Genesis

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayechi 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“A Time to Survive and a Time to Thrive”

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Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) 

“A Time to Survive and a Time to Thrive

In this final parsha of Sefer Bereshiet, Yaakov gives blessings to all of his children, but he gives a special blessing to his grandchildren, to Ephraim and Menashe.

And he says that ‘You, the children of Yosef, my grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe. You will be “like Reuven and Shimon”, you will be no different than my children. (Genesis 48:5)

And he continues on and says that the Jewish people will bless their sons in your name:

“ישימך אלוקים כאפרים וכמנשה”
God should make our children like Ephraim and Menashe. (Genesis 48:20)

Throughout all of Yaakov’s engagement with Yosef’s children, Ephraim and Menashe, he places the younger one first and the eldest second. And that’s because Yaakov has a special message for each and every one of us, thousands of years later.

You see, the oldest child, Menashe is named “כי נשני אלוקים”, because God has allowed me to survive after the tragedies that I’ve gone through in the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:51)

Ephraim, the second child, is so named “כי הפרני אלוקים”, because God has not just allowed me to survive, but God has allowed me to flourish. (Genesis 41:52)

Says Yaakov to all of us, as we read the parsha this week, our first responsibility, our first mandate, is to try to flourish, to actualize our potential, to be able to look at the world around us and to not allow the challenges to paralyze us. But to be able to grow, and to be able to achieve wondrous things in this world.

But sometimes there are so many challenges, and we have seen this during COVID, that all we can do, and that is not just sufficient, it’s heroic, is Menashe. All we can do is survive; all we can do is be “like Menashe”.

And therefore, the bracha that Yaakov gives us, that we are to bless our children and our grandchildren with, is “ישימך אלוקים”, God should make us “like Ephraim”.

We should always try and ask ourselves the question: What are we doing to achieve purposefulness? What are we doing to create meaning in the world?

But also, to recognize that sometimes it’s all about Menashe. Sometimes it’s all about surviving. Sometimes survival is not just good enough, it is really heroic.

Please God, as we read this parsha, we will be able to bless our children and our grandchildren with this bracha, and we will be able to internalize the message of always being “Ephraim”, of working hard to be able to make sure that we make a difference in the world and within our families.

And sometimes it’s just enough to be “Menashe”, to survive, and that itself is an act of greatness.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –“Judah, to you shall your brothers give homage” (Genesis 49:8) The climax of our Biblical portion of Vayechi – and indeed of the entire Book of Genesis – comes in the death-bed scene in which Jacob–Israel bestows blessings upon each of his sons, …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayigash 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Transforming Struggles Into Triumphs”

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Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) 

“Transforming Struggles Into Triumphs

In this week’s parsha, Yosef and Yaakov embrace, and Yosef introduces his father, the patriarch of the family, to the most powerful person in the world, to Pharaoh.

And Pharoah is greeting the father of the savior of Egypt, and he asks him:

כמה ימי שני חייך
How old are you? [Genesis 47:8]

And Yaakov gives a protracted answer:

ימי שני מגורי שלשים ומאת שנה מעט ורעים היו
I am one hundred and thirty years old,
but know, Pharaoh, they’ve been challenging years.

ולא השיגו את ימי שני חיי אבותיי בימי מגוריהם
And I have not lived up to the years that my father and grandfather lived up to.
[Genesis 47:9]

The Ramban asks: Why does Yaakov have to complain about God? And in fact, multiple midrashim in multiple locations really suggest that because Yaakov basically complained about God, he’s punished for these additional words. [Da’at Zekenim, citing the Midrash on Genesis 47:8; Midrash, Genesis Rabba 95 (Albeck Edition)]

And, you know, we can understand what Yaakov is saying. After all, Yaakov has an extremely challenging life. Yet Chazal tell us that sometimes from our patriarchs we learn what not to do. And to complain even when there are challenges is not something we are to do.

And therefore, the Ramban questions him, and the Midrash suggests he’s punished.

I am indebted to Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates and Yeshiva University for sharing with us the commentary of the Malbim on this verse.

The Malbim, who himself, like Yaakov, went through many challenges throughout his life and therefore really understands how to look at this verse. I mean, the Malbim lost his father at a very young age, he witnessed the breakup of his first marriage, he lost many of his children and watched the mental deterioration of his second wife.

The Malbim interprets this verse, this exchange between Yaakov and Pharaoh in a different fashion.

In his significant commentary on Chumash, he says: You want to know the days of my years, Pharaoh? I’ve lived on this earth one hundred and thirty years, but the years in which I’ve been able to fulfill my potential as a human being in this world, my destiny, have been limited because of my challenges.

Yet, I have struggled to make sure that I can always achieve my greatness despite my challenges. Because ultimately we are not judged by the years we live in this world, but what we have done, even when there are obstacles in the way.

The trick is not only to live, it’s not only to breathe and occupy space in this world, but it’s the ability to live with moments that matter, despite the challenges. The ability for us to create a destiny and be an aspiration, even when there are obstacles.

In my life, I’ve seen this with my father, he should live and be well.

A survivor of cancer twice, experienced the challenges of COVID, a hidden child in the Holocaust, I’ve never heard him complain. He’s not defined by the struggles, but perhaps has used them as a launching pad to fulfill his destiny.

And I witnessed this with the people I have the privilege of working with at Ohr Torah Stone. Despite the fact that, unfortunately, way too many of them have dealt with the challenges of terrorism, they live lives of happiness, lives that are not defined by their challenges, but rather lives that are aspirational.

Ultimately, the next verse really defines it, because at that point, Pharaoh asks him [Yaakov] to bless him, and we’re told:

ויברך יעקב את פרעה
Yaakov blesses Pharaoh. [Genesis 47:10]

Ultimately, it is people who have obstacles in their way but are able to overcome them, that are really the people who are blessings to us. They are blessings because they show us how to live our lives, not just occupying space in this world, but living lives of purpose and meaning.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –“I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them unto him together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Miketz 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“What Happens When Our Best Efforts Fall Short?”

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Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 41:1-44:17) 

“What Happens When Our Best Efforts Fall Short?

Shabbat Chanukah. We are in the midst of basking in the beautiful light of Chanukah, of our responsibility to try to dispel the darkness in the public thoroughfare of human society.

There are some important messages that we can learn from how our Rabbis tell us we are to kindle these lights.

As we all know, we are supposed to prepare enough oil, the proper wicks, so that we enjoy the light or we can see the light for half an hour, or have the right size candles to be able to kindle lights for a minimum of a half an hour. (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 672:2)

But what happens if we’ve done our best, yet the light extinguishes in the middle of the half hour?

The halacha is “כבתה”, you’ve done your best, but they’ve extinguished, “אין זקוק לה”, you don’t have to relight them. (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 673:2)

Yes, it’s nice if you want to relight them, but you definitely don’t make a second bracha, and it’s not an obligation, because you’ve done your best.

And from this, we can learn so much regarding our own personal spirituality and the way we engage with our family.

You know, sometimes we are involved in activities to enhance our spirituality: we prepare to go to Israel to enjoy some time basking in the light of Jerusalem or in the State of Israel.

And we prepare everything – we buy the ticket, we pack our luggage – we do everything. But then the skies close: “כבתה אין זקוק לה”.

Don’t become depressed; it’s frustrating, but as long as we try to kindle the lights, even if our plans are extinguished, we cannot allow that to defeat us.

And this is so much more true when it comes to our raising of our children and our grandchildren.

You know, we work so hard to fill their hearts with the finest of oils and to prepare the proper wicks so they can create a radiant light in the life they will lead.

But sometimes our children or our grandchildren do not follow in our ways. Sometimes their connection with God and Judaism is slightly different or completely different from our perspective.

The halacha is clear: “כבתה אין זקוק לה”. Even when we’ve done our best, there are no guarantees in life. We just have to recognize that we have to love them and we have to nurture them, and we have to try to rekindle the light, but without any form of coercion and always staying connected.

The Chanukah lights remind us about the lights that we light in our own lives and the lights that we light in the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

We have to do our best, and the rest, we need to leave to God.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Miketz-Chanukah (Genesis 41:1-44:17) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –As children, we learn that Chanukah is about the victory of the Judeans over the Greek-Syrians; Jews over Gentiles. We know from the Books of the Maccabees and the Second Commonwealth historian Josephus, however, that the struggle began as a civil war, a …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayeshev 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Chanukah: When Words Cannot Sufficiently Praise God”

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Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) 

“Chanukah: When Words Cannot Sufficiently Praise God

Hallel. For me personally, one of the most moving prayers that we recite. A prayer that is reserved for the biblical holidays of Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot (Talmud, Arakhin 10a).

A prayer that is also recited partially on Rosh Chodesh, and a prayer that is recited on the holiday that is coming up, the holiday of Chanukah. All of those that codify Jewish law insert the laws of this prayer in perhaps its proper location: the Laws of Prayer (for example: Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 422:2-7).

Except for one, Maimonides. In his magnum opus, in his unbelievable work, where every idea is thought out before its placement, Maimonides decides that the laws of Hallel, of this prayer, should be placed in one location – in the rabbinic holiday of Chanukah (Maimonides, Laws of Megilah and Chanukah 3:5-14).

Rabbi Soloveitchik explained to us that Maimonides did not do this by accident. It’s not that he forgot to do it in the Laws of Prayer and therefore rushed to insert it at the end of his next book that deals with holidays, but rather Maimonides is trying to communicate a message to all of us about the true idea behind Chanukah.

You see, there are two paradigms to Hallel. There is the Hallel HaDibur, the Hallel that is recited orally; that is the Hallel that is found in the prayer service. We praise God. We celebrate our connection with God. We celebrate our dependence upon God and indeed God’s dependence upon us.

But on Chanukah, when we light the Menorah, we’re doing something different. When we light the menorah, we recite “כדי להודות ולהלל” (the “HaNerot Halalu” prayer).

The lighting of the menorah is an act of praise to God. It is a message that if you really want to praise God, it’s not enough just to recite a prayer, but you have to light lights – lights that dispel darkness within the world.

If we really want to thank God, if we really want to connect with God, it is not enough just to orally do so, but on Chanukah, we are mandated – eight nights – on the nights in which there is no moon, the darkest nights of the month, to light lights in the public thoroughfare, to remind us that praising God requires an engagement with society through the prism of Jewish tradition.

Please God, as we celebrate Chanukah, we will ask ourselves the question as we light the lights: “What are we doing in our lives to make sure we dispel the darkness in the world around us?”

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.

RSR

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “And Judah said to his brothers: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27) Why …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayishlach 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Moving Forward – Even When It Hurts”

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Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) 

“Moving Forward – Even When It Hurts

Jacob wrestles with an angel. The Torah calls this person, this being, an ”ish” (man) (Genesis 32:25).

We’re not exactly sure if it is an angel. In fact, there are different approaches to this, which we discussed two years ago. I invite you to view it here.

But after Jacob is triumphant from this engagement, from this conflict, we’re told that his name is changed from Ya’akov to Yisrael, the Prince of God (Genesis 32:29), and we’re told that it is forbidden for us to eat from the sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:33).

This nerve, the sciatic nerve, represents the movement. It helps our movement forward and backward. It is the nerve from our hip to our knee.

And the message behind this prohibition, as stated by the Netziv, is the following: sometimes when we’re in a conflict, whether it’s with ourselves, in trying to improve ourselves, or with our family in trying to make a difference, or in the Jewish community or in society, sometimes the easiest thing – not the best thing, but the easiest thing – is just to stay stationary, is just not to engage, just to stay frozen in time.

The message of the prohibition of the sciatic nerve, the nerve that speaks about the movement forward, is the recognition of the fact that to make a difference, we have to be willing to engage.

When there is a struggle within ourselves, we have to be willing to make a difference in our lives.

When there is a struggle in our family and we can make a difference, we have to have the courage to do so.

And if we are going to be Yisrael, the Children of Israel, princes of God, we have to be willing to take a stand to help another Jew, to speak out when Jews are attacked, and to make sure that we can make a difference in humanity.

The prohibition of the sciatic nerve is a reminder that the responsibility of a Jew is always to move forward, never to be paralyzed by the situation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “And he said, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. And Jacob asked him and said, ‘Tell me, if you would, your name.’ ‘Why do you ask for my …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayetze 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Completing our Portraits: Making Jacob’s Dream Our Reality”

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Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3) 

“Completing our Portraits: Making Jacob’s Dream Our Reality

The dream of Jacob: Angels ascending and descending a ladder connecting the heaven to Earth (Genesis 28:12). The Talmud tells us: what was happening here? The Talmud explains that angels were ascending and gazing at the image of Jacob above; his image that is engraved on the throne of glory, the throne of God, and descending and gazing at his image below. (Chullin 91b)

Ya’akov, Jacob, the patriarch who develops the monotheistic family into a community, has a spiritual presence, both in the heavens – his image is engraved on the throne of God – and simultaneously has a physical presence in this world. That’s the dream!

Angels ascending and descending, comparing Jacob’s image, both physical and spiritual in the holy and in the everyday. The message is that this dream is humanity’s reality. We have the power and the potential in each of us.

That’s not something that angels have. We have the ability to live in both the physical and spiritual realm simultaneously.

Angels go up and down on a ladder; we live in both worlds together. It’s an opportunity for us to bring the physical and spiritual world together to bring into the spiritual realm, the physical and the physical into the spiritual realm.

This dream, the dream of our patriarch, Jacob, of Yisrael, is a question to each and every one of us. Do our physical and spiritual portraits match as Jacobs did? And if they don’t, what can we do to make sure that our spiritual likeness and our physical likeness match in both worlds?

How do we make sure that they resemble each other?

You know, sometimes people attack us, and that can bother us. We start to reevaluate our lives. But that doesn’t count, because we are God’s children.

And the question that we really need to ask ourselves, as partners of God: do our physical and spiritual portraits match?

That’s what should challenge us. Nothing else.

And if our physical and spiritual portraits don’t match, how do we change our image?

How do we make sure that they begin to resemble each other?

The Talmud continues: when they saw that humankind could live in both worlds, the angels subsequently became jealous of Jacob. They wanted to endanger his life; and immediately Jacob received divine protection.

As the verse states, “And behold, the Lord stood over him.” (Genesis 28:13)

Rav Shimon ben Lakish says, If the Torah didn’t tell us this – that God protected humankind – it would be forbidden for us to say it. But it is like a father who fans his son to keep him cool, to keep him comfortable. (Chullin 91b)

That’s the relationship that we have with God. You see, we are God’s partners. We are here to finish what God began.

And therefore, the dream, or our reality is, that we live in two worlds, like Jacob, a physical and a spiritual.

We can’t waste our energy on what other people say about us or feel about us. Our primary concern and goal has to be: is our heavenly likeness and physical likeness an extension of each other? And if they’re not, how do we make sure that Jacob’s dream becomes our reality?

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am …

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