Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Is Antoninus a True Convert?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Toldot 
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin Siegelbaum,
My wife found your book (Women at the Crossroads) and we have been enjoying reading from it at our Shabbos Table. We have a question. In Parshas Toldos, p.23, you say that Antoninus converted to Judaism. I had been aware of his friendship with Rebbi (Yehuda Hanasi) yet, I never before heard that Antoninus had converted. I asked a knowledgeable rabbi friend about this and he, too, had not heard about it beforehand. Can you please provide a source, so that we may use this knowledge in the future?Thank you.
Anthony Romano (name changed)

Dear Anthony,
I’m happy you and your wife have been enjoying reading my book at your Shabbos table. As I mentioned in Women at the Crossroads – A Woman’s Perspective on the Weekly Torah Portion,  the Meshech Chochmah explains that even the evil Esav whom Rivkah carried within her womb, contained a tremendous spark of good, which made it worthwhile for her to be his mother. This spark was the soul of Antoninus, the Roman Caesar, who converted to Judaism (Meshech Chochmah, Bereishit 25:23). Regarding your request for additional sources for Antoninus converting, I’m surprised that your rabbi friend had never heard about this. Even the name Antoninus – from the Latin meaning ‘worthy of praise’ alludes to this. Below are just a few of the many sources from Talmud, Midrash and commentaries about Antoninus the convert.

Conversion Imbibed through Mother’s Milk
The Midrash tells the story of how Antoninus converted due to the holy milk that he suckled as a baby. “What comes from the heart enters the heart.” When a baby suckles from a holy woman, the essence of her holiness enters deeply into his soul. Therefore, Hashem performed the miracle of filling our Mother, Sarah’s breasts with milk. This was not only in order to prove that Sarah was Yitzchak’s true mother, but also for the spiritual elevation of the entire world. . When Sarah’s milk overflowed and she suckled the sons of the princesses at her weaning party (Rashi, Bereishit 21:7), the children of the nations who merited to receive Sarah’s influence through her milk and later converted (Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei allusion 947).

Head of Sincere Converts
Our sages teach, “Milk can make impure, milk can make pure.” When Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi (also known as just Rebbi) was born, the evil Caesar Hadrian made a decree to prohibit circumci­sion. Nevertheless, Rebbi’s holy parents circumcised him. Soon after his birth, the suspicious Caesar summoned Rebbi and his parents to check whether their baby was circumcised. Rebbi’s mother, who was friendly with the Caesar’s wife, exchanged her baby with the prince – Antoninus – and nursed him on the way to the Caesar. Thus, the Caesar found the baby un-circumcised and let them go in peace. In this way, Rebbi and his parents managed to escape the persecution of Hadrian’s officers. Consequently, Antoninus who had absorbed with the milk of Rebbi’s mother a love for Jews and Judaism, learned Torah, circumcised himself and converted (Tosfot, Avodah Zarah 10b). Rebbi, the son of this Antoninus’ vicarious mother, served as the guide and friend of Antoninus, and was influential in Antoninus’ conversion process. The two remained close for life. The following discussion with Rebbe was instrumental in Antoninus’ conversion: Antoninus asked Rebbi whether he was entitled to partake of the feast of the Leviathan in the days of Mashiach. Rebbi answered that he was. Antoninus challenged Rebbe, quoting the Torah verse, “No uncircumcised shall partake of the Pesach lamb” (Shemot 12:48). “If I can’t eat from the Pesach sacrifice, why would I be allowed to eat from the Leviathan?” He asked. Rebbi shook his head saying, “I can permit you to eat from the Leviathan since that depends on a person’s righteousness. However, what can I do about the Pesach lamb when it explicitly states that to partake of that you need to be circumcised? Understanding the importance of circumcision, Antoninus subsequently circumcised himself, entered the covenant of Avraham and became a full-fledged Jew. Our sages say about him, “If sincere converts to Judaism enter the world-to-come, Antoninus will be at the head of them” (Yeushalmi Megillah 15a, Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 3:2).

Antoninus and Rebbi: Engaged in Philosophical Discussions
Antoninus challenged Rebbi regarding many fundamental principles of the Torah. For example, he questioned the Torah concept of punishment after death by asserting that both body and soul have a good excuse to escape punishment. The body could claim, “It is the soul that transgresses, for just as soon as it leaves me, I am as lifeless as a stone.” The soul could reply, “Sin is the body’s fault. Since I have separated from it, I hover like a bird in the air” (Sanhedrin 91a). Through a parable regarding a blind and a lame man, Rebbi explained that it is the relationship between body and soul that may become liable for punishment. When the lame man rides on the blind man, together they have the ability to sin. Likewise is the symbiotic relationship between body and soul. The Talmud and Midrash are replete with examples of philosophical discussions between the two, for example, regarding the resurrection of the dead; and whether a baby receives its soul at conception or at birth. Rebbi initially held that the yetzer hara is given to the fetus while still in gestation. Antoninus countered that in that case, the baby would rip up its mother’s womb. Subsequently, Rebbi had to concede (Sanhedrin 91a; Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 34:10).

Rebbi – The First Court Jew
Antoninus would take counsel from Rebbi in both political and personal matters. Since the encounters between a Jew and the Roman Emperor involved danger, they were compelled to use special sign language. Thus, Antoninus’ emissary brought Rebbi the question of how to better the financial condition of the state. In reply, Rebbi led the messenger into his garden, and without saying a word pulled up some of the large radishes and replaced them with young ones. Antoninus understood the suggestion. He removed the heads of his financial administration and put younger men into their position, thereby effecting positive change (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 67:6). Antoninus expressed his appreciation of Rebbi through exclusive presents such as tracts of land and sacks of gold, covered with grain, in order not to provoke the jealousy of the Romans. Rebbi refused to accept these presents until Antoninus convinced him that the time would come when Rebbi’s descendants would need the gold in order to appease the greed of Antoninus’ successors (Avodah Zarah 10a).

Antoninus’s Mother Encore
Breastfeeding is indeed a two-way relationship. Not only is the baby influenced through suckling from a holy woman. The nursing mother in return is influenced by breastfeeding a holy suckling. Thus, the Arizal explained that not only did Rebbi’s mother nurse Antoninus, but also the queen, Antoninus’ mother, nursed Rebbi. This had future significance for the eternity of her soul. The Talmud tells a story where a woman died and left a suckling baby. Since the father was very poor and couldn’t afford to pay a nursemaid, a miracle was done for him, and his two breasts were opened to become like a woman’s breasts and he nursed his son (Shabbat 53b). Behold, in the merit of nursing Rebbi, the Caesar’s wife was reincarnated into this Jewish man, to give her merit for the world-to-come (The Rama of Pa’ano, Soul Reincarnations 200).

Monday, November 21, 2016

Is Any Kind of Meditation Associated with Idol Worship?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Chayei Sarah
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I once attended a workshop with you where you incorporated a meditation. You had us close our eyes, breathe slowly and do something. I can’t remember exactly what, but it was very much like doing transcendental meditation. I was not comfortable with it. I have since moved to a more chareidi congregation. I tend to lean on the examples and teachings of the gadolim and to be fairly stringent, and I am concerned that any kind of meditation may somehow be associated with idol worship, so I stay away from it. Hope you understand.
Dina Migdal (name changed)


Dear Dina,
Thank you so much for sharing. I very much appreciate it. In the future, I will be careful not to introduce Jewish meditation unless I know beforehand that everyone is comfortable with it. By the way, I am not familiar with transcendental meditation. I became frum as a teenager and, b”H, never learned very much of what’s out there in the world. I understand now, that since Eastern meditative practices involve idol worship, many G-d fearing Jews are concerned that perhaps Jewish meditation has a semblance, G-d forbid, to these idol-worshipping practices. I agree that it is of the utmost importance to steer away from any such resemblance.

Meditation Originates in the Torah
Parashat Chayei Sarah teaches us that meditation doesn’t originate in the East. Actually, the source for meditation is in our Torah. The great role models in the Torah practiced meditation in order to feel Hashem’s presence. The Talmud teaches that the early Chassidim used to meditate for one hour both before and after prayer. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32b). The relatively recent renaissance of Jewish meditation can be accredited largely to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who contributed two important books on the topic: Meditation and the Bible (1978), and Meditation and Kabbalah (1982). Quoting a wealth of classical, medieval, Kabbalistic and Chassidic commentaries, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan demonstrated how meditation has always been an integral part of Torah. Moreover, he thoroughly researched biblical vocabulary referring to meditation and cleared up prior mistranslations. The two most common biblical words denoting meditation are: שִׂיחַ/siach and הֶגְיוֹן/hegayon. The Hebrew word הִתְבּוֹדְדוּת/hitbodedut – to seclude oneself, is consistently used by classical commentaries and Kabbalists to refer to meditation. Another closely related term, הִתְבּוֹנְנוּת/hitbonenut – contemplation, refers to an intense focus on an image- a technique that I frequently use in my Parasha Meditations (Chana Bracha Siegelbaum, Parasha-Meditations-Bereishit p. 20).

Yitzchak was Meditating in the Field
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan discovered the first reference to Jewish meditation in the Torah in this week’s parasha, where it states that “Yitzchak went out to לָשׂוּחַ/lasuach (speak or meditate) in the field” (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible p.101).
ספר בראשית פרק כד (סג) וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים:
“Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field toward evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, behold, camels were coming” (Bereishit 24:63).

An earlier source for hitbodedut – speaking with Hashem in the field- advocated so highly by Rebbe Nachman, is the Italian Torah commentator, Sforno. He explains that when “Yitzchak went out לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה/lasuach b’sadeh” – to meditate in the field- he turned away from the main road, in order to pour out his prayer before Hashem in a quiet field, where he would not be interrupted by other people (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’acov, Sforno, Bereishit 24:63). Rebbe Nachman of Breslev explains that the letter בַּ/bet as a prefix, which usually means ‘in,’ can also mean “with.” If so, then when Yitzchak went out to pray בַּשָּׂדֶה/b’sadeh, he was praying with the field! In other words, his prayer was so intense, that nature itself felt compelled to join together in prayer with Yitzchak (Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, Likutei Moharan 2:1). (This section is taken from my Parasha Meditations for Spiritual Renewal and Strengthening Communication with the Creator, Bereishit, Parashat Chayei Sarah, p. 65).

Our Holy Rabbis Practiced Meditation
In the fast-paced Western world, because we move so hurriedly, it is difficult to focus in prayer. Therefore, taking some moments to close our eyes, take a few deep breaths and meditate on Hashem’s presence can help bring more focus to our prayer and connection with Hashem.

משנה מסכת ברכות ה:א חֲסִידִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים הָיוּ שׁוֹהִים שָׁעָה אַחַת וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים, כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּכַוְּנוּ אֶת לִבָּם לַמָּקוֹם:
“The first Chassidim would meditate for one hour before praying, in order to direct their hearts in proper kavana (intention) to Hamakom (meaning the place, a reference to Hashem as the place of Creation) (Mishnah Berachot 5:1).

All through Jewish history, there have been great Rabbis practicing various meditative techniques. Rabbi Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291), wrote meditation manuals focusing on Hebrew letters and words. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) the author of the famous Tomer Devora was also involved in Jewish meditation. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught how to develop deveikus (cleaving to Hashem) through meditation. The list goes on and on. Most meditation involves closing the eyes, as we do when reciting Shema Yisrael in order to be able to really focus.

The Spiritual Gifts Sent Away from Yitzchak
Avraham, our father, was a master of Jewish Meditation. He bequeathed part of this spiritual practice to the sons of Keturah (whom he married after Sarah’s passing) and sent them off to the East:

ספר בראשית פרק כה: (ה) וַיִּתֵּן אַבְרָהָם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ לְיִצְחָק: (ו) וְלִבְנֵי הַפִּילַגְשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לְאַבְרָהָם נָתַן אַבְרָהָם מַתָּנֹת וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם מֵעַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בְּעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי קֵדְמָה אֶל אֶרֶץ קֶדֶם:
“Avraham gave all that he had unto Yitzchak. But to the sons of the concubines, whom Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts and sent them away from Yitzchak his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country” (Bereishit 25:5-6).

Rashi explains that the gifts that Avraham entrusted to Keturah’s children were a name of impurity. The commentary, Fa’aneach Raze, understands Rashi to mean that Avraham gave the children of his concubines the ability to mention the ineffable name without harming themselves, even though their body may be in a state of impurity. Since this gift was given explicitly to the children sent away from Yitzchak, it seems that this ability does not apply to Jews. Since we have greater spiritual capacity, a more perfected vessel is required to hold this spiritual light. Therefore, it may be possible, that until we have developed our vessels to the highest degree, spirituality may be more accessible to the descendants of Keturah than to the Jews descending from Yitzchak. This is in spite of, or rather, because of the fact that our spiritual capacity is so much greater.

Reclaiming Our Lost Meditational Traditions Preserved by the East
While we need to become a pure vessel to access Hashem’s true spiritual light by meditating on G-d’s Names, like the earlier Chassidim, it is also possible, to a smaller degree, to access spiritual, life giving energy through other forms of Jewish meditation. As the Torah includes all truth, any spark of value discovered in Eastern practices, originates in our own holy sources. It is understandable how such practice may have gotten lost during our prolonged exile, where, unfortunately, we have absorbed many Western, non-Jewish values without being aware of it. Indeed, our ‘instant-gratification-consumer society,’ does not leave room for becoming mindful of the vital breath, which is blown into our nostrils by none other than the Creator of the universe! Yet, mindfulness and the awareness of our breath has been preserved by the Eastern tradition. We too need to apply focused breathing – breathing the Torah into our entire being and learning Torah mindfully and meditatively in order to allow its Divine energy to flow into all the parts of our body and soul. The importance of conscious breathing is encoded in the very fiber of our holy tongue, as the Hebrew word for breath, נְשִׁמָה/neshimah shares the exact same letters as the word for soul – נְשָׁמָה/neshamah.

Providing a Backdoor for Spirituality during Exile
Perhaps Avraham sent these spiritual gifts away from Yitzchak with the intention that they would ultimately return to Yitzchak. Avraham knew that Yitzchak’s descendants would desire specifically that which was not designated for them. They would ignore their own spirituality, which includes everything true, and search in faraway places, eventually discovering that the source of all spirituality is in their own heritage. In addition, it is possible that Avraham Avinu intended to provide us with a ‘backdoor’ way to access spirituality, during our long exile, while we remain in impurity and the main entrance is locked. Throughout the millennium, the impurity of idol worship became attached to the original Jewish meditations that Avraham sent to the East. “Meditation techniques, as commonly practiced today, are adopted mainly from Eastern practices, and they carry with them many of the rites peculiar to Eastern faiths. In the East, mediation is not regarded as a mere therapeutic device. It is an integral part of religious practice (notably in Hinduism and Buddhism), and many of the ceremonies associated with it are religiously inspired,” Adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, 13th Tammuz 5739, regarding meditation). Therefore, we need a lot of caution when exploring Eastern meditation. We must not forget that we are entering the backdoor, filled with mire and mud, and we are obligated to filter and cleanse meditation from its traces of idol worship.

Jewish Meditation as Preparation for Prophecy
Nevertheless, meditation “can be a positive force in one’s spiritual growth. Meditating on G-d’s greatness and kindness, for example, brings a person to more devoted service of G-d. Thus, our forefathers, Abraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, were shepherds, finding the accompanying solitude conducive to contemplation and communion with G-d. With such a definite goal in mind, and set within proper limits, meditation can help strengthen the bond between man and his Creator” (Ibid.). B”H, when the Beit Hamikdash will be rebuilt and the front door, with “all” that Avraham entrusted to Yitzchak will re-open, Jewish meditation will rise to an even higher dimension, becoming a vital preparation for the return of prophecy, may it be soon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Do Women Need to Serve Their Husbands?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parshat Vayera

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’m struggling with the issue of “Women serving their husbands” – It is so difficult. Do you have any illumination that can help me internalize this? My Israeli Moroccan husband seems to need it at such a deep level. Yet, I believe it is also MY task to become closer to Hashem. I’m not looking for sources – there are too many of them! Just some heart-to-heart advice. What if I’m wrong? And all the work and the struggling I go through in order to serve him wasn’t really what I needed to in order to be closer to Hashem and rectify my soul????? Help!!!
Ezer K’negedo (name changed)

Dear Ezer K’negedo,
I can definitely identify with you. It is difficult to put our own aspirations to the side in order to continually serve our husbands, especially if they need it so much. That can naturally cause resistance. However, we are all created to serve Hashem, even though it is not necessarily easy. We serve Hashem by keeping his mitzvot. For a woman, that entails finding the perfect balance between serving her husband, while also developing her personal talents with which she can serve Hashem in her own special way.

Avraham was Inferior to Sarah in Prophecy
Although you didn’t ask for sources, a look at our biblical role models, enables us to find answers for our current dilemmas. Sarah, our mother, achieved the perfect balance between serving Avraham, her husband, and maintaining an independent sphere of her own spirituality, prophetic insight and Torah teaching to women. She was on such a high spiritual level that Hashem told Avraham to listen to her, regarding the most important matters vital for the formation of the Jewish nation.

ספר בראשית פרק כא פסוק יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע:
“Let it not be bad in your eyes regarding the youth and your maidservant. Everything that Sarah says to you listen to her voice, for in Yitzchak your seed will be called” (Bereishit 21:12).

You may notice that the word קֹלָהּ/kolah – her voice, is extra. It could have simply stated, “Listen to her” rather than “listen to her voice.” From this, the Talmud learns, “She was able to see with the Divine spirit as it states, ‘Everything that Sarah tells you listen to her voice’” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a). Rashi goes even further and explains, “We may infer that Avraham was inferior to Sarah in respect of prophecy.” From the fact that Hashem told Avraham to listen to the voice of Sarah’s Divine spirit, we learn, that a Jewish wife is not subordinate to her husband. Often times, the wife has a clearer understanding of what is best for the family. Serving her husband does not only pertain to preparing his meals, and washing his clothes. It includes challenging him, helping to set him straight and strengthening his emunah.

Guiding our Family by Developing Women’s Extra Intuition
How is it possible that Avraham’s prophesy is inferior to Sarah’s, when the Torah repeatedly mentions how Hashem speaks to Avraham? There is not even a single instance in Scripture where Hashem addresses Sarah directly. Perhaps the difference in Avraham and Sarah’s prophecy exemplifies the difference between men’s and women’s spirituality and relationship with G-d. Although Hashem spoke to Avraham, whereas Sarah was not spoken to directly, the level of her prophecy was a higher quality. It is possible that her kind of prophecy was an inner connection – a direct relationship and intuition as in, “From my flesh I see G-d” (Iyov 19:26). Sarah didn’t need to be addressed externally, since she was completely in tune with G-d’s will from within, to the extent that all of Avraham’s prophesy became bleak in comparison. Especially today, when we no longer experience direct prophecy, we women have a responsibility to develop our binah yeterah – women’s extra intuition – to help guide our loved ones in how to serve Hashem best.

Shaping Your Husband’s Will
It is known that many great men, from Avraham, our father, to Rabbi Akiva, only achieved their importance due to the guidance of their wives. Through serving your husband, you have the opportunity to shape him and bring him to greatness. The Hebrew word עוֹשָׁה/osah – can mean either ‘does’ or ‘shapes.’ Thus the Talmudic saying: “Who is a kosher wife? The one who does her husband’s will” has the following alternative reading: “A kosher wife is she who shapes the will of her husband.” Use your extra intuition to discern whether your husband’s special need to be served is coming from a true place. If so, it is an even greater chesed, for you to support him and fulfill his needs. You can build up your husband’s self-confidence, and empower him to face the world by serving him and showing him respect. Alternatively, you may recognize that it would serve your husband better, if you gradually, subtly and lovingly teach him to be less needy of your subservience. Simultaneously, you can gently direct him to learn more Torah, pray in a minyan, and associate with good people. When your husband feels assured of your love and devotion, he will, with Hashem’s help, reciprocate and offer to help, allowing you to pursue your personal calling as well.

Her Own Independent Relationship with G-d
Scripture often mentions Sarah as “Avraham’s wife.” Yet, it is interesting to note, that in the matter of רוּח הָקוֹדֶשׁ/Ruach Hakodesh – Divine spirit, Sarah is mentioned without the title, “Avraham’s wife.” For example, she is not called “wife of Avraham” at pivotal moments: when mentioned as Yiskah – denoting prophecy, when Avraham listened to Sarah and married Hagar, when Sarah told Avraham to expel Yishmael and Hagar, and when Hashem told Avraham to listen to Sarah (Bereishit 11:29, 16:2, 21:9, 21:12). Maharal explains that Sarah was a prophetess in her own right even before she became the wife of Avraham, while she was known simply as the “daughter of Haran.” Avraham and Sarah were two individual seekers of G-d in a world of idolaters. Sarah had her own unique relationship with G-d, independent of Avraham’s connection to the Almighty and they met as equal bearers of spiritual power. Their union caused a spiritual monotheistic revolution throughout the entire world, reaching countless generations.

Balancing Wifehood with Her Independent Spiritual Path
Sarah had two parallel missions: She was Avraham’s wife, serving him and supporting him, as well as the prophetess who had her own spiritual independence and the ability to see with Divine Spirit. At her death, she was not given the title, “wife of Avraham,” since she possessed perfection of her own and her merit stands alone. Sarah, being the first Jewess, and thus our role model, teaches us that every Jewish woman must find the right balance as she synthesizes the role of wifehood with developing her own spiritual path. The Jewish woman has her independent spiritual power and superiority that she may not neglect, even for the sake of serving her husband and attending to all of his needs. I bless you with the confidence to find fulfillment in serving Hashem in the highest way. 


May you succeed in creating the perfect balance in your life between serving your husband while developing and expressing your talents in the world!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why is only Sarah Judged for Laughing?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Lech Lecha  
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
It really bothers me that the Torah seems prejudiced against woman. Both Avraham and Sarah laughed when they were told that Sarah was going to bear a son for Avraham. However, only Sarah is reprimanded for laughing. Her laughter is interpreted as an expression of her lack of emunah, but no one criticizes Avraham for laughing. Why should there be a difference between Avraham’s and Sarah’s laughter? And why was only Sarah reprimanded for laughing, whereas Avraham’s laughter is accepted?
Surah Avrahamson (name changed)

Dear Surah,

You are asking a very good question, which has bothered me as well. For indeed it does seem unfair that only Sarah is judged harshly for her laughter when Avraham laughed no less. To deal with your question, we need to compare the exact language describing both laugthers and to understand the nature of laughter. Laughter is triggered by a surprise element of something completely unexpected. It can also be a release of tension and an expression of going beyond all boundaries and limits. In this way, laughter can indicate a way of relating to G-d’s unlimited power and ability to run the world.

Contrasting Laughers
It states at the end of Parashat Lech Lecha that Avraham laughed when Hashem promised him a son through Sarah:
ספר בראשית פרק יז פסוק יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד:
“Avraham fell on his face and laughed, as he said in his heart, can a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?” (Bereishit 17:17).

Although the same Hebrew root צחק/tzchok is used when describing Avraham and Sarah’s laughter, the Aramaic translation, Unkelos translates Avraham’s laughter “chadei” (to rejoice) but Sarah’s laughter “chayechet” (to mock). How can the same word be used in two completely different ways? Rashi, based on Unkelos’ translation, seems to only amplify our question: “Avraham had faith and rejoiced, whereas, Sarah had no faith and mocked. That is why G-d was angry with Sarah, but was not angry with Avraham. SHALL A CHILD BE BORN TO ONE WHO IS A HUNDRED YEARS OLD –Some questions express astonishment, and do not imply a doubt but rather affirm the certainty that the circumstance referred to has happened or will happen… This question affirms the certainty that it is possible for G-d to cause Avraham at the age of a hundred to beget a son and this in effect is what he said to himself: “Would a child be born to any other man who is one hundred years old? What a favor the Holy One is doing to me!” (Rashi, Bereishit 17:17). How can Rashi be so sure that Avraham’s laughter was an expression of his emunah, whereas Sarah’s laughter was an expression of disbelief?

Laughter of Belief after Returning to her Youth
In order to answer this question, we need to compare the Torah verses describing Avraham and Sarah’s laughter:

ספר בראשית פרק יח פסוק יב וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן:
“Sarah laughed within herself saying; after I am faded shall I have pleasure? My lord being old also?” (Bereishit 18:12).

Ramban explains that “laughing within oneself” is not an expression denoting happiness. Therefore, Sarah’s laughter is considered mocking, since she laughed בְּקִרְבָּהּ/b’kirbah –within herself. Moreover, Avraham laughed at the time of the good tidings, whereas Sarah laughed only after experiencing that her youth had returned. This can be understood from the following alternative translation of the abovementioned verse: “After I was worn out I experienced youth.” Her laughter was not a laughter of disbelief, when she got her period back. She did indeed believed in the promise that she would bear a child. However, she did not believe in the promise immediately when she was told, but only after she experienced a change in her own body. Avraham, however, believed without experiencing any change in his body. Therefore, Hashem was only strict regarding her laughter (Ohr Hachaim, Bereishit 18:13).

Contrasting Personal and General, Past and Future Language
Yet, we need to go deeper into comparing the language of the two Torah verses in order to understand the textual basis for interpreting Avraham’s laughter as an expression of happiness, and Sarah’s laughter as an expression of disbelief. Avraham spoke in a general language stating how unusual it would be if a hundred-year-old man had a child. He didn’t put himself in the center. Sarah, however, began by describing her own situation. From this difference, there is a hint to the different quality of their laughter. Avraham laughed at the absurdity that something should change from the usual way of the world. Sarah laughed in disbelief that the nature of her own body would actually be altered. We also find a support for this view in the different tense of their language. Avraham spoke in the future form, indicating that the future can deviate from what has been until now. Sarah spoke in the past tense, emphasizing that the way it was is the way it will be. She was unwilling to accept drastic changes from the past. (This textual analysis is based on what I heard from Rav Daniel Kohen in the name of Rav Mattis Weinberg).

Laughing through the Happiness of Faith
I would like to clarify that not all commentators criticize Sarah for laughing. Kli Yakar, for example, ascribes praise to Sarah for only laughing in her thought, and never daring to bring this laughter to her lips. Malbim goes even further in his praise for Sarah, explaining that Sarah laughed out of great happiness because she had already heard from Avraham that Hashem had promised that she would give birth to a son. She, moreover, had changed her name to Sarah rather than Sarai for this very purpose. Thus, she surely believed in Hashem’s promise. However, since she didn’t have her period anymore, she knew that she couldn’t have children unless a great miracle was performed for her, creating her anew. This kind of miracle may possibly take away from a person’s reward. Yet, when Sarah received her period back, she was happy to believe that she would bear a son without diminishing her reward (Malbim, Bereishit 18:12). Later, after Sarah is holding Yitzchak in her bosom, she surely laughs out of happiness and exclaims, “G-d has made laughter for me, whoever will hear will laugh with me” (Bereishit 21:6). Sarah exclaimed, “the main laughter was for the miracle that G-d performed for me, to the extent that everyone who will hear will not laugh for the miracle done for Avraham, but only for the miracle done for me (Malbim Bereishit 21:5)

Complete Rectified Laughter
There are different opinions as to whether Sarah’s first laughter included an element of disbelief in G-d’s power to completely change reality. Yet, her second laughter, after having given birth, is surely completely rectified laughter expressing incredible joy for the amazing miracle she experienced. Sefat Emet explains that when “Sarah denied that she laughed because she feared” (Bereishit 18:15), she immediately repented and rectified her laughter. Through her teshuvah, it may be considered as if she never laughed out of disbelief. However, only teshuvah from love has the power to revert the past sins and turn them into merits. At that point, Sarah had only repented out of fear “because she feared.” Therefore, Avraham insisted “But you did laugh” (Ibid.), meaning, you have not yet rectified your laughter completely. To do so, you need to repent out of love. Later, after Yitzchak’s birth, Sarah is able to rectify her laughter completely out of love when she exclaims, “G-d has made laughter for me” (Bereishit 21:6). Now, she was able to redeem her laughter from any traces of disbelief and transform it into the highest kind of laughter, totally overflowing with emunah and Simcha (happiness). 
May we soon reach the level of Sarah when “our mouths will be filled with laughter!” (Tehillim 126:2).

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Who Was Noach’s Wife?

Ask the Rebbetzin: Parashat Noach
Dear Rebbetzin,
The Torah tells us about the righteousness of Noach, who survived the flood, but what about his wife? Wouldn’t she have had to be a woman with extraordinary emunah, patience, and love for her husband, in order to go along with a task that was preposterous, to say the least? Although Noach was the head of the family, how would he have survived without the support of his wife? Therefore, I wonder why the Torah doesn’t tell us anything about Noach’s wife? She doesn’t even have a name.
Nami Nochman (Name changed)


Dear Nami,
You are asking an excellent question. Many righteous women are rather hidden in the Torah. This is because women represent the internal realm, as I explained concerning the creation of Chava. We need to go deeper into the Midrash and commentaries in order to glean information about many righteous women, including Noach’s wife. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to look into the sources and share what I found.

Na’amah –Noach’s Hidden Wife
The way of the Torah is to write briefly about people who have little significance, and go into length describing righteous individuals who shaped history. In this vein, the section dealing with the ten generations from Adam to Noach writes briefly that “So and so begat so and so;” but when Scripture comes to Noach, descended from Shes, the third son of Adam it dwells on him at length. Likewise, it reports the ten generations from Noach to Avraham in brief; but when it reaches Avraham, it deals with him fully. There is one exception to this general rule in the section describing Lemech, the descendant of Cain, where it mentions not only his two wives, and sons, but moreover his daughter:

ספר בראשית פרק ד (כב) וְצִלָּה גַם הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל חֹרֵשׁ נְחשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל קַיִן נַעֲמָה:

“Tzilah also gave birth to Tuval Cain, the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron; but the sister of Tubal-Cain was Na’amah” (Bereishit 4:22).

If all the descendants of Cain perished in the flood why do we need to know their names?
Unless, we say that Na’amah was Noach’s wife there is no reason for Scripture to mention her name. Thus Rashi, based on the Midrash, states that Na’amah was the wife of Noach. This explains why the descendants of Cain, and in particular, Lemech, are described at length. The identification of Na’amah, a descendant of Cain, as the wife of Noach, is like a second Chava – the mother of all life. Therefore, we, her descendants must learn whom she was and why she deserved to be saved from the curse of the flood. The question is why her name is not mentioned directly in Parashat Noach? Perhaps, she remains anonymous without identity because the reason she was saved from the flood was solely that she was “a part of the body” of Noach?

Na’amah Whose Deeds were Pleasing
In the Torah, women are responsible for their own actions. Just having a righteous husband is not enough to save them. Chava was held responsible for eating from the Tree. Lot’s wife perished although Lot was saved. Likewise, Na’amah had to have her own merit in order to be saved from the flood. Her name indicates that she deserved to survive. The Midrash explains that Noach’s wife indeed was a righteous woman who deserved to be saved in her own right:


מדרש רבה בראשית - פרשה כג פסקה ג …קין הרג ולא היה לו במה להרוג אבל זה לוטש כל חורש נחושת וברזל ואחות תובל קין נעמה א"ר אבא בר כהנא נעמה אשתו של נח היתה למה היו קורין אותה נעמה שהיו מעשיה נעימים...

“Cain killed, but he didn’t have what to kill with. Thus this one [Tubal Cain] was the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron. But the sister of Tuval Cain was Na’amah.” Rabbi Abba bar Kahanah said: Na’amah was the wife of Noach, and why was she called Na’amah (pleasant one)? Since her deeds were pleasing…” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 23:3).

According to Ramban, Na’amah is mentioned because she was famous for being a tzaddeket (righteous woman) in those generations. Certainly much emunah, courage and endurance was needed in order to partner with Noach in surviving the flood.

Na’amah – Cain’s Remnant in the World
Although all the rest of Cain’s descendants perished in the flood, Cain had a continuation in the world through Na’amah., Noach’s wife is mentioned five times in the flood story (Bereishit 6:18, 7:7, 7:13, 8:16, 8:18) without revealing her name, perhaps because the mention of her family background would not be complimentary. Thus, she remains without personal identity in the story of Noach. Yet, the fact that Na’amah was saved makes clear that not all the descendants of Cain were without hope of redemption. For this reason Cain received Divine Revelation. “From that which was good in Cain the world was established, through this woman, and he had the privilege of joining in the survival of the world with the seed of Seth, who were the purpose of creation” (Emek Davar, Bereishit 4:32); (Yona Bar Maoz). From Na’amah, we learn the power of teshuvah. It was only through Cain’s teshuvah (Tzror HaMor, Devarim 30:11), that he merited to have Na’amah – the mother of the entire future world descending from him (Pri Tzaddik, Shabbat Teshuvah 8).

Na’amah – Prompting Noach to Resist His Evil Generation
Although she was the sister of the evil Tubal Cain, who produced weapons for murder, Na’amah didn’t learn from him, but remained Na’amah – whose deeds were pleasant. Having the backbone to remain righteous among the wicked who would ultimately be obliterated, was a virtue that later proved vital to become part of the only righteous family in the entire generation. “Noach was a perfectly righteous man in his generation” (Bereishit 6:9).There is an opinion that Noach was even greater than Avraham, because his generation was more wicked, and it is a great challenge to withstand such evil influence. This may be compared to a bottle of perfume placed between graves. How much sweeter would its fragrance be had it not been placed there (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 30:9). It is possible that Noach’s greatness was in the merit of his wife, who had learned to withstand the evil influence of her brother. Perhaps it was Na’amah that taught her husband how to remain strong and resist the influence of his evil environment.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why is Eve Created from Adam?

Ask the Rebbetzin: Parashat Bereishit

Dear Rebbetzin,
I have always wondered why Chava was created from Adam’s rib, rather than Adam being created from Chava’s rib. Why is woman created from man and not vice versa? Doesn’t this seem to indicate that women are lower and secondary to men? I hope you can shed some light on this topic,

Thank you very much,
Chava Adams (name changed)


Dear Chava,
I totally understand and identify with your concern that the creation story may be chauvinistic, seemingly making Chava and all subsequent women who were created from her into subordinate beings fashioned from a mere rib of man, without having their own independent existence.

Searching for the Other Half
It is interesting to note that whereas all the animals were created male and female independently, man and woman were originally one integrated being with two faces, as the Talmud explains based on Bereishit 1:27: “So G-d created the man in His own image, in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them.” From this verse, we learn that the original Adam written in singular was one integrated being including his female aspect that later became separated into two beings, Adam and Chava as indicated from the change into plural (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 18a). Unlike the animals, for whom mating takes place with whoever is around, Hashem designated a particulate soulmate for every human being. We learn this from the fact that man and woman were originally part of one interconnected being. Whereas, there is no particular cow dedicated for a particular ox, humans are always searching for their other half (Ohr Hachaim, Bereishit).

The Mistranslated Rib
Adam and Chava were originally created together sharing one soul. It follows logically that the emergence of Chava from one joint double-sexed being was less a creation than a separation. Such a separation could hardly take place from a rib, but rather by separating the feminine side from the masculine, so that two independent beings would emerge. According to Rashi, the word צלע/tzela usually translated rib, actually means side. As in (Shemot 26:26) “The side of the tabernacle.” The word צלה/tzela appears 40 times in the Tanach, where it refers to the side of a building, an altar or ark (Shemot 25:12; 26:20, 26; I Kings 6:34), a side-chamber (I Kings 6:8; Yechezkiel 41:6), or a branch of a mountain (II Shemuel 16:13). It was translated as “rib” only in the Adam and Chava context:
ספר בראשית פרק ב (כא-כב): וַיַּפֵּל הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן וַיִּקַּח אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר תַּחְתֶּנָּה: (כב) וַיִּבֶן הָשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַצֵּלָע אֲשֶׁר לָקַח מִן הָאָדָם לְאִשָּׁה וַיְבִאֶהָ אֶל הָאָדָם:
“The Eternal G-d caused man to fall into a deep state of unconsciousness, and he slept. Then He took one of his [sides or ribs, ‘tzela’] and closed up the place where it had been with flesh. And the Eternal G-d built the tzela that he had taken from the man into a woman, and He brought her to the man” (Bereishit 2:21-22).

From the Side of Equality

מדרש רבה בראשית - פרשה ח פסקה א (א) ...בשעה שברא הקב"ה את אדם הראשון דיו פרצופים בראו ונסרו ועשאו גביים גב לכאן וגב לכאן איתיבון ליה והכתיב ויקח אחת מצלעותיו אמר להון מתרין סטרוהי היך מה דאת אמר (שמות כו) ולצלע המשכן דמתרגמינן ולסטר משכנא.
…When G-d created Adam, he created him androgynous, with two faces. Then they were split and two backs were made; a back for the male and a back for the female. They countered: “And he took one of his ribs (tzal’ot)”! He answered: [Tzal’ot does not mean ribs; rather it means] sides. As it says, “And to the side (tzela) of the Mishkan…” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 8:1).

Thus Chava was originally one side of the entire human; Hashem simply cut her side off and made them two separate persons. Abarbanel explains that Chava was not created from Adam’s foot so that he would not consider her a lowly maidservant, nor from his head so that she would lord over him. Rather, she was created from his side so that she would be equal to him. Woman was created to be “beside” man, not beneath or above him.

Additional Intuition
When we examine the well-known Midrash that women have more binah (intuition) than men do, it actually wouldn’t make sense if woman was created from man’s rib.

מדרש רבה בראשית פרשה יח פסקה א (א) ויבן ה' אלהים את הצלע ר”א בשם רבי יוסי בן זמרא אמר ניתן בה בינה יותר מן האיש:
“G-d built the side (rib) Rabbi Eliezer in the name of Rabi Yossi son of Zimra said, “She was given more intuition (בינה) than man…” (Midrash Bereishit Rabba 18:1).

Had woman been created from man’s rib, then it would have been necessary to build the complete human being from the small rib, and there would be no need to explain “G-d built the rib” to mean anything other than simple building. However, according to the midrash that man originally was created with two faces there is no need for building, it would have been enough to close the flesh. Therefore the midrash needs to explain the word “built” to refer to the extra binah with which women are endowed.

The Peak of Creation
Still, even if G-d created woman from man’s side rather than from his rib, why wasn’t man created from woman’s side? Depending on how you look at it, being created from man doesn’t necessarily make woman inferior. True, if woman emanates from man, it makes man feel more as a protector and defender of the women in his life, and woman naturally desires to return to become part of man and thus help him reach his ultimate perfection. Yet, I heard the following joke: After having created Adam, Hashem looked at him and told Himself, “I can do better than this!” Everything in creation progresses from inanimate to vegetative, to animate and then finally to human. Thus, in a way, we may say that the woman – who was created last – represents the most refined peak of creation.

Simple Separation
Women are associated with the home (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 2a). The Hebrew word for home – בָּיִת/bayit also means the inside i.e. inner. Thus, we may deduct that man and masculinity represent the exterior reality while woman and femininity represent the inner realm. We usually name a thing after its external appearance and function, for example, an item may be defined as a curtain, rather than a woven cotton fabric. Therefore, when the Torah originally used the term ‘Adam’ to refer to the two-faced androgynous being it was a general term that included both Adam and Chava. The term Adam was used since it represented its external aspect. Thus, woman was not created from man any more than man was created from woman; they were simply separated from one another. Maor V’Shemesh explains that man and woman originally were one being with two directions. The male part would raise up the lower and influence the highest worlds, whereas the female counterpart would receive all the good influences from above to below. Then they became divided.

May we all once again become unified, by finding our soulmates and truly return to become one!


Please send your Ask the Rebbetzin Questions to director@berotbatayin.org

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Blessings of Blessing

Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart
Parashat V’Zot Ha’Bracha
Blessings Create Positive Reality
“It’s my birthday today so I would love to give you a bracha (blessing) May you discover your true place in Judaism, find your soulmate, express your potential in the service of Hashem and feel fulfillment in life!” Blessings like these are not only on my lips time and again, but Torah observant people the world over, also frequently express such blessings at various occasions. Hebrew birthdays are prime times for blessings, when the energy that created us is in its element, empowering us with spiritual alignment. Other elevating junctures, such as the bride on her wedding-day and the Sandak who has held the newborn at his brit are also occasions for blessings. We believe that words have power, as reflected in the classical incantation of the magician, אַבְּרָא כְּאַדַבְּרָה/Abra K’adabra – “I will create as I speak!” It was through speech that Hashem created the world as it states, “G-d said let there be light, and there was light” (Bereishit 1:3). Words, indeed, create reality, so we must use them well, and by all means avoid negative speech. Even fine nuances of speech can make a positive difference. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t put antibiotic cream on your wound, it will take a lot longer to heal,” try turning your speech around for the good, in the following way: “If you put antibiotic cream on your wound, it will heal a lot faster.” This way you can attach a blessing to your advice, rather than the opposite. The more we express optimism, hope, gratitude, and pleasure, the more we bring about a flow of goodness to ourselves and to the world. It takes a bit of conscious practice to develop greater awareness and fine-tune the constant stream of words emanating from our eager lips, but it is surely worth the effort.

The Torah Culminates in Blessing
It is not by chance that the very last parasha in the Torah is called וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה /V’Zot Ha’Bracha –This is the blessing, for “all is well that ends well!” We all like to squeeze out the last drops of goodness left in the honey jar, we enjoy the precious moment with our children before they go to sleep, and we relish in the last piece of chocolate or in picking the very last grapes from the vine. The end is always precious and people are especially open to read the conclusion of a book, hear the last words of their Rabbi’s lecture, and listen intently to family members before they go on a journey or pass on. Therefore, Moshe blessed the Israelites on the day of his demise, as Rashi comments, “if not now when?”

“He Who Blesses Will Become Blessed”
ספר דברים פרק לג (א) וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ משֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ:
“This is the blessing that Moshe – the man of G-d – blessed Israel before his death” (Devarim 33:1).

Ohr Hachayim points out that it was specifically when blessing the people that Moshe became elevated to merit the great title: “Man of G-d.” Therefore, the verse starts with “and this” through this ability to bless the Israelites, Moshe reached his highest potential as a man of G-d. It is an all-inclusive principle that “he who blesses will become blessed” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 38b). The art of bestowing blessings is to become divinely inspired to give exactly the blessing each person needs. Hashem rewards our desire to generate goodness, by allowing us to become a channel for His blessings.

Holding the Key of Blessing
Although all blessings emanate from G-d, Hashem desires the blessings of people, and thus He commanded us, “You shall bless Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 8:10). Blessings have everlasting effects. This is why the Torah begins with the letter ב/beit (the first letter of the word ‘bracha’) describing the creation of the world, as a blessing that is established forever. Hashem blessed Adam and Noach but to Avraham – the Father of our Faith – He handed over the power to bless, saying, “It shall be a blessing” (Bereishit 12:2). With these words, Hashem told him, “You are the source of blessing, you have the ability to bless whoever you desire. From Avraham and on, the power of blessing was handed over to the tzaddikim. Thus, Yitzchak blessed Ya’acov before his death, and Ya’acov blessed his children on his deathbed as it states, “וְזֹאת /V’Zot – and this is what their father spoke and blessed them” (Bereishit 49:28). Moshe Rabbeinu, likewise, blessed the tribes before his passing, and began his blessing with the word וְזֹאת /V’Zot – “and this,” as he continued where Ya’acov ended (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Devarim 33:1).

Actualizing the Blessing by Believing in its Power
We learn from Chana – the Mother of our Prayer – that when we receive a bracha it is important to believe in the power of the blessing, in order that the blessing will come true. After Eli, the high priest blessed her saying: “Go in peace, and may the G-d of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him,” Chana was no longer depressed, and was immediately able to eat again (I Shemuel 1:17-17-18). This teaches us that she trusted that Eli’s blessing would be fulfilled. Her faith and positive attitude attracted the baby of her dreams, and soon afterwards, she conceived. I certainly believe in the importance of receiving a bracha from a holy tzaddik, as the prayer on our behalf by someone close to Hashem is very powerful. Yet on the other hand, a blessing from anyone, especially someone who loves you, may be no less potent, as the Talmud states:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ז/א שלא תהא ברכת הדיוט קלה בעיניך:
“Do not take a blessing from a commoner lightly” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a).

Becoming a Channel for Hashem’s Perpetual Blessing
Every blessing – no matter from whom – is packed with potential, as long as we take it seriously and believe in its power. By responding “Amen” to a blessing, we unpack its goodness and actualize its blessed potential. Let us, therefore, take advantage of each occasion to bless each other and to answer amen at every opportunity! Let us hold on to the key of blessing that we inherited from Avraham Avinu (our father) and apply it to refine our speech, so that constant blessings become second nature in our daily interactions! I bless us all, that we may merit to become divinely inspired and be a channel for Hashem’s perpetual blessing!