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“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayetze 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Unity without Uniformity: Merging Many Stones into One”

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“Unity without Uniformity: Merging Many Stones into One”

The book of Bereishiet is known as the book of Yetzira, the Book of Creation.

It begins with a focus on the physical creation of the world, and then continues with the creation of the Jewish people.

Avraham and Yitzchak both have a singular child that represents their Judaeo-legacy and contribution – moving to Yaakov, Rachel Leah, Bilah and Zilpah who gives birth to the family that becomes the Jewish people.  

A cursory reading of Bereishiet will find that disagreement, dissenting opinions between family members is part of our DNA emerging from this Sefer Yitzira. 

Before we lament this, we should remember that this is a genetic feature, an opportunity, not a flaw – as seen in this week’s portion.

Parshat Vayetze begins with a seminal moment in Yaakov’s life which has far-reaching implications:

“וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ”

“As darkness approaches Yaakov spent the night in the place

“וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם”

“And he gathered from the stones of the place”

“וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו”

“And he put the stone under his head”

“וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא”

“And he lay down in that place.”

Rashi asks: Yaakov gathered many stones, but rested his head upon just one. How did this happen?

Quoting the Gemara in Chulin, Rashi explains that the stones were quarrelling. One said – upon me let this righteous man rest his head – and the other said – upon me let him rest. Whereupon God made them all into one stone.  

What does this mean?

According to Rav Yehuda Amital, ztz”l, the stones represent the 12 tribes of the Jewish people.

It is significant that this merging of distinct stones into one occurs specifically in relation to Yaakov, highlighting his unique role amongst the Avot.

In contrast to Avraham and Yitzchak, each of whom have a particular individual focus: Avraham personifying chessed – loving-kindness – and Yitzchak exemplifying gevurah – inner spiritual strength…

….Yaakov, as the father of the twelve tribes, is the personification of tiferet – splendor – the result of the merging of various strengths together symbolizing the power  of healthy diversity in the patriarch who establishes  Jewish people.

In gathering those stones, Yaakov learns the lesson that his mission is to recognize that each of his children, each of the tribes each of the stones, has its own strengths, beauty and color. 

And his task is to maintain those unique individual qualities even while fusing them together as a whole.

What an important message for us in a world in which people are busy admiring JUST their own stone and its own unique color!

Looking ONLY at our own perspective, our own paradigm of Judaism. Thinking that our way is the only way.

The individuals who say, “upon me let this righteous man rest his head.” 

But if we are to realize the dream of Yaakov, we must address the opportunity of bringing all of Yaakov’s children together in harmony.

We must strive to embrace our differences and come together in such a way that allows us to rest our collective head on one, unified stone.

May we work tirelessly and ceaselessly to bring that vision to reality. 

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Toldot 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Matching Our Actions and Our Values”

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“Matching Our Actions and Our Values”

What kind of legacy will we leave for our loved ones?

Will they be able to say that we lived a life that matches the ideals that we regularly champion?

Or will our children, loved ones and community ultimately see the contradictions that might exist?

These very difficult questions come into sharp focus in our Torah portion, Toldot, when we encounter the complicated family dynamic of Yitzchak, Rivka, Yaakov and Esav.

As with all Biblical characters, we learn from their strengths and weaknesses. In this case, we learn a lesson of how not to behave, and what happens when one does not lead by example.

When Rivka wishes for Yaakov to inherit the birthright, she dresses Yaakov up to feel and look like his brother, Esav.

“וְאֵת עֹורֹות גְּדָיֵי הָעִזִּים הִלְבִּישָׁה עַל יָדָיו וְעַל חֶלְקַת צַוָּארָיו”

“And she covered his hands and the hairless part of his neck with the skins of a goat.”

Rivka orchestrates a plot to dupe her husband, Yitzchak, and demonstrates that deceit is a way of getting what you want.

And yet, although Yaakov receives the additional blessings through this act of trickery and deception, a close reading of the verses reveals that these brachot are never actualized.

Perhaps more tragically, the impact is multi-generational:

When in the story of the selling of Yosef, Yaakov’s children attempt to trick their father by suggesting that Yosef has been killed; they dip their brother’s coat of many colors into the blood of goats.

Just as Rivka used a goat to trick Yitzchak on behalf of her son, Yaakov, her grandchildren conspire to use a goat to trick her son, their father Yaakov, in a cruel act of deceit.

In life, what counts most is the behavior that we model.

In other words, the legacy that we leave is the legacy that we live.

And so we return to the questions we asked at the beginning:

What kind of legacy will we leave for our loved ones?

Will they be able to say that we lived a life that matches the ideals that we regularly champion?

Or will our children, loved ones and community ultimately see the contradictions that might exist?

Do our actions reflect the example of trickery to expedite the moment?

Or do they celebrate a life of values and meaning?

We should ask ourselves, if we were writing our own eulogy, what would we want it to communicate about us and then ask ourselves are we living the lives that celebrate those ideas.

It is not a coincidence that the parsha that forces us to confront these difficult questions is called Toldot, which means “generations.”

Our actions reflect a legacy of meaning and purpose, something we should all be working to achieve – in creating our own toldot – a legacy for generations.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

“Parsha and Purpose” – Chayei Sarah 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Elevating Marriage During a Time of Crisis”

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“Elevating Marriage During a Time of Crisis”

During these months of the COVID crisis, many of our relationships have been tested – whether between parents and children, siblings, friends, neighbors, or co-workers; the list goes on and on.

But perhaps no relationship has been tested more than that of husband and wife. 

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is on a global rise; a pandemic within a pandemic.

What does the Torah think regarding nurturing and strengthening the most important relationship in our lives during times of high stress and anxiety?

Let’s go back to the roots of marriage in Jewish thought.

The Talmud in Massechet Kiddushin declares “קיחה קיחה משדה עפרון”, that one of the ways to formalize a relationship between bride and groom in the institution of marriage is derived from Avraham’s purchase of a burial plot for his beloved wife, Sarah – as we read in this week’s Parsha, Chayei Sarah.

This is based on the fact that the verb “לקח”, to take, is used in the context of that event: “נתתי כסף השדה קח ממני”, “I will give you money for the field, take it from me,” and is also used in the Torah’s description of the act of marriage in Parshat Ki Teitze: “כי יקח איש אשה”, “When a man formalizes a relationship with his wife.”

Why is the Talmud wedded to the verbal analogy between these two manifestations of the word “קיחה” – taking?

By choosing this verbal analogy, the Rabbis wish to share with us a deeper message.

The fact that Avraham goes above and beyond in order to purchase a prime location to bury his beloved wife highlights the intensity of the relationship between the two of them.

Their deeply intense connection is what we wish to emulate in marriage.

Marriage is a wonderous process that begins with a loving rendezvous underneath the chuppah.

But with time, these feelings can fade. It takes a tremendous effort and will to ensure that the love and connection between spouses grows and evolves in the years to come.

It is for that reason that the Rabbis never legislated a specific bracha on the institution of marriage.

Because a bracha is recited on an act that has an immediate beginning and an end. But the institution of marriage is an ongoing medium through which one can achieve sacred moments in time with loved ones and God.

So in this age of COVID, when our marital relationships may be challenged and pushed to new limits, let’s keep this idea in mind.

As we study the verses of Chayei Sarah, let us be reminded of humanity’s treasured gift of marriage and pledge to work at strengthening the relationship between ourselves and our spouses.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Vayera 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Yitzchak, Yishmael and the Roots of the Abraham Accords”

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“Yitzchak, Yishmael and the Roots of the Abraham Accords”

High-profile normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Serious reports about dramatic developments in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and Oman. 

What is going on in the Middle East?!

After years of underground contacts, relationships are emerging in full view of the entire world between the descendants of Yitzchak and descendants of Yishmael – all of us the grandchildren of Avraham, Av Hamon Goyim, the “father of many nations”

This breathtaking confluence of events certainly has far-reaching political ramifications, but I would like to highlight what I see as a much more significant aspect of it: the glimpse that this week’s parsha, Vayera, provides into this potential rapprochement between the children of Avraham after millennia of enmity.

The parsha contains some truly fascinating parallel narratives in the lives of Yitzchak and Yishmael as they relate to their father, Avraham.

Professor Uriel Simon, world renowned Torah scholar and former long-time head of the Bible Department at Bar Ilan University, reflects on the Torah’s juxtaposition of the two sons’ sacrificial experiences: Geirush Yishmael – the Expulsion of Ishmael – and Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac.

The two events’ similarities are alluded to in their parallel language and potential consequences: 

  1. God specifically directs Avraham to carry out both acts.
  2. In both instances, Avraham wakes up early in the morning to escort them.
  3. There is a foreshadowing to the probable death of his sons.
  4. The rescue of the sons comes in the flash of a moment by an angel, an emissary of God.
  5. In the aftermath of these traumatic events, God promises Avraham that both Yishmael and Yitzchak will become great nations.
  6. And inevitably, the trauma that each son experienced deeply affected their respective relationships with their father.

But when Avraham passes away, both Yitzchak and Yishmael summon the inner strength to come together to bury him.

Similarly, in light of the recent happenings in the Middle East, we are now witnessing for the first time in this region a growing formal recognition of the relationship between descendants of Yishmael and the descendants of Yitzchak, aptly named the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement.

B’ezrat Hashem – Inshallah – may we merit to live in a time in which the sacrifices of Avraham’s children – the descendants of Yitzchak and the descendants of Yishmael – can be overcome, as their namesakes did.

Perhaps together, we can help usher in the final redemption process, a process that begins in Parshat Vayera.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Lech Lecha 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

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“A Journey from Despair to Engagement”

A quick look at the news can make even Pollyanna cynical.

Behaviors in the face of looming US elections, political mayhem in Israel, irresponsible actions of some communities in the face of the pandemic, refusing to take safety precautions or revering Jewish custom at the expense of Jewish law and values.

The easiest course of action is, of course, to give up on people instead of trying to engage them; to insulate ourselves and withdrawal while the world turns – and burns – around us.

The Torah provides us with two paradigms for approaching this issue in the different narratives of Noach and Avraham.

When Noach learns of the Divine plan for the destruction of humanity and the world at large, he dutifully follows the command of God and proceeds to construct the Ark.

Noach is unable or unwilling to convince even a single person to correct their ways and be saved from the flood.

He gives up.

This is one of the great tragedies of Noach. 

For this reason, the prophets call the flood מי נח – the flood of Noach. Because his unwillingness to improve society puts responsibility for the world’s destruction on his shoulders.

In stark contrast to Noach, this week we learn about Avraham, who argues passionately with God in order to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah.

Two nation-states whose residents the Torah describes as “very wicked sinners against God”. And yet, Avraham protests on their behalf anyway!

And this is what makes Sarah and Avraham the leaders of a movement that ultimately introduces the entire world to monotheism. It is why God changes their names to include his own – from Avram to Avraham; and Sarai to Sarah.

It is so easy to give up on people, especially in times of crisis. But we are the children of Avrahama and Sarah!

We do not give up on our people, or on humanity.

There is no shortage of inspirational examples.

The nursery school teachers, medical professionals and therapists who embrace the children in their care, even though they know by doing so – despite all the safety protocols – they are placing themselves at risk.

The madrichim and madrichot of our Darkaynu Programs for young adults with special needs who chose to enter quarantine so that their students arriving from abroad should not have to go through it alone.

Gerer Chasidim in the Israeli city of Arad who wished to protest a local issue – but did so while maintaining social distancing.

Soldiers in the midst of Corona who are still bringing refugees in the middle of the night to be treated in field hospitals.

These examples and so many more like them remind us that even with so much cynicism in the world, we must never give up on people.

The words “Lech Lecha” mean “Go to you”. Our parsha is about a journey. And for me, it is the journey to defy the infectious spread of cynicism.

A triumphant march from despair toward engagement; from a tendency to view others cynically, as Noach did, to a focus on never giving up on people, as modeled by Avraham.

When we work to help each other on our collective journey, we become a source of light to God, to ourselves and our families, and to the world around us.

The British philosopher William Blake wrote:  

“I sought my God and my God I couldn’t find;
I sought my soul and my soul eluded me;
I sought to serve my brother in his need, and I found all three; My God, my soul, and thee.”

Shabbat Shalom

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