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Rabbi's Weekly Dvar Torahs

Parshas Vayetzei

What do you get if you cross an insomniac, an agnostic and a dyslexic? Someone who stays up all night wondering if there really is a dog.

As we begin this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, we notice that the Torah focuses on Jacob's spiritual service which is done while in an undesirable environment. Jacob is forced to leave the land of Israel and go to Charan, a city whose very name is associated with the arousal of G-d's wrath. He is forced to work for the deceitful Laban, and marries and establishes his family, laying the foundation for the Jewish people of all future generations. Even after leaving Charan, Jacob's path is fraught with difficulty when he must confront his brother Esau. 

It is curious that the Torah concentrates on these aspects of his life instead of centering on Jacob's activities in the sphere of holiness. But the narrative of Jacob's difficulties is included in the Torah precisely because "the deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants." There is much for us to learn and emulate from Jacob's trials and tribulations.

In our Torah portion it states: "He (Jacob) encountered the place. He slept there because the sun set, and he took from the stones of the place and put them around his head. And he lay down in that place." Analogously, the concealment of G-d in this material world causes the Jew to "lie down." When a person lies down, his head and his feet are on the same level. In contrast, when a person stands, and even when he sits, his head, meaning his intellectual faculties, are raised above the rest of the body. When a person lies down, all the parts of the body are on the same level. 

As applied to us, the concealment of G-dliness in the physical world, particularly in our generation, which immediately precedes the coming of Moshiach, causes the revelation of a person's conscious powers to be hindered to the extent that one's head and feet are on the same level.

Yet there is a positive aspect to lying down as well. When Jacob chose that site to lie down and sleep, it was the first time he had slept in a very long time, after many years of late night Torah study and tireless work for Laban. Also, that very place where he chose to sleep was none other than the future site where the Holy Temple in Jerusalem would be built in generations to come.

Lying down usually implies a descent, where the head and feet are equal – meaning a lowering of the level of one's higher, spiritual powers, to the same level as his lower. It can also be interpreted in a positive manner, for the revelation of G-d's essence is above all particular qualities and is simultaneously reflected in them. Relative to the Essence, higher and lower are equal. In relation to the greatness of G-d, head and feet are on the same plane.

 This level of connection to the infinite can continue even after a person arises and stands on his feet. Although his conscious powers assume control, he will still recognize the fundamental equality which stems from a connection to G-d's essence. Thus, the Jew confirms that not only can the material never obscure the spiritual, and in fact, is a vehicle for its expression, but he can reach a level above all limitations, establishing a unity between the material and the spiritual.

Shabbos is also I time when we are elevated to that level of spiritual consciousness. Let’s tap into it and have a very good Shabbos.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from Sichot Kodesh, 5752, Parshat Vayeitzei, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Toldot

An ER doc was on duty when a father brought in his son, who had a tire from a toy trucks up his nose. The man was embarrassed, but the doc assured him this was something kids often do and quickly removed the tire and they were on their way. A few minutes later, the father was back in the ER asking to talk to doc in private.

Mystified, he led him to an examining room. "While we were on our way home," he began, "I was looking at that little tire and wondering, how on earth my son got this thing stuck up his nose and…"

It took just a few seconds to get the tire out of Dad’s nose.

This week's Torah portion, Toldot, describes the life and times of our Patriarch Isaac. The Talmud tells us that in the Messianic Era, Isaac will be referred to as "our father," implying his special connection to the Messianic Era. As we now stand at the threshold of the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption of the Jewish people, it is important to understand what exactly Isaac's path and service mean for us.

Isaac was the only one of our Patriarchs who lived his entire life within the boundaries of the land of Israel. Abraham was born outside of Israel and also left Israel to go to Egypt when a famine threatened. Jacob, too, went to Charan, where he worked for Laban for many years. However, when there was another famine in the Land during Isaac's lifetime, G-d commanded him to stay where he was and not to seek food elsewhere. "Do not go down to Egypt, but dwell in this land...and I will bless you." This is because after having shown his willingness to be sacrificed on the altar by his father Abraham, Isaac was considered a "perfect offering," too holy to dwell anywhere but in the Holy Land.

Isaac, therefore, symbolizes the Jewish people as we are meant to be, and as we will exist in the Messianic Era, our rightful place being in our land and not in exile in the four corners of the earth. During our present exile, we are like "children who have been banished from their father's table." We therefore continue to yearn and demand that G-d send the redeemer now, so that we will be able to emulate Isaac, living a full life of Torah and mitzvot in our own land, as we were meant to.

Isaac's approach to the service of G-d is also especially applicable to us today. Even though Isaac continued in his father Abraham's path of spreading the belief in G-d throughout the world, he did so in a different manner from his father. Abraham wandered from place to place, including Egypt, spreading G-dliness wherever he went. Isaac, on the other hand, always remained in the same place, in Israel. Others flocked to him because they were attracted by his holiness. In this way Isaac was able to influence others.

For the most part, the Jewish people have followed Abraham's example during their long exile, wandering from country to country and causing G-d's name to be known and called on wherever they went. After Moshiach comes, however, we will follow in Isaac's footsteps, as G-d's holiness and light will emanate from the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And at that time, as happened in the days of Isaac, all the nations of the world will likewise flock to Jerusalem, as it states, "And all nations shall flow unto it...for the Torah shall go forth out of Zion."

We must, in the meantime, combine aspects of both these approaches, refining our own personal spirituality, yet at the same time, not neglecting to spread holiness throughout the world at large. May it truly be “like father like son”. 

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

 

Parshas Chayei Sarah

Married life is very frustrating. In the first year of marriage, the man speaks and the woman listens. In the second year, the woman speaks and the man listens. In the third year, they both speak and the neighbors listen. 

This week's Torah portion is called Chayei Sara, literally "the life of Sara." It begins, however, with the passing of our first matriarch: "And Sara died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the Land of Canaan."

According to the primary Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, Sara symbolizes the body while Abraham is symbolic of the soul. In this context, the Zohar explains that the verse describes the death of the body. The fact that "Abraham came to lament Sara and to weep for her" indicates that the soul weeps even after the death of the body since it remains related to the body.

Earlier in the Torah, when Abraham questioned Sara's judgment in sending away his son Ishmael, G-d told Abraham, "All that Sara may say unto you, listen to her voice." According to the Zohar, then, it would seem that the soul must listen to the body, even though it would appear that soulful spirituality is loftier than bodily materialism!

What is the "working relationship" between the soul and the body? Mitzvot - commandments - are given to the soul, but only souls that have been brought down into bodies. The mitzvot themselves are performed through material objects. This applies not only to mitzvot involving a physical act, but also to those mitzvot which are essentially duties of the heart - e.g., love and fear of G-d, or duties of the mind - e.g., the belief in the unity of G-d. The latter, too, are meant to be fulfilled by the physical heart and brain.

It is conceivable to meditate on and contemplate all of the intentions of a mitzvah, and yet not fulfill the actual mitzvah. For example, one may go through all the devotions relating to tefilin, without actually donning the tefilin, or relating to Shabbat candles, without actually lighting them.

Obviously this would constitute not only a failure in fulfilling the mitzvah, but an actual transgression - by negating the mitzvah performance. On the other hand, if one fulfills a mitzvah without contemplating any of the devotions involved, though he should have had these thoughts in mind, he has at least practically fulfilled the mitzvah.

This primacy of practical mitzvah fulfillment speaks to the fact that in essence, our ultimate preoccupation is with the body, more than the soul. The impact of our “bodily” mitzvah engagement is now not totally apparent. However, in the Messianic era it’s presently concealed true G-dly core of physically will become revealed, thus nurturing the soul. That presently hidden G-dliness, is actually qualitative more intense that the revealed G-dliness we experience today.

So listen to your “wife”, appreciate the soon to be revealed value embedded in our physical fulfillment of G-d’s will. Have a good Shabbos.

 

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, lchaimweekly.org

Parshas Vayeira

Benjamin, a young Talmud student who had left Israel for England some years earlier, returns to visit his family.

"But Benjamin, where is your beard?" asks his mother upon seeing him.

"Mother," he replies, "In London, nobody wears a beard."

"But at least you keep the Sabbath?" his mother asks.

"Mother, business is business. In London, everybody works on the Sabbath."

"But kosher food you still eat?" asks his mother.

"Mother, in London, it is very difficult to keep kosher."

Then silence, whilst his elderly mother gives thought to what she has just heard. Then she leans over and whispers in his ear, "Benjamin, tell me, are you still circumcised?"

 

In the Torah portion of Vayeira we learn of Yitzchak's bris which took place when he was eight days old.

The Midrash relates that Yitzchak and Yishmael argued about who was more cherished. Yishmael said he was more cherished as he was circumcised at age 13. Yitzchak said: "I am more cherished for I was circumcised when I was but eight days old."

One can easily understand why Yishmael felt more cherished. He was 13 years old and was old enough to protest, yet he did not. That is surely reason enough to feel superior. But why did Yitzchak reason that he was the more cherished of the two?

The overall theme of circumcision is, as the verse says: "This shall be My covenant in your flesh, an eternal covenant." Circumcision effects an eternal bond between the individual and G-d. (The Talmud relates that for women, this deep relationship with G-d starts at birth and does not require a covenant in the flesh.)

Concerning a covenant formed between two dear friends there is no ironclad guarantee that the covenant will truly be everlasting, for mortals are subject to change. When, however, it is G-d who makes the covenant, in this case His covenant with the Jewish people through circumcision, then it is truly eternal.

The reason that circumcision is performed at the tender age of eight days, at a time when the infant has absolutely no say in the matter, may be understood accordingly.

Whatever a person does on his own initiative requires preparation, adequate time must be allowed.

However, the covenant that is set in motion through circumcision is effected entirely by G-d. In other words, circumcision is not an act through which a person binds himself to G-d. When a Jew boy is circumcised (or a Jewish girl born) G-d binds Himself to the person with an "eternal covenant."

Thus, there is no reason to wait until the infant will come of age and consciously affirm and participate in this act. After all, the entire covenant comes from G-d, and our job is to receive it in the fullest measure. If we allow our limited judgment to be the determinant, we limit the unlimited bond G-d makes with us. Therefore, he is circumcised at the earliest age possible.

Thus, the merit of Yitzchak's circumcision at eight days surpassed not only that of Yishmael, but also the circumcision of his father Abraham! Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself after he had attained the highest degree of perfection possible for a created being to achieve on his own. Thus,

Abraham's circumcision lacked the indisputable indication that the covenant, which came as a result of the circumcision, came entirely from G-d. His efforts and achievements were mixed in, as lofty as they were.

Only with the circumcision of Yitzchak, at the age of eight days, and so to for every Jewish boy, was it clear that his covenant had nothing whatsoever to do with his “created being”, but was entirely dependent on G-d. All of us share in the eternal bond with G-d and since He initiated it, that covenant will never be broken.

Have a good Shabbos,

Rabbi Shraga Sherman

Adapted from the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, The Chasidic Dimension, lchaimweekly.org

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