Parshas Toldot: Making Good Choices

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.

By Elisheva Maline

In this week's Torah portion, Toldos, the story moves at a swift clip as we are rushed from scene to scene in the lives of some of the Patriarchs and Matriachs. Yitzchak, the second amongst our three Patriarchs, and his wife Rivka, are nearing the close of twenty years marriage without children when G-d answers their prayers and she conceives.  His wife then spends the next nine months doubled over in agony, experiencing the kicking of what 
she believes to be one child.

She faces confusion: one day Rivka would pass a place of learning, the yeshivas (learning seminaries) of Shem and Ever (ai – ver') and the fetus's movement would intensify. When she glides past a place of idol worship, the pain inside her stomach would escalate, as the kicking increased. Rivka is suffering, but for more than the obvious reasons. How would life be raising an indecisive child, one who might flip back and forth between Hashem and idol worship? Our Matriarch was in a quandary and she ran to the prophets of that age for advice. They informed her, "There are two nations in your womb…" (Genesis 25:23). 
When Yitzchak and Rivka find themselves blessed with twin boys, she breathes a sigh of relief. "I'm not giving birth to a child with decision making issues. Phewww."
However, it does seem that from conception the forefathers of Judaism and Edom (another name for the Roman Empire and later, Christianity) were destined to have a warring relationship. During the early years of Yaakov and Esau, it did not come to light. They were fed on the same "bread," Torah, but eventually, it became clear they were opposites, as crystal in fact as when they had inadvertently attacked their mother in utero.
To paraphrase, "The lads grow up and Esau becomes a hunter, a man of the field. Yaakov remains a wholesome boy, staying home and learning in the tent" (Genesis 25:27). In short, Esau ends up abandoning all the teachings his father held dear while Yaakov moves on to father the Jewish nation.  

Rav SamsonRaphael Hirsch, a Torah scholar from 19th century Germany, steps in to ask the question, "How could it be that out of two children who are raised in the lap of our holiest Patriarch, one allows himself to become wholly estranged from his heritage?" He quotes, "Raise the child according to his unique path so that when he grows up, he will not abandon it" (Proverbs 22:6). "Esau's personality tended toward the outdoors. He's what Howard Gardner would call the "Naturalist" on his Multiple Intelligences list. Yaakov, a more mindful person, connected deeply with abstract ideas and concepts. The education of Yizchak clicked perfectly with his personality and so he moved on to greatness. Unfortunately, this was not so for Esau. The moment he was old enough, he dropped everything.

Parents and teachers must be aware of the dangers that stem from taking a unified approach toward teaching students. there is no such thing as a cookie cutter group! Don't force a square peg into a round hole. Some children will fall at the wayside. Keep in mind, a child or pupil needs to be taught according to his individual uniqueness.

May we all be blessed with the clarity to support one another in the way that a person needs. 

The Month of Kislev - Candles in the Dark

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.
Elisheva Maline

In ancient times, the lunar month was established by means of observation. Once two witnesses had approached the sanhedrin with their sightings of a crescent moon, the court could declare rosh chodesh, a.k.a. the new month. Chanukah is not considered a Torah established holiday. Nonetheless, our sages of blessed memory ordained it as a festival.  What miracles happened during the days of Chanukah that the sages considered applicable for all future generations?  

The background for the story of Chanukah is "during the time period of the Second Temple. The Greeks had issued decrees against Israel: they forbade Jews to engage in Torah study and practice the mitzvot (commandments). The Romans proceeded to lay their hands on Jewish property and eventually, they entered the Holy Temple and defiled everything that was ritually pure. For instance, they opened all the jugs of oil meant for lighting the menorah and caused them to become impure. This, among other things, caused Israel terrible anguish. Hashem (G-d), in His great mercy, delivered the Greeks into the hands of the Jews. Several members of the Hasmonean dynasty stood up to the Greeks... and they prevailed. All this occurred on the 25th of Kislev." The Book of Our Heritage. 

Since Jewish thought likes the idea that this world is a manifestation of spiritual reality the sages made a holiday out of Hanuka to uplift the dark reality that is mid November to early December. The energy of Kislev is one of spiritual deterioration. Hence, it is often called the darkest time of year. Moreover, during this season the Jewish people suffered terrible decline in their service to G-d. During the era of the second temple the religious community was at loggerheads with the Greek empire as well as the droves of Jews who were converting to the Hedonistic ideal.  

Out of that bleakness where we almost lost our religion and the temple, G-d shined a light. This was the glow of the Hanukkah miracles we witnessed then. For instance, after the Hasmoneons defeated the Greek army, the victors entered the temple to discover that there was only enough ritually pure oil for one night. It would take a week to ready the next batch of oil and the menorah needed to be lit every day. This fact did not dampen their spirits, however. The kohanim (priests) lit the menorah. Then, a miracle happened. That one night's worth of oil kept the candles lit for eight days and nights. Thus, we celebrate Hanukkah for eiight nights. 

These candles are the symbolic flickerings of light in all our exiles and/or temporary spiritual failings. They also stand in as representatives for those of us who clung to their beliefs in the face of mitigating circumstances. One of the ways in which we celebrate Hanukkah is by lighting candles as a commemoration and encouragement from times past for people in difficult times to come. 

The following story is one that took place in extreme darkness: the Nazi camp Bergen Belsen. This story marks one event among the many that cover the face of Jewish history. It highlights Jewish endurance in even the most emotionally rending situations: 

When Chanukah came to Bergen Belsen and it was time to kindle the Hanukkah lights there was not a jug of oil to be found. No candle was in sight, and a Chanukiah (menorah) belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a Chanukiah; strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform - a wick; and the black camp shoe polish - pure oil.
The living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.
The Rabbi of Bluzhov (Israel Spira) lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.
But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season."
Among those present at the kindling of the lights was a Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund. He was a clever, sincere person with a passion for discussing matters of religion, faith and truth. Even here in camp at Bergen Belsen, his passion for discussion did not abate. He never missed an opportunity to engage in such a conversation.
As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, Zamietchkowski elbowed his way to the rabbi and said, "Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Chanukah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, 'Who did miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.' But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say, 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season'? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Chanukiah lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call 'keeping us alive'?"
"Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right," answered the rabbi. "When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished rabbis whose spirits were standing near me, if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing: a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and concentration as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Chanukah lights. I said to myself, if God, blessed be He, has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Chanukah lights they see in front of them the heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that, they stand with devotion and listen to the Chanukah blessing 'Who did miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season'; if, indeed, I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing."

While may we never again experience such an atrocity, may we all be blessed to see G-d in our lives during the dark and bright times.

Chaya Sarah - Camping at the Cave of the Patriarchs- re-post

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.

By: Samantha Hulkower

We read recently in the Torah portion of Chaya Sarah that Avraham buys a burial place for his deceased wife. He specifically sought out the Cave of Machpela. The Torah goes on to explain all the trouble Avraham encounters trying to negotiate the deal from what could be the first example of a shady used car salesman-type figure, Ephron. His name literally means dusty. It's like buying a carpet from someone named 'Shaggy'. Anyway, Avraham does his best to stay calm, even while Ephron is obviously trying to squeeze him for as much money as he can. Why did Avraham put up with this? Wasn't there anywhere else he could bury his beloved wife?

Obviously, there must be something special to this place. Meharat Hamachpela  means 'The Cave of Doubles', which could be interpreted to be either that there are two sections to the cave, or it was a name given prophetically, to indicate all of the couples that were to be buried there. Not only is Sarah, and then Avraham, buried there, but also, Issac and Rivka, and finally Jacob and Leah. While it could be that they were just trying to make things easier for their descendants to visit them, again, this goes to show there is something special about this place, for almost all of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs (with the exception of Rachel) to be buried in the same place. In addition, Hevron is one of the four Holy Cities in Israel, each of which correlate to the four elements: Jerusalem/fire; Tzefat/air; Tiveria/water; and Hevron/earth (the connection to the earth being the fact that so many people so fundamental to the beginning of the Jewish religion are buried there).

I won't leave you in suspense any longer. First, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there. That is as good a reason as any for the founders of the Jewish people to want their eternal resting place to be there. But there's more! According to the Midrash and the Zohar, the caves are the entrance to the Garden of Eden. The Matriarchs and Patriarchs supposedly aren't really 'buried there' but considered to be sleeping, and they awaken occasionally when the Jewish people are in trouble, to beseech G-d on their behalf. Having been to Hevron myself a number of times, I can tell you that there is something in the air there - it's a very intense place, very heavy, and you can feel that it is the City of Earth. 

Over the years, as Israel was conquered by one leading world power after another, different structures were built on the cave, and expanded upon. Today it is a beautiful building that houses both a Mosque and Shul. 

This time last year, along with many thousands of my closest Jewish friends, will be descending on Hevron, to camp out around the edifice constructed above the caves. It's a custom to come to Hevron for parshat Chaya Sara, to actually be in the place that the Torah is talking about. It's quite a special thing. Also, special rooms that are closed to Jews for most of the year are opened for this Shabbat, along with a handful of other days throughout the year.

It's quite a beautiful event  - thousands and thousands of Jews from all over the world, different nationalities and religious levels, come to Hevron. The city spends weeks gearing up to accomodate all of the visitors, taking pleasure in being able to do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, taking in guests. Many stay in the neighboring city of Kiryat Arba, as the Jewish community in Hevron is quite small. Quite a few, including myself, camp out on the lawns around the building. While, a lucky few hundred will be able to sleep in someone's home. One of my Rebbitzen's has a son who lives in Hevron, and she told me how the days before everyone comes, they empty all of the furniture out of the house, in order to sleep as many people as possible. Last year, they even had a guy sleep in the bathtub (by his own request)!

Pirkei Avot 3:15 - Big Brother vs Hashem Yisborach

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

[Rabbi Akiva continues] “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness and everything works in accordance with the amount of man’s good deeds.”

George Orwell, an Englishman who made his life’s work the protesting of totalitarian governments, The Soviet Union in particular, came up with the term Big Brother in his cautionary tale, 1984. One of its catchphrases, “Big Brother is watching you” immediately entered English vernacular as a jab at authorities who were tightening control on their underlings. Livavdil elef havdalos (a thousand separations), Rabbi Akiva’s quote that, “All is foreseen” brought to mind Big Brother and Orwell’s disturbing take on dystopian society. After all, Dovid haMelch writes in Tehillim (psalms), “I have placed Hashem (G-d) before me always” which implies that we are obligated to remember that G-d is monitoring our every move. Well, Big Brother's also highlighted for keeping an ever watchful gaze on the human race. So why does one idea take a lot of mental effort to excite awe and fear into the heart of the one who is contemplating Dovid’s psalms while the second strikes an immediate spark of fear? The answer is simple: free will.

Since time and space are Hashem's invention and He exists outside of space and time, for Him, everything is foreseen. However, He somehow made the cosmos work so that man could still have the means to make his own decisions, wise or not. You may ask how man can have free choice if everything is foreseen. The Rambam (Maimonides) explains (or doesn’t explain) that since G-d is infinite and humans are finite there is no logical explanation available. He also adds that it is only the intellectually immature or dull witted who demand explanations of the ineffable.

But more important than the mechanics of free will is why, in Heaven’s name, would G-d entrust us with such a dangerous gift as free will? Like handing a lit match to a child, He created the human race with easy access to both light and destruction. We may light the gas range and cook and nurture. But we may be just as likely to accidently let our homes go up in flames. Doesn’t the risk seem like too high a price? The risk factor is exactly the point: Hashem allows us to make decisions, based on our experiences, so we can achieve closeness with Him. By working on ourselves, we become better, and in essence, fulfill a certain purpose. Anyway, the path to spiritual greatness was never quoted for being a smooth one and ain’t nobody gonna do the thinking for you. On the other hand, dictatorships are not all geared toward an individual’s spiritual and/or emotional growth. The leader’s exploitation of the masses is always selfish and self-serving. Think Animal Farm.

Rabbi Akiva emphasizes that Hashem not only loves us and wants to see us be the best versions of ourselves, He is patient in His wait for the magic. “The world is judged with goodness.” Even when we deserve to be judged according to the strict letter of the law, Hashem leaves off, hoping we will do teshuva (repent), instead. Unlike human leeches like Stalin, Hashem isn’t looking to suck away at our life force. He wants our success. 

Funny, how life has its twists and turns: if Karl Marx’s father hadn’t ended up converting to Lutheranism, Marx might have ended up a yeshiva bachur and in England’s Gateshead (had there been a thriving religious community in his time anyway), The Communist Manifesto would never have been written and millions of lives would have been spared an idea which only looked good on paper. 

EmunaDating re-post: The not so solitary solitary life

By Samantha Hulkower
I was scanning through my facebook feed last week before Shabbat, when I came acrosss an article shared from the New York Times. I used to read their 'Modern Love' column every Sunday, but as I got older, it stopped appealing to me. I started looking at life and love differently, especially once I became more observant in my Judaism, and most of their stories left me thinking, "You're how old and this is how you are behaving??" But, my friend had shared the story with the caption, "For all my single friends out there," so of course, my interest was peaked.

The author had gone through most of her adult life without a long-term relationship. While her other friends were settling down, she felt like she was missing out on important relationship experience by never quite meeting anyone who lead to anything lasting. Even her friends who broke up and were back to being single, still came away with valuable insight into who they are and what they want out of life. As she aged, she worried that if she did ever meet the right guy, she just wouldn't have the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. 

Of course, she does meet the right guy, and then is faced with the challenges of being part of a relationship. Much to her relief, she finds that she didn't need those decades of trial-and-error to be good at it. She describes the first big fight she has with her partner, and the fact that she knew she could handle being single if they broke up. The piece ends with the author confident that no matter what happens, things are going to be ok.

I noticed something the author failed to mention - she did develop skills important for a relationship while she was single: the ability to take care of herself. I've met so many people in life who confide in me that their mother told them they had secretly wished they had divorced their father at some point in the marriage. The thing holding her back was the fact that she didn't know how she could manage on her own. The common denominator in almost all of these stories are the fact that the women got married at a very young age, and therefore never had to learn how to balance a checkbook, or develop a career. The prospect of having to do all that was too overwhelming for them, even though they had otherwise demonstrated themselves as capable adults. 

Let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that being single for an uncomfortably long period of time is good insurance in case you need to get out of a bad marriage - chas vshalom (G-d forbid)! Rather, that we are learning things about ourselves and growing in ways that will be doubtlessly helpful to us when we do meet Mr. or Ms. Right. Go on lots of dates? Here is a great opportunity to practice your active listening skills, so that when you and your future spouse inevitably have a disagreement you can ensure that you hear and understand them, and hopefully keep things from escalating. Lots of time spent going to parties by yourself, and therefore forced to strike up conversations with strangers? Practice for becoming a great conversationalist. Constantly going to others' homes for Shabbat and dinner parties? You get to see how other people arrange their house and conduct their family at the dinner table, and take away the best parts to implement in your own home (or make note of things you definitely don't want to do).

There is a lot in life we don't have control over, but being single doesn't have to equal a life alone, waiting, and the time we have to spend is what we make of it. If you're worried that the longer you're single the more intractable you're becoming and the harder it will be to be open to the right person, then maybe that will happen. But, if you look at this as opportunities for self-growth and accomplishment, so that you'll be that much awesomer when you do meet the right one, then I would say that's time well spent. 

Yashar LaChayal

Birthright Israel - Taglit

The majesty of the Western Wall