Category: A Taste of Torah

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayigash

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Rashi (a well-known commentator) shares two perspectives regarding how Yehuda spoke to Joseph when trying to save his brother Benjamin after being falsely accused of stealing the silver cup. In one viewpoint Rashi maintains that Yehuda takes a strong stance when speaking with Joseph. The question is raised why one would risk taking a strong stance when dealing with one’s brother’s life. Instead, would it not be wiser to adopt a more conciliatory tone to secure one’s brother’s release?

The answer given is a powerful one. Yehuda promised his father to bring his brother home safely. He assumed the responsibility of his brother’s safety. His behavior when speaking to Joseph reflects his commitment to that responsibility. Yehuda’s actions provide a wonderful lesson for all of us. They illustrate that true responsibility creates ownership and with that comes a sense of urgency to react with a greater passion to accomplish one’s goals.

A Taste of Torah – Chanukah

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Just a Moment

During Chanukah, the special prayer, Al Hanisim, is added to our tefillos (prayers). This tefilla thanks Hashem for the miracles He performed for the small Jewish army during the battle against the more formidable Greek one. When one looks closely at this prayer, there seems to be a glaring omission. There is no mention during the prayer of the miracle of the small jug of oil that was found allowing the candles to remain lit for eight days. In fact, there is no mention of the candles until the last line which states, Afterwards (referring to the battle) they lit candles and this line seems almost an afterthought. However, if one understands the true focus of the prayer, this line becomes the most powerful one.

After the war, what was the first thing our ancestors did? They did not sit back and enjoy the moment or run a ticker-tape parade to celebrate. Instead, they immediately returned to the Bais Hamikdosh (temple) to re-establish the Avodah (daily services) there. They were inspired by the miracles they witnessed during the war and acted on that inspiration right away. These actions, in turn, brought about the miracle of finding the jug of oil.

This series of events is what we need to keep in mind and to teach our children.  When moments of inspirations are acted upon at once, good things will follow. A famous quote states, “Moments can be momentary or momentous; it all depends on how you use it.” Remember, a moment of better concentration in tefillah or a moment of doing an act of kindness with more thought or a moment of thanking Hashem for all that He gives us can make a monumental change in our lives.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayeshev

Written by: Avrohom S. Moller

This week we begin the story of mechiras Yosef, the selling of Yosef Hatzadik by his brothers. We find many instances in the Torah which highlight the deficiencies and failings of our greatest heroes. Yosef’s brothers are the Godly tribes, the Shivtei Kah, and yet they are faulted with doing an atrocity that defies the imagination. This week, we also have the incident of Yehudah and Tamar which seems to paint the progenitor of Moshiach in a most unflattering and compromised position. Why is it that these people failed in such an exaggerated way and why does the Torah tell us about it?

The Torah wants us to know that the path to greatness is not without obstacles and failures. True heroes have overcome failures and struggles as Yosef’s brothers did. The greatness they achieved in the process surpasses people who are inherently good and uncomplicated. The reality is that a rich life journey is messy and includes many ups and downs before we reach our destination. This is the story of Yosef and his brothers and the story of Yehudah’s ascent to the leadership of Klal Yisroel.

We are preparing to celebrate Chanukah and our victory over the Greek attempt to change our belief system. Greece descends from Yefes, the son of Noach who was blessed that “Hashem shall give beauty to Yefes.” Our sages acknowledge that Greece, in fact, did succeed in refining the aesthetics of physicality, celebrating beautiful art, architecture, theater, music and even philosophy. What was Judaism’s quarrel with the Greek beliefs? It was because Greece saw value only in the physical and the superficial. Being determinists, they denied morality and the principle of freedom of choice making. This reduced all of life to the now and here. There was no judgement, no room to struggle to improve; it was all about your inborn traits and fate.

The Torah is completely at odds with this idea. The Torah says we are all born imperfect and struggle toward perfection. This is why the greatest achievements of our people, including Moshiach himself, come to us in a messy and tortuous process. The point is to demonstrate that it is the journey as much as it is the destination and that we can and should redeem ourselves from the greatest mistakes.
May the coming holiday bring us encouragement and courage to continuously improve ourselves and to believe that we can become better and better!

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayishlach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In G-d We Trust

In this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, Yaakov faces a dilemma. He is about to encounter his brother, Esav, who hates him and continues to plot against him. Because of their history, Yaakov has no idea how Esav will behave when they finally meet. The parsha teaches us that Yaakov prepares for this confrontation by doing three things. First, he sends Esav a present. Second, he prepares his camp for war. Third, he prays to Hashem for a peaceful meeting.

The unusual point to note about these preparations is that the Torah also states twice that Vayolen Shom, and Yaakov slept. Two questions arise from this statement. First, how could it be possible for Yaakov to sleep when he is preparing for a confrontation that might conclude with his death? Secondly, why does the Torah assert that Yaakov slept twice?

With these two mentions of Yaakov’s sleeping, the Torah teaches us an important lesson for life. Yaakov did everything he could possibly do to be ready for his encounter with Esav. He sends the customary present, makes the necessary preparations for war, and he prays to Hashem for a successful outcome. At this point, Yaakov understands that there is nothing else he can do to guarantee a positive conclusion when he meets with Esav. He realizes that the meeting between Esav and himself is in Hashem’s hands. Having faith in Hashem, he peacefully sleeps recognizing that not everything is in his control.

This is a valuable lesson for us to emulate. It is only natural for us to fret over circumstances that concern us even when they are not in our control. From Yaakov’s behavior we learn that the first step in dealing with unpleasant situations is to put forth our strongest efforts in the hopes of solving them. The second step is the acknowledgement that sometimes we do not have the ability to control everything and after doing our best, it is time to move on. This step is a difficult position to accept but a crucial one for our own peace of mind and true Bitachon (trust) in Hashem.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayetzei

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

The Ladder of Life

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, our forefather Yaakov has a dream. In this dream, G-d shows him a ladder that is on the ground with its top reaching the heavens. Many commentaries explain that G-d used the ladder to convey a message to Yaakov that in addition to following in his father’s footsteps, he needs to continuously grow. The question arises – why is he being given this message now? Shouldn’t this message have been given to him when he was much younger?

Horav Yeruchum Olshin, one of the Roshei Hayeshiva of Beis Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ, points out that this was a critical time in Yaakov’s life. He was about to enter the world of Lavan, his corrupt uncle, and once there he was about to be challenged in ways that he couldn’t imagine. His morals, values and integrity would be put to the test. He recognized that and prayed that when he would eventually return to his father’s home he would have retained the levels of righteousness he had before he had left. However, G-d was telling him that it wasn’t sufficient to just maintain levels of righteousness; one needs to continuously grow. Yaakov’s task while in Lavan’s house was to overcome whatever challenges he might face and continue his spiritual growth.

What a great lesson for all of us. We must realize that our own education in yeshivos and growth in our synagogue life is not enough. We can’t remain stagnant in our growth. Instead, we need to view our interactions of daily living, no matter what the conditions might be, as opportunities for us to continuously develop, mature and flourish. We must emulate our forefather Yaakov and keep climbing the ladder of life.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Toldos

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

The Torah describes the birth of Yaakov Avinu and Esav and contrasts them right away. Esav is described as ruddy and hairy and his name Esav, means he’s already “made” and finished. In contrast Yaakov’s physical appearance is not mentioned at all. Instead, his behavior of being an “innocent (or wholesome) man always in the study tent” is given as his description. Esav is defined by his external appearance because that is his path in life. He did not see life’s mission as one of constant growth and improvement. He saw the purpose of life to be an ongoing pursuit of desires using his talents and the opportunities for worldly pleasure as they present themselves. This outlook is reflected in his response to the negotiation with Yaakov about the birthright. Esav scoffs at the idea of leadership and responsibility, “I am going to die. What do I need this for?” He is saying that life is short, and he doesn’t have time for that sort of thing. (Remember the bumper sticker – He who dies with most toys wins)

Our great king Dovid was also described as being ruddy. This means that he was also a bold person, capable of bloodshed. The difference between him and Esav is that he spent his life refining his character and struggling with the challenging aspects of his personality. That is a life which is well spent and that is how one achieves greatness.

At the end of the parsha, it is interesting that Esav himself understands that he has missed the potential in his life when he realizes that he won’t receive the blessings of his father. He complains that Yaakov took his firstborn rights. This seems odd since he scoffed at the whole idea earlier in his life. It is obvious that when Esav stood at this major crossroad in his life where his destiny and that of his progeny were  being determined, he was able to comprehend that growth and responsibility are the true purpose of life and that he had missed the mark.

This stark contrast between a life of growth and self-improvement vs. self-indulgence and regression is important to understand early in life. It enables us to set a course that will give us a life of meaning, fulfillment and goodness.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Chayei Sara

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

Spare No Effort

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes Avrohom Avinu’s trusted servant Eliezer’s quest to find a suitable wife for Avrohom’s successor, Yitzchak Avinu. He goes to Aram Naharayyim and meets Rivkah at the well. He runs toward her after he sees her filling her jug and asks her for water. She responds by offering him water and also to water his camels. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that Eliezer ran toward her because he was excited to see that the water rose toward her and she filled her jug with a minimum of effort. This fact is derived from the difference in the language describing her filling her personal jug, where it says ותמלא- she filled, in contrast to her watering the camels, which is described as ותשאב- she drew, implying that she had to lower her pail to the water.

The question is that if Rivkah was so righteous that the water rose to spare her extra effort when she came to the well, why didn’t it rise as she rushed to fill the trough with hundreds of gallons of water for the 10 camels?

Rabbi Levy Yitzchok of Berditchev (18th Century Chassidic master) explains that the righteous are granted favors in this world when pursuing their needs in this world. However, when they are doing Hashem’s work, they prefer that they exert the maximum effort to accomplish these tasks. This is supported by the Mishna in Avos – לפום צערא אגרא- The payment is commensurate with the difficulty.

Therefore, it would not have been a favor for Rivka to make the water rise while she did the chesed of watering Eliezer’s camels.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Vayera

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

Staying Focused

In this week’s parsha, after Avrahom completes the ten challenges, he becomes known as Avrahom Avinu, Avrahom, our forefather. The climax of the challenges appears to be the Akeidas Yitzchak when Avrahom faces the ultimate test to sacrifice his only son. However, Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the early Rishonim, disagrees with this thought and states that the tenth test, finding a burial place for Sarah, was the definitive test. Although, Avrahom was promised the land of Canaan, at the time of his wife’s death, he did not have control over it yet. Therefore, he could not find a place to bury Sarah there. In Rabbeinu Yonah’s opinion, Avrahom’s belief and trust in Hashem that he would find the appropriate burial for his wife was the ultimate challenge.

Many commentaries are perplexed by Rabbeinu Yonah’s outlook. How is it possible that any test would be greater than willing to give up one’s only son that Hashem promised would be the future of the Jewish people? Avrahom’s mission in life, to spread Judaism to future generations, was about to be lost if he sacrificed Yitzchak. Could any test be greater than that?

Rabbeinu Yonah’s idea teaches us an important lesson for our daily lives. I think all would agree that there is no comparison between the two challenges, Akeidas Yitzchak and finding Sarah a burial spot. There are times in our lives that we can muster up the strength to pass a really big test. However, the key to consistency for one that serves Hashem is to be able to pass the small test that follows the big one for all of them are important.

This idea is illustrated often in professional sports. Many times there is a mediocre team that rises to the challenge and beats a better team.  The very next week that mediocre team loses to a much weaker one.  In life, many times people tend to lose focus on the smaller issues. They rise to the occasion for the big challenge but fall short on the smaller one.                                     

Avrahom was able to become our forefather with his unwavering dedication to Hashem. He met each challenge, big or small, with steadfast faith in Hashem. Our job is to transmit this message to our children.  Value every challenge, big or small, for they are all opportunities to grow in our service of Hashem.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Lech Lecha

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

In this week’s parsha, Hashem appears to Avrohom Avinu and tells him to leave his birthplace to go to “the land I shall show you.” Hashem promises him great things, he will father a great nation, be famous and blessed, etc. The Ramban (Nachmonides) is bothered that we don’t get a better introduction to Avrohom. Usually, the Torah tells us more about a great personality and why he/she was beloved by Hashem. In the case of Avrohom, the Torah tells us that he was told to leave his ancestral land for a bright future in Eretz Yisroel without any explanation as to why he was chosen to be Hashem’s messenger to mankind. The Ramban suggests that since Avrohom’s greatness early in his life was his rejection of the idolatry in his birthplace, the Torah doesn’t want to discuss all of the decadence and depravity of that culture. The Torah just focuses on Avrohom’s loyalty and obedience to Hashem.

The Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, third Rebbe of Gur 1847-1905) gives a very novel answer to this question. He quotes the Zohar that the call of “Lech Lecha – go forth for yourself” was a challenge to all of mankind in every time. It is Hashem’s call to all of us to go and accomplish our mission in life. Avrohom Avinu was the only one in his time who heeded this call, and therefore, it became his personal charge. There is no introduction to Avrohom’s character and history since this is the essence of who he was. He was the one who listened and thought for himself and that is what endeared him to Hashem, earning the title of “Avrohom, My Beloved.”

As children and spiritual heirs to our great ancestor, we need to do as he did. We must go forth and do great things especially in making the world more hospitable to G-dliness. This is our destiny as a people and our duty as children of Avrohom. We declare Hashem’s sovereignty by conducting ourselves by the values and morality of the Torah. We work hard raising our children to perpetuate these ideals for the future of mankind.

When we do this, we can invoke the merit of our Avos, our Patriarchs, who centered their lives on this mission. May we heed the call and succeed in adding to the spirituality and goodness of this world in our lifetime.

A Taste of Torah – Parshas Noach

Written by: Rabbi Mordechai Raizman

In this week’s Parsha, it states that Noach was a Tzaddik (a righteous person) in his generation. The question that naturally arises is why is in his generation included in that statement. Rashi explains that the phrase implies that Noach was only a righteous man in comparison to the rest of his generation. If he had lived during another generation, such as Avrohom’s, he would not have been considered a Tzaddik. In fact, Rashi in his explanation uses a harsh description when comparing his stature to those of Avrohom’s generation. He states that Noach would be Lo Nechshav Lklum which means he would not be worthy of recognition. However, his clarification presents another issue. How can a person who is considered a Tzaddik in one generation possess such a low stature in another?  

A timeless lesson about the standards we set for ourselves and our children can be learned from Rashi’s explanation. Many times, a person tends to adapt to his/her environment’s standards, and more often than not, ends up settling for much less than what he/she is capable of doing and becoming. Instead, the individual becomes content with being a Tzaddik in an environment that is not very righteous and has a value system that places minimal demands. 

Perhaps this is the meaning of Rashi’s interpretation. Noach did not strive to fully reach his potential. He was content with just being better than everyone around him. However, the Torah demands more from us. It teaches us to continuously search for new ways to improve our character and to become better role models for our children. 

We have just finished celebrating the Yomim Tovim cycle of the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) and Sukkos. Let us take the inspiration from these special days to not be content to just be “good in our generation” but rather constantly strive to be the best individuals we can be and raise the bar of what we can accomplish. If we take that approach, most likely we will have an impact on many generations to come.