant blessing and wealth. However, he is also coming home to confront his past.

Until this point, Jacob has been in the habit of disowning responsibility for his actions. Trading the birthright for a bowl of soup? Tricking his father into giving him the firstborn blessing? In his dealings with his father-in-law, Laban, he has not always been honest or transparent. He’s been holding to the “Not me!” defense.

Now, returning to the land of Canaan, encountering his brother, Esau, he must answer for past behavior. He is now alone on the banks of the Yabbok River, having secured his wives and children on the other side. There, in the darkest of nights, “someone wrestled with him until the break of day.” In every generation, commentators have contended with this provocative statement. How can he be both “alone” and wrestle with “someone/a man?”

Among the most meaningful interpretations is that Jacob wrestles with himself through that long night. Stricken with anxiety at the prospect of coming face-to-face with his brother, at returning to the place where he is reminded of his past deceptions, Jacob has to answer an internal question: Who am I? In childhood and adolescence, it was easy for Jacob to deny responsibility for his actions. But now, having grown into an adult (a husband, a father), he is confronted with the reality of his past. Filled with guilt and regret, he must now find a way forward — a better, more honest way.

As the sun rises on Jacob, his name is changed, and he discovers that better, more honest truth — the name Israel. To struggle … to demand honesty … to prevail. Jacob wrestles with himself in order to become the adult he needs to be, the responsible and responsive adult. He is left after the encounter with a limp, torn at the thigh, wounded. However, the physical wound is a reminder of a spiritual victory. In transforming from Jacob into Israel, he has moved forward into adulthood. It is Jacob’s embrace of responsibility that makes him Israel. This kind of a victory does not come free, and he will continue to bear the wound of the struggle.

While the rest of the Torah will bounce between calling him both Jacob and Israel, it is of note to remember the encounter that makes us B’nei Yisrael, the descendants of that struggle that led from childhood to maturity.

Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.

Human Value

It’s human nature to value everything. Being limited by space and time means that we have options, and inevitably we choose that which we value the most. Sometimes it truly is more valuable, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking it is more valuable.

Having come to America in my 30s allowed me to sense two things that native-born Americans don’t. I found the sweet aroma of liberation that America’s freedoms and equal opportunities allow. It was like a straitjacket had been removed. I felt free to spread my wings and fly like an eagle.

The second and less exciting smell I picked up on was the smell of a mistaken value system, especially the system used to value people. Generally speaking, people in America value each other by how successful they are. People are “worth” how much money they have. People who cross over the invisible line into the realm of success are praised with the accolade of “having made it.” To be sure, this is true for all of the Western world; it is more palpable in America.

We all sense that this is a very mistaken way of how to value people. The question, however, is whether this is, in fact, the inevitable result of such a free society. Since we are all free to succeed, success is logically the ultimate prize.

This logic is flawed. All very successful people who are also very honest will tell you that success is a gift from the Almighty. Success is something man can and should strive for, but it is something he cannot determine. Man’s worth must be about what he has made of himself and not about what he has been gifted.

Righteous decisions are the only things that man can truly do to make himself more worthy. Success belongs to God; the honor of righteousness belongs to man.

Our responsibility is to make correct decisions, to make righteous decisions and to choose between good and evil, as defined in Torah. The more righteous, the more worthy, the more valuable. It is naive to think we cannot and should not value people, but what values system should we use?

We are in control of whether or not we conduct our business dealings honestly. God is in control of whether the business deal is successful. We are in control of whether or not our conversations, writings and artistic expressions are used in the pursuit of raising our morality and dignity or in the pursuit of arousing our base natures and glorifying immorality. Whether we are successful, whether we achieve fame or not, is God’s choice.

Righteousness is the only thing truly placed in man’s control, and therefore, for it alone, people should be valued.

This is the understanding of the argument Jacob and Rachel have in this week’s parsha.

Rachel, after seeing Leah bear four children to Jacob, complained to him, “Give me children — otherwise I am dead.”

Jacob got angry and answered back, “Am I instead of God, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?”

Rachel was mistaken about her own value. She thought if she did not succeed in her mission to bear children who would become part of the 12 tribes, she had no value.

Jacob answered her that her worth is not in her success (or lack thereof), rather it is in righteousness.

We cannot ultimately know why God decides to make one person’s efforts successful and another’s not. Do not be mistaken, he told her, your decision is correct, and that is where you find your true value.

Rabbi Nitzan Bergman is executive director of Etz Chaim: The Center for Jewish Living and Learning and founder and president of the WOW! program for young professionals.

Rebecca’s Greatness

This week’s parsha, toldot, focuses on the continuance of the Abrahamic line through the birth of Jacob and Esau. After a long period of childlessness, Isaac and Rebecca entreat God, and He grants Rebecca the capability to conceive. Rebecca endures a difficult pregnancy as, according to God, “Two nations are in [her] womb.” While Jacob and Esau grow up and their personalities diverge, the Torah notes Isaac adored Esau for his hunting prowess and Rebecca loved Jacob for his “wholesome” character. Soon, Abraham dies, and Jacob secures the birthright from Esau in exchange for the mourner’s meal that Jacob prepared for Isaac. A famine forces Isaac to move to Gerar, and a dispute with the inhabitants regarding the wells ensues. Blind and in old age, Isaac desires to bestow Esau with the blessing of the firstborn. However, Rebecca, knowing Esau’s true sinful nature, devises a scheme for Jacob to receive the birthright. Jacob, disguised as Esau, obtains the blessing from Isaac and flees once Esau discovers that Jacob stole his birthright.

While discussing these events, it is critical that one not overlook Rebecca’s essential role in this parsha. Similar to Sarah before her, Rebecca is barren, and God grants her the ability to conceive after many years of sterility. This serves as one of the many examples of Rebecca’s righteousness and demonstrates her worthiness of a miracle from God. Unlike Isaac, who is blind to Esau’s immoral behavior, Rebecca, with clarity and motherly intuition, is able to view her children for whom they truly are. She recognizes that Jacob’s kind nature and affinity for learning renders him the suitable and necessary candidate for the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael.

Realizing that Isaac intends to bless Esau with the birthright, Rebecca formulates a plan for Jacob to deceive Isaac and attain the blessing. As Esau hunts to prepare his father’s favorite meal, she commands Jacob to act as Esau so Isaac will bless him before his death. Rebecca prepares Isaac’s meal and clothes Jacob with Esau’s garments. Additionally, to replicate the hairy skin of Esau, Rebecca covers Jacob’s neck and arms with the skin of goats. Discovering that Isaac blessed Jacob and granted him mastery over his kinsmen, Esau vows to kill Jacob after Isaac’s death. Rebecca, after being told from God the malicious intent of Esau, urges Jacob to flee from Esau to her relatives in Charan.

Ultimately, just like Rebecca, we must recognize the situation and have the courage and desire to act. Her complete faith in Hashem and in the prophecy that “the elder shall serve the younger” assured the timid Jacob that his intent was morally righteous. However, we must not sit back and believe that God will take care of us. God made Isaac blind, but Rebecca still had to encourage Jacob to play his role. Equally, God may devise a plan for us, but we are the ones who must actively carry it out. By asking ourselves the question “What would God do or want us to do?” we are able to overcome almost any situation that we will encounter.

Daniel Gross is a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

The Coat And A Grudge

I have always considered myself to be good at sharing, the kind of kid who lets you play with my rainbow loom if you ask. So when Sarah asked to borrow my light blue leather jacket, my favorite one with the fur lining, the jacket that I had received as a birthday gift from my Aunt Deloris, even though I hesitated, I knew I would lend it to her.

“I just need it for my brother’s bar mitzvah this weekend,” said Sarah. “My ‘fancy’ cousins are coming in from New York, and I have to dress up.”

She looked like a puppy dog. I knew her dad was out of work and they couldn’t afford to buy new things. I agreed to lend her the coat; it would make her fit in, and I didn’t need it that weekend.

That next week when I saw Sarah in school, she smiled and thanked me profusely for letting her wear my coat.  She said her cousins thought she looked so cool. I was happy she was happy and asked that she bring the coat back as soon as possible. She said, “No problem,” but Sarah forgot it every day that week. Then, she was out sick with the flu.

I called her at home and heard her mom call to her, “Sarah, your friend Baila needs you to return her jacket.”

But the next week at school, Sarah said, “Oh, I must have forgotten your coat again.”

I started to worry. Then, the next day, Sarah brought in my jacket.

“Sorry about the rip,” she said. “I must have bumped into a nail that was sticking out of our fence.”

I could tell Sarah felt bad, but I did, too. I felt taken advantage of. She had used my coat and ruined it. I wanted to tell all of our friends, I was so angry.

That night, I tossed and turned in bed.  How could Sarah have been so careless with my favorite coat?  And why did it take her so long to return it?

I imagined Sarah showing off my coat to her cousins and then ruining it and not even telling me right away.  Maybe I should make Sarah buy me another coat.  But where would she come up with the money? Her family was poor.

The next day, I had a bad cold and stayed home from school. Sitting in bed drinking tea, I realized being angry with Sarah was only hurting me. I determined to forgive her before I got even sicker over a simple coat.

The next day, Sarah invited me over to study.

“I was really mad at you for ripping my coat,” I told Sarah.  “My coat can’t be repaired so easily, you know.”

“I’m sorry, I was embarrassed to tell you, and that’s what took me so long to return it to you,” she said. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“I do,” I said, and Sarah smiled. I felt great.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
The Torah tells us that we must not hold a grudge.
1. What is one way to overcome a grudge when someone has damaged our belongings?

2. Why does the Torah ask us not to hold grudges?

3. What would you have done if you were Baila?

Danielle Sarah Storch is a local freelance writer. “Shabbat Table Talk” is a monthly feature synthesizing Torah insights and lessons for children of all ages.

Look Inside

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (the Life of Sarah), includes the following topics: Sarah dies at the age of 120, and Abraham buys a cave that will be the burial spot for them and their descendants. After Sarah’s death, Abraham decides it is time to find the right wife for Isaac. It is an important decision because she will be one of the mothers, or matriarchs, of the Jewish people. This is also about moving on to the next generation, with Isaac and Rebecca representing the next group of Jewish leaders. Rebecca is chosen because she is kind and offers to give water to Abraham’s servant and to all of his camels. Rebecca gives her consent to going to Canaan to be Isaac’s wife. When Isaac takes Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, he is now comforted from the loss of his mother.

I was most interested in the part about how Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find the right wife for Isaac. Abraham tells the servant to go back to Abraham’s relatives to find the wife, and she must consent to come back to Canaan. In fact, he makes his servant swear that he will not take a wife for Abraham’s son from the daughters of the Canaanites.

There are two things I want to focus on from this section: how important it is to choose the right wife for Isaac; and how clear Abraham is that the prospective wife must agree both to the marriage and the move to Canaan. She has the right to make her own choice because she is a free person.

Abraham’s servant decides that he will choose a woman who offers him and his camels water and prays that this woman will appear. And she does. Rebecca shows up at the well and provides him and his 10 camels with water. The servant describes Rebecca as beautiful. We don’t know if he was describing her outside or inside qualities. I like to believe he was describing her as she was on the inside. Rebecca was generous, kind, helpful and strong.

According to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, we learn that the servant, who many commentators think is named Eliezer, felt that kindness was the way that he should evaluate Rebecca. Rabbi Luntschitz states: “Eliezer tested Rebecca’s quality of generosity and kindness only. … Did she have a generous and kindly personality and kind heart? For if she looked at people with a kindly eye then she was undoubtedly endowed with all the other sterling moral qualities.”

I don’t think there is anything wrong in paying attention to your appearance and fashion. It can be kind of fun. But we have to understand that someone who is selfish or hurts other people doesn’t become a good person just by looking good. From these traits we should understand that Rebecca’s traits model for us the qualities we should look for when we choose a partner for life. We learn from this parsha that we should judge people by their actions instead of by their appearance.

Michael Martin is a seventh-grader at Krieger Schechter Day School.