Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Our Actions Today Empower the Future

B'erot Trip to the Ma'arat HaMachpala, buriel place of Sarah Imenu
I have always been amazed when discovering in the Torah how our actions have such powerful effect on people and things that happens many generations later. Sarah our Mother not only rectified Chava’s relationship with the Serpent, she ensured the purity of the Jewish women in the Egyptian exile, and brought about our redemption. We too can walk in the path of Sarah and link ourselves to her redemptive energy!

Haftorah Va’era
28:22- 29:21 

Sarah’s Merit Empowered the Jewish Women in Egypt to Withstand Pharaoh the Serpent
“…Thus says Hashem G-d; behold I am against you, Pharaoh King of Egypt, the great serpent that crouches in the midst of his streams, who has said, My River is my own, and I have made it for myself” (Yechezkiel 29:3).

According to the Kabbalah, we learn from this verse, that Pharaoh is the incarnation of the Primordial Serpent (Ariza”l, Beshalach 14). It was Sarah, our Mother, who empowered the women in Egypt to stand up against this Pharaoh many generations later. In her merit, the Jewish women were able to guard themselves from being defiled by the Egyptians, throughout the entire two hundred and ten years of the Egyptian exile. In the Eishet Chail we sing, “Her husband’s heart trusted in her” (Mishlei 31:11). This verse applies to Sarah (Midrash Tanchuma, Chayei Sarah 4). Avraham not only trusted her, as they were going down to Egypt, when he told her, “Please say that you are my sister.” He, moreover, trusted in her righteousness, and understood that through her merit, she would be able to withstand the impurity of Pharaoh and enact great rectifications. Avraham foresaw that Sarah’s greatness would have repercussions for her descendants, who in the future would be exiled in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule.

Extracting the Sparks of Holiness Stuck in the Abyss of Egypt
When Sarah was taken captive by Pharaoh and brought into his castle of impurity, she made a holy path within the spiritual impurity that was pervading his place. Unlike Chava, the first woman, who succumbed to the great Serpent and was injected with spiritual pollution, Sarah succeeded to avoid becoming defiled by Pharaoh – the great Serpent. She not only rectified Chava’s sin, but, moreover, enabled her descendants – the Jewish women – during the Egyptian exile, to guard their purity from Egyptian penetration. Avraham trusted so strongly in Sarah’s merit that “…he lacked no booty” (Mishlei 31:11), for she was able to extract the holy sparks stuck in Pharaoh’s palace. This is why the following verse of the Eishet Chail reads, “She bestowed him good and not bad…” (Ibid. 31:12). Contrary to the scheme of the Serpent, who planned to use Sarah as a medium to trap Avraham with his evil powers, the same way that he used Chava to bring Adam down; the exact opposite happened. Through Sarah, sparks of holiness from the abyss of Egypt, were drawn to Avraham. For this reason it states “To Avraham he did good for her [Sarah’s] sake…” (Bereishit 12:16).

Sarah, Our Mother Paved the Way for Israel’s Redemption
Just as Sarah’s holiness caused all the goodness buried within Egypt to be released for Avraham, likewise, during the Egyptian exile, Israel was able to empty Egypt of the remaining sparks embedded there (Shemot 12:36), (Shem MiShemuel, Chayei Sarah). There are numerous parallels between Sarah’s experience in Egypt and Israel’s experience during the redemption from Egypt. In the merit of Sarah’s modesty, and great righteousness, she had a host of angels at her fingertips. Each time Pharaoh tried to touch her, she commanded the angels to hit him with harsh plagues (Rashi, Bereishit 12:17). These plagues, that Sarah enacted, brought about the plagues that Hashem brought upon Pharaoh and his people six generation later. Avraham trusted that Sarah had to be taken captive by Pharaoh in order to pave the way for the future redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt. Sarah propelled the accumulative force of righteous women in every generation that engender the redemption process. May we merit tapping into her redemptive energy and bringing about the final redemption!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On the Verge of Redemption

This Haftorah is about the ups and downs of the Jewish people on the verge of redemption. Sometimes when we feel most disconnected, we find solace in the voice of Hashem within us calling us back. In my experience, no matter what, we women retain our inner fire of desire for holiness which eventually will bear fruits!

Haftorat Shemot
Yesha’yahu 27:6- 28: 13, 29:22-23
From the Roots of Ya’acov to the Blossoms of Israel
This haftorah vacillates between harsh rebuke and the hope of redemption. It opens up on a promising note: “Those who are coming will strike roots as Ya’acov and will blossom and bud as Yisrael” (Yesha’yahu 27:6). When the Jewish people began settling the Land of Israel, we were a weak survivor of anti-Semitism. Like Ya’acov, which means heel, all we that was left of us was our roots under the ground. Yet, during the process of redemption, we unfold the potential of Ya’acov to become strengthened like Yisrael – (ישראל - לי ראש – I have a head) developing ourselves and the Holy Land to bud and blossom. However, it is not enough to remove Israel from the exile, we, furthermore, need to remove the exile from Israel. We are still in the process of removing what remains of the Western culture: worship of the material and the body of youth. Like the touristy image of the sunbathed beauty at Tel Aviv’s beaches, “…the Asherim and sun images shall not remain standing” (ibid 9). The images of immodest women pasted on billboards and bus-stops will not remain in the Messianic Jerusalem.

The Connection between the Haftorah and the Torah Readin
This week's haftorah parallels the week's Torah reading on many levels.In Parashat Shemot the people of Israel are enslaved and suffering under the hands of the Egyptians, until Moshe leads them into spiritual freedom. Similarly, in the haftorah, the people in the Kingdom of Israel suffered greatly, because of their own lack of faith in G-d, and the corruption and greed of their leaders. Still, Yeshaya’ahu brings us a message of hope and redemption: “Hashem shall beat out His harvest from the strongly flowing river as far as the brook of Egypt and you shall be gathered one by one, O children of Israel” (Ibid. 12). These words remind us of the message of Redemption that G d spoke to Moses at the burning bush: “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and large land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey (Shemot 3:8).

The Sound of the Shofar
“It shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those dispersed in the land of Egypt shall come and they shall prostrate themselves before Hashem in the holy mount in Jerusalem” (Yesha’yahu 27:13).

According to the Ramchal, in his commentary on the Prophets, the great Shofar is binah (the Kabbalistic aspect of the feminine Divine Understanding) which will arouse the mercy of the archetypal mother and father to gather the lost and dispersed. According to strict judgment, they would not be worthy to enter into holiness, except through mercy aroused from this Great Shofar. What is the difference between the lost and the dispersed? Those who were lost were completely subjugated to the other side (the negative) whereas, those who are dispersed are not dominated by the other side to the same extent. Perhaps the dispersed are the Ba’alei Teshuva (Returnees to Judaism) that return to the Torah of Jerusalem, and the lost ones are those originally Jewish souls, who due to centuries of assimilation, such as through the Spanish Inquisition, now return to the Jewish fold through conversion. I believe that this Great Shofar has already begun to bring forth its metaphysical magnetic sound, awakening the Jewish souls from the four corners of the earth to return home. Both the dispersed and the lost will “come to prostrate themselves before Hashem in the holy mount,” which according to Ramchal is the nukba – feminine – where these no longer lost souls come to subjugate themselves to holiness and engender their complete tikun – rectification.

The Life-giving Power of Tzedakah (Charity)
“When its branches dry out, they shall be broken off; women shall come and ignite it…” (Yesha’yahu 27:12). This verse is quoted by the Talmud, to teach us not to receive charity from gentiles. “Ifra Hormiz, the mother of King Shapur sent four hundred dinarim to R. Ami, but he would not accept them. She then sent them to Raba, and he accepted them, in order not to offend the Government. When R. Ami heard, he was indignant and said: Does he not hold by the verse, When the branches are withered they shall be broken off, the women shall come and set them on fire?” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 10b) The reason why Rabbi Ami did not want to accept charity from the gentile mother of King Shapur was in order not to give them merit which would allow their kingdom to continue longer, but rather to have their kingdom dry out and be broken off, to give Israel respite. This teaches us about the power of tzedakah. If the charity of King Shapur’s mother would keep the wicked Persian Kingdom from withering away, how much more so does giving tzedakah by a Jewish person empower him or her to merit life, fruitfulness and personal redemption.

Women Reignite the Withered Branch of Israel
On this verse about the dry branches which the women come to ignite, I will venture to share my personal commentary. We, Jews, go through ups and downs in our connection with Hashem. Sometimes we feel like a dried out branch and sometimes almost like one broken off and completely disconnected from Hashem Who is our root. This, then, is the time to ignite our inner fire and return to our source. Women from both Israel and USA have turned to me for spiritual healing in order to reconnect with their soul and feel Hashem’s closeness in their lives. I tell them, that although you feel disconnected, and broken, the fact that you reach out to return to your spiritual path is already the beginning of your rectification. You need to feel good about yourself that even though you are down and low and don’t even feel like praying, your desire to want to feel like praying is still burning within you. We, women have the ability to reignite our inner passion for holiness through our desire to be connected. The embers of this desire will grow into the flames of our innate love of Hashem, whicht will melt away the frost of our complacent, tired, indifferent, dormant spirit. We, women will awaken ourselves and each-other “to sanctify the holy one of Ya’acov, and revere the G-d of Israel (Yesha’yahu 29:23).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Bridge Between Life and Death

This Haftorah touches upon the bridge between life and death and mentions a very hidden woman in the Bible, Tzeruriah who really sparked my interest. I am also sharing with you some highlights on why we pray for someone using the name of their mother while after death they are mentioned together with the name of their father.

Haftorah Vayechi
1 Melachim 2:1- 12
In this week's haftorah, King David on his deathbed gives over his lasting will to Shlomo his son and successor. His words parallel this week's Torah reading that describes Ya’acov’s parting words of blessings and instructions to his sons.

The Dead Son of His Father – The Live Son of His Mother
The first instruction King David gives to the newly anointed young Shlomo is to take care of his most difficult unfinished business: “You, too, know all that Yoav ben Tzeruiah did to me – what he did to the two officers of the hosts of Israel, to Avner ben Ner and to Amasa ben Yeter, that he killed them, and shed the blood of war in peace… Act according to your wisdom, and do not let him die a peaceful death of old age” (Melachim I 2:5-6). Yoav was King David’s general who on various occasions killed people against David’s will. Therefore, avenge was necessary in order to maintain Shalom and justice. What I found interesting in this quote is that both of the victims are mentioned by the name of their fathers, Ner and Yeter, while the perpetrator, Yoav, is mentioned by the name of his mother, Tzeruiah. Yoav, who is still alive, is mentioned as the son of his mother, while the deceased Avner and Amasa are mentioned as the sons of their father. This is congruent with the traditional way we mention others in prayer. It is the accepted custom to pray for someone who is alive by mentioning the name of the person together with the name of his mother, while after death we mention the person together with the name of his father. What is the reason for this custom?

The Father’s or the Mother’s Child?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that in tefilah (prayer) it is important to be as specific as possible. Since the identity of the mother can more easily be ascertained than that of the father, the name of the mother distinguishes a person more explicitly. Therefore, we pray for a person as the child of his or her mother. The Mikdash Melech, page 84, explains that this principle applies to people on earth who may not be sure of the true identity of their father. However, after a person’s death, his name is known in Heaven. Therefore, in memorial prayers the father’s name is used. According to Ramban, (Vayikra 12:3), the body of the child derives from the blood of the mother, while the form of the child is related to the father. Therefore, people are connected on a more primary level with their mother while being alive, yet after death; they are identified by the name of the father. The explanation I connect with most is that when praying for compassion for a person, we mention the name of his or her mother, since the mother embodies the character-trait of compassion. She is the one who carried him in her womb – (rechem) a word which also means mercy. By mentioning the name of the mother in prayer, we attempt to identify with the compassion of the mother of the person we pray for, and tap into the tears that the mother sheds for her child.

Can Capital Punishment be Compassionate?
It doesn’t seem to make sense that David intended to arouse the attribute of mercy when commanding the execution of Yoav? Yet, perhaps the mother’s name alludes to the ultimate mercy even when implementing justice. Although today capital punishment seems cruel and archaic, when it is decided by the anointed one of G-d, it entails the final compassion of bringing about tikun (rectification) for the cruelty of murder. Except for his death, no retribution could atone for the innocent blood shed by Yoav. It cleansed his soul for the eternal afterlife. The righteous King David cared only for executing Hashem’s will with utmost compassion which included mercy for Yoav’s soul, who also happened to be David’s cousin.

Tzeruiah – Unknown Woman in the Bible
Very little is mentioned in the Torah about Yoav’s mother Tzeruiah. However, her sons are invariably mentioned with the metronymic “son of Tzeruiah,” in contrast to people in many other cultures and other Biblical characters who are known by the name of their father. This seems to indicate that Tzeruiah was an exceptionally strong or important woman, though the specific circumstances are not given. All we are told about her is that she is the daughter of Yishai, sister of David, and mother of Yoav, Avshai, and Asa-el all of whom held key-positions in David’s army (1 Divrei HaYayamim 2:16). There are two opinions as to whether she is the sister or stepsister of David. In 2 Shemuel 17:25, Tzuriah and her sister Avigail seem to have a different father than David, by the name of Nachash. According to the Talmud Yishai is called Nachash (serpent) because he never committed a sin but died only because of the bite of the serpent, which caused the mortality of all humans. The Rama of Pa’ano mentions that the name Tzeruiah derives from the word metzar, which means a constricted place or distress, such as “Out of my distress (metzar) I called upon Hashem…” (Tehillim 118:5). Tzeruiah certainly must have cried out in distress over the bereavement of her sons. According to the Rama of Pa’ano, these three sons were the reincarnation of Korach’s three sons, Asir, Elkana, and Aviasaf, their death was their ultimate rectification. The numerical value of the word Tzeruiah (311) equals that of Korach (308) when the three letters of his name is added. (Gilgulei Neshamot 2). May Tzeruiah’s tears mixed with the tears of every mother in Israel for all the innocent blood spilled among our distressed people reach Hashem’s altar of peace, and may “…He answer us from His place of space!” (Tehillim 118:5).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Path to Peace and Redemption

Hope you had a wonderful Chanukah. Chanukah is really all about getting together with the family. Likewise this haftorah, is about the reunification between the brothers, especially Yehudah and Yosef whose energies can be opposed. Therefore, this Haftorah really moved me, as it alludes to how we can bring redemption and world peace by overcoming friction between the different segments within our people.

Haftorat Vayigash
Yechezkiel 37:15-28
Which Direction to Take to Make “The Nations Know That Hashem Sanctifies Yisrael”?
This week’s Haftorah describes the final geulah (redemption), when Hashem’s presence will illuminate the Jewish people through His everlasting Temple. At that time there will no longer be any question of Israel’s exclusive right to the Holy City of Jerusalem. The concluding verses of our Haftorah convey the vision of the final days that we await, when all of Israel will worship Hashem and receive His everlasting blessing: “I will make a covenant of peace with them…My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their G-d, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I, Hashem, do sanctify Yisrael, when my sanctuary shall be in their midst for ever” (Yechezkiel 37:26-28). Today, with the golden Mosque glinting behind the Wall, and the world dictating Israel to freeze building in its midst, we seem so far from this prophesy. Without a strong leadership in Israel, and a scattered and bewildered people, how will we find the path that will lead us to the covenant of peace and redemption?

Teach the Kids to Get Along and Bring Peace to the World
The beginning of our Haftorah gives the clue. It is so simple that it becomes difficult. It is exactly what my parents told me when I was a teenage freedom fighter in Europe: “If you kids cannot get along, how do you expect there to be peace in the world?!” The paved path to walk to reach the conclusion of our Haftorah begins at the beginning. It begins at home, by rising above sibling rivalry: “And you son of man, take for yourself one piece of wood, and write upon it, for Yehudah, for the children of Yisrael his friends. Then take another piece of wood and write upon it, for Yosef, the wood of Efrayim, and for all the house of Yisrael his friends, and join them one to the other to make one piece of wood, and they shall become one in your hand”(Yechezkiel 37:16-17). Since the time when Yosef received the multicolored garment from his father, there has been animosity between Yosef and his brothers, particularly between Yosef and Yehudah – the leader of the brothers. Our Haftorah describes the culmination of their reconciliation which begins in this week’s parashah, when Yehudah approached Yosef.

Addition and Subtraction
Yehudah’s approaching Yosef embodies the merging of two essentially different ways of serving G-d. Yehudah comes from the word, hoda’ah, which means recognition, praise and nullification. The letters of the name “Yehudah” is made up of G-d's Four Lettered Name, plus the letter dalet which represents one who has nothing (in Hebrew, “dal”). The letter dalet lacks sides all around, and like a pauper, is incapable of holding anything. Yosef, on the other hand, means to “add” or “gather.” He adds and gathers all the holy sparks from the physical world, elevating them to the holiness of Hashem. Yosef also has the ability to gather all the Jewish people together. This is why he received the multicolored garment, with a color for each of the tribes. When the aspects of Yehudah and Yosef come together in the highest way, then the Temple can shine in our midst. Yehudah and his brothers must allow Yosef to be their temporary leader while gathering together all the dispersed tribes of Israel and establishing Israel’s physical framework. Yosef must ultimately yield his leadership to the everlasting Kingdom of Mashiach ben David descending from Yehudah.

The Gift of the Mothers
The two main ways of serving Hashem represented by Yosef and Yehudah are gifts that they received from their mothers. “Leah held a distaff of hodayah and her children were masters of hodayah...” (Bereishit Rabah 71:5). When Yehudah was born, his mother Leah said, “I thank (odeh) Hashem,” and she gave Yehudah a name that reflects her recognition that all comes from Hashem. This was always her attitude. “Leah's eyes were soft,” for she was always crying her heart out to Hashem. Likewise, Yehudah's descendant, David, said of himself (Tehillim 22:7), “I am a worm, not a man.” Despite his great accomplishments, David took no credit for himself, for he recognized that everything comes from Hashem. Yehudah you are he whom your brothers shall praise (yoducha) Yehuda confessed (hoda). There is an intrinsic connectionbetween gratitude and admission: true thankfulness is the free admission of the debt owed. “I admit to you, I am deeply indebted.”

The Gatherer of Beauty
“Yosef was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance – this was because Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance” (Bereishit Rabah 86:6). Yosef’s beauty was his ability to gather and manifest the totality of creation. True beauty is when harmony and balance of the whole are expressed in a single part. Just like Rachel was buried “on the way” in order to gather her dispersed children from exile, the beauty of Yosef gathers disconnected parts together in one living entity. Rabbi Mattis Weinberg explains how Yosef’s essentiality for the kingdom of Pharaoh is equally essential for Malchut Yisrael. Yosef allows the king to be the persona who manifests the otherwise disconnected entities of his sovereignty and transforms it to become one united kingdom. Just like Ya’acov loved Rachel because her beauty was a reflection of her righteousness, the beauty of Yosef is manifested through his righteousness, charisma and ability to forge personal relationship. He represents the source of the world’s youthful fertility and blessedness. He is connected to the earth, like the ox to which he is compared by Ya’acov (Rashi, Bereishit 49:6). Yosef sustains his brothers and supports the entire world. His characteristics are blessed when they are rooted in integrity, reliability, discipline, and emunah of the tzaddik. However, beauty does not last forever; “Rachel died on the way,” and the Tabernacle of Shilo in the land of Efrayim, son of Yosef, was also temporary. This is how the eternal kingdom of Yehudah complements the beauty of Yosef.

The Inner Power of Women Enables Israel to “Become One in Your Hand”
Hashem’s Shechinah is present at the core of both the qualities of Yosef and Yehudah. True beauty gathers and holds everything together; without leaving any part of existence behind. The rectified Yosef infuses all of reality with Divinity, by reflecting all the beauty in the world without taking anything from this world for himself. This quality is an aspect of modesty that Yosef mastered. Through the power of tzniut, he was able to rectify all relationships, and connect in the deepest way with people, yet overcome the temptation of Potifar’s wife. Yosef is called “Tzadik Yesod Olam” – The Righteous Foundation of the World, because the power of Yesod (Foundation) is the Divine Emanation pertaining to relationship and sexuality, – the foundation that holds all existence together. The foundation of Yosef leads to the rectified Malchut (kingdom) of Yehudah, about which it is written “It has nothing of its own.” By recognizing that he had nothing except what comes from Hashem, Yehudah became a pure channel for Hashem’s Malchut. Through admitting (hodayah) that nothing but Hashem has real existence, the power of Malchut is able to take all the existence that the power of Yesod gathered together and nullify it to Hashem. While Yosef’s ability to connect and gather all existence together is contingent on refraining from holding on to anything for himself, Yehudah He recognized (hodayah) that nothing but Hashem has true existence. Therefore, he did not have anything to let go of. While Yosef elevates all existence, Yehudah nullifies it all to Hashem. At the heart of both the hodayah of Yehudah and the gathering of Yosef is the presence of Hashem which unites them. Women pave the way to redemption because we are inner beings, and not hung up with external differences that separate people. Developing the quality of tzniut, teaches us to go to the core where neither looks, accomplishments or the causes we support are the source of what gives us value. With this inner power, we can unite the Yehudahs and Yosefs of our time, bring about Hashem’s everlasting “covenant of peace” and allow His sanctuary to rest in our midst forever.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sing and Rejoice, Daughter of Zion!

The light of Chanukah is again shining its educational light upon us. Chanukah comes from the word Chinuch which means education. During this blessed holiday we can get a glimpse of the future perfected reality. At that time the light of the woman will grow, and laws that seemingly denigrate women will no longer apply. We live in the exciting time of transformation. 

In my commentary on the Chanuka Haftorah I discuss how to deal with issues such as “Kol Isha” (women singing in the presence of men) at the shabbat table.

I bless you to get in touch with your inner light of Chanukah, and shine it into your relationships, so we together can build the Temple of Unconditional Love!
Chanukah Sameach!
Chana Bracha

Haftorat Miketz - Special Chanukah Haftorah
Zechariah 2:14-4:7
The Feminine Song of Redemption
Sing and rejoice, Daughter of Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst — declares Hashem (Zechariah 2:14). The word “roni” which we translated “sing” is one of the ten Hebrew expressions for happiness (Song of Songs Rabah 1:29). Hashem tells the Daughter of Tzion to shout for joy as He is coming to dwell within her and manifest His Shechinah below. It is hard to understand the connection between this verse and Chanukah. Therefore many commentaries wonder why the haftorah for Chanukah didn’t begin with the description of the golden Menorah in Zechariah Chapter 4. According to the Arizal, (Sefer Pri Etz Chaim, Gate 208, on Chanukah and Purim, Chapter 4), every redemption that Israel experienced came about through a woman, and therefore all the songs praising Hashem for redemption were in the feminine language “shirah” (rather than “shir”). This is because these redemptions were from “sefirat hod,” (the character of glory – a feminine manifestation of Hashem’s light from the left side of the Tree of Life). The redemption from Egypt came about through Bityah the daughter of Pharaoh. The redemption from Persia was by means of Esther, and the redemption from Greece by means of Yehudit. Therefore, since the miracle of Chanukah came about through the light of “hod,” we can understand why women are accustomed to refrain from work as long as the candles are burning (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 670 seif 1). This explains why we read “Sing and be happy daughter of Tzion” in the haftorah for Chanukah!

The Daughter of Tzion Will Sing Even with Men!
According to the B’nei Yissaschar based on the Chida, wherever the Shechinah dwells one does not have to be concerned about “Kol Isha ervah,” (the voice of a woman is her private part) (Berachoth 24a). Therefore, Devorah said “I am for Hashem, I can sing” (Shoftim 5:3). Since Devorah’s dedication to Hashem caused the revelation of the Shechinah, she was permitted to sing together with a man, as it states “And Devorah and Barak sang…” (ibid. 1). This explanation goes according to the simple reading of the text, that Devora was married to Lapidot and not to Barak. In the same way we can explain “And Miriam the prophetess took… and Miriam answered them sing to Hashem…” (Shemot 15:20). Miriam is specifically called a prophetess in this context, since the Shechinah was resting on her while she was prophesying and she, therefore, was not concerned about arousing hirhurim (improper thoughts) among the men while she was singing. Likewise the Chida explained our verse: “Sing and be happy daughter of Tzion,” and don’t be concerned about “Kol Isha” (the voice of a woman), “…for behold I come and dwell within you.”

May Women Sing with Men?
After having been a Ba’alat Teshuvah (returnee to Judaism) for almost thirty years, and having held my voice back from singing at the Shabbat table all these years whenever we have male guests, I was quite astonished to find this Torah of B’nei Yissaschar permitting women’s singing with men when the Shechinah is present. Rav Kook writes in Mussar Avicha that separation between men and women is necessary, and the laws of tzniut override even basic tenets of common courtesy, because the yetzer hara is so potent in this lower world. Only in the World of Truth, can the love and friendship, which should have been equal between men and women all along, find its true expression. Therefore, we should not jump to apply the principles of the B’nei Yissaschar to our daily reality, even to our holy Shabbat table, which may not yet have reached the level of Shechinah that graced Miriam by the Sea, or Devorah after the victory over Sisera. Yet on the other hand, I often find that the chatter of us “pious women” while the men sing zemirot (Shabbat hymns) detracts from the kedusha (holiness) of the Shabbat table, and I often wonder whether Hashem would not prefer if we women take part of the zemirot softly without singing at the top of our lungs.

Mixed Singing at the Shabbat Table
The question of the applicability of “Kol Isha” to zemirot is controversial in halachic responsa. Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 2:8) notes that although women traditionally refrained from singing zemirot in the presence of men other than immediate family members at the Shabbat table, the practice in Germany was for women to sing zemirot in the company of unrelated men. Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (two great German Rabbis of the nineteenth century) sanctioned this practice. They based their ruling on the Talmudic rule (Megilah 21b) that “Trei kali lo mishtamai,” – two voices cannot be heard simultaneously. There is a great difference between a woman performing and singing from the depths of her neshamah, and a group of women singing quietly together with men at a Shabbat table in a family setting. While it states in the Gemara (Sota 48a) that men and women singing together is a major impropriety, the Divrei Cheifetz asserts that the Kol Isha prohibition does not apply to women singing zemirot, singing songs to children, and lamentations for the dead. This authority explains that in these contexts, men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice.

The Tightrope of Yearning
According to B’nei Yissaschar, Chanukah comes to educate us about the final redemption. The Mekor Chaim explains that “Daughter of Tzion” is a metaphor, referring to the body of the Jewish people, more specific to the body of the tzaddik.” “Sing and rejoice, Daughter of Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst” describes the joy of the tzaddik, who is able to turn his body into a mishkan (dwelling place) for Hashem’s presence. The highest level that we aspire to reach is not only to have pure thoughts, but to purify even the physical body from desires that are not for the sake of Hashem. During our long-winding exile there have always been great individual tzadikim who have succeeded in making their body a sanctuary for Hashem’s presence. At the time of our imminent redemption we will eventually all reach this great uplifted level. As we draw closer to the final redemption when the Shechinah will be revealed within all of us, the voice of women is yearning to sing for joy. Until we reach this level, we must walk on a tightrope seeking the delicate balance between being strict in tzniut (modesty) without being too lenient in good manners, interpersonal relationships, and the kedushah (holiness) of Shabbat. May the light of Chanukah penetrate our souls and bring about the indwelling of the Shechinah, so that one day we can join Miriam and Devorah’s exalted song and “Sing and rejoice” in the perfected world of holiness where we no longer have to be concerned about “Kol Isha!”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sisterly Sensitivity

My commentary on this week’s haftorah is based on personal hardships I had to face. These difficulties strengthen my emunah that any suffering we need to endure are only tests for the sake of perfecting our character and becoming more sensitive and loving towards others. The importance of developing this sensitivity and compassion is the main theme of the haftorah reading.

Haftorat Vayeishev
Amos 2:6-3:8
The Connection between the Haftorah and the Torah Reading
This week's haftorah opens with an allusion to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, which is the main theme of this week’s Torah reading. “So said Hashem, ‘For three transgressions of Israel, I will turn away punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away punishment, because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes’” (Amos 2:6). According to Radak, G d was willing to withhold punishment for the three cardinal sins –  indecency, idolatry and murder, but not for injustice done to the poor. The Midrash explains this verse as referring to the sale of Yosef, the righteous. The brothers sold Yosef for 20 silver pieces (See Bereishit 37:28), with which they each bought a pair of shoes (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 37). Against his collective brothers, Yosef was weak. Therefore, their taking advantage by having the upper hand is unforgivable to Hashem, who warns us numerous times in the Torah against mistreating the deprived.

Stepping on the Weak in Order to Achieve Personal Goals
Perhaps the emphasis on “selling the righteous for a pair of shoes,” symbolizes how the brothers “stepped” emotionally on Yosef, completely disregarding his feelings. Moreover, the Hebrew word for shoes, “נעלים-na’alayim” also means lock. The brothers totally locked their hearts and desensitized themselves to Yosef’s pain. This is what the brothers themselves realized during their teshuva (repentance) process in this week’s parashah, “Truly, we are guilty concerning our brother, for observing the pain of his soul, when he pleaded with us, but we would not hear, therefore this distress came upon us” (Bereishit 42:21). Whereas, the brothers may have had good reason to sell Yosef, their lack of sensitivity to his feelings is unforgivable. Also today, some people, in their zeal to accomplish their important goals, do not always hold themselves back from stepping on those who are at a disadvantage, in order to climb their ladder of success. They may brush off their offense as being an insignificant mistake that inevitably happens when one has to act fast. However, is it not more important to start on the right foot and with derech eretz (ethical behavior) than to step on the feet of others, in order to start right away?

Hashem Defends the Lost Dignity of the “Weaker” Sex
In my years of running a Torah institution for women, I have experienced discrimination in the political and financial arena, where women’s power is often externally weaker. The prophet admonishes the Jewish people for taking advantage and stepping on those lower down on the social ladder, and eliciting Hashem’s punishment to an even greater degree than the three cardinal sins. Rabbi Dovid Siegel explains that the mistreatment of orphans, widows, and the poor can never be overlooked. Since they cannot rely on their financial or political power, they are compelled to place their total trust in Hashem. Therefore, Hashem immediately responds to the injustice done to them, defending their lost dignity. As women, we do not have to play political power-games in order to accomplish our goals. When we keep silent about the injustice incurred against us, in order to avoid machloket (dispute/dissension), while trusting in Hashen’s retribution, we will reap immediate eternal reward.

Sisterly Sensitivity
“They anticipate the dirt placed on the head of the impoverished” (Amos 2:7). The prophet rebukes the Jewish people, for insensitivity towards injustice. They would discriminate against the underprivileged and even drag the poor through the dirt when they refused to accept their unjustified treatment. This kind of behavior and attitude is totally inexcusable. In life, we often need to make conscious choices which may be good for one but not for another. Hurting someone else by our choice, may at times be unavoidable. However, when forced to make such a choice, where pain is caused to someone else, then we need to generate empathy and show our utmost sisterly sensitivity. Unfortunately, people – even women – do not always have the emotional maturity to take moral responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Rather than admitting that they are causing their sister pain, and being ready to face this pain with a sincere loving hug, it is easier to just smooth over hurt feelings and make believe they don’t exist, or that they stem from the other person’s personal problems. They may not realize that by accusing their sister of being wrong to feel slighted, being oversensitive, or negative, they are dragging the “poor” through the dirt, while rubbing salt into an already open wound.

The Impact of Lost Sensitivities
The emotionally mature approach is to acknowledge the hurts we inflict in others by our choices. This acknowledgment will bring us to sincerely apologize for causing this pain, realizing that in a certain place, an injustice was done. Rabbi Dovid Siegel explains that the brothers’ lack of sensitivity towards Yosef’s pain, unlike all other sins, could never be overlooked. The greatest scholars of Israel, the ten holy martyrs would suffer inhuman torture, and be brutally murdered in atonement for this offense (Midrash Mishley, Parashat 1). The fact that the torturous death of the ten martyrs remains the most tragic personal event in Jewish history, teaches us the impact of not only our actions, but also the way we carry them out. Even when harsh measures are justified, we must carry them out them with proper sensitivities. As difficult as the balance may be, we must open our hearts, feel for our Jewish sisters, and show them the proper dignity and compassion they truly deserve. The more we work on this, the more we prepare ourselves for the day when, Hashem will circumcise our hearts to love Him with all our hearts (Devarim 30:6).

Thursday, November 18, 2010


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I came to Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum complaining of severe persistent headaches for the last three weeks. She suggested that the headaches were connected with a blockage caused by communication problems with a teenage child, with whom I had indeed experienced a lot of tension. During the session, we discussed the problem at length, coming to some deep and practical solutions. Afterwards, Rebbetzin Chana Bracha used guided imagery to help build my self-image and receive the spiritual and emotional strength to implement the solutions. She also worked on healing the root of the problem through energy work, removing fears and traumas energetically. I left the healing session feeling healed both energetically and psychologically. Sure enough the headaches went away, and my relationship with my teenage child improved. (Rebbetzin Batya Kohn, Bat Ayin)

The tipul, (spiritual healing session) was incredible and made a huge impact in some place deep inside my heart, right close to my core. I dealt with issues I had since a very early age, and being the sensitive person I am, it has been in my heart for a very long time, not being quite completely healed. I think it has made it easier to deal with situations or people that make me feel insecure or not good enough. And that is a huge thing, to me. I really deeply appreciate what you have done for me. There is still a lot of room for growth and healing, but I think there has been a tremendous amount of headway so far. I hope to get another tipul in the future. May you continue successfully to do more tipulim, with me and with others who can benefit from your healing gifts! (Malka)

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The Secret Power of Shema Yisrael

In this week’s haftorah I found an allusion to what I have been practicing in spiritual healing.
Reciting the Shema with complete mindfulness has the power to overcome Esav – the source of negative energy. In spiritual healing, we recite the Shema to remove negative energy from a place, person or object. It was very reaffirming to find a source for this in our haftorah. I hope you will read on, and learn with me about accessing the power of Yosef and Rachel in order to eradicate the descendants of Esav and bring the final geulah (redemption).

Haftorat Parashat Vayislach
Ovadiah, Chapter 1:1-21
The Secret Power of Shema Yisrael to Overcome Negative Energy
This week’s haftorah is the Book of Ovadiah, which prophesizes the downfall of Edom, the descendents of Esav. This reflects the main theme of our Torah reading: Ya’acov’s struggle with Esav’s spiritual energy (angel). Just as it was his son, Yosef, that empowered Ya’acov to face Esav, and overcome him, so, too, during the future redemption, it will be the descendents of Yosef who shall triumph over the Roman Empire descending from Esav. “The house of Ya’acov shall be fire, and the house of Yosef flame, and the house of Esav for straw, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esav; for Hashem has spoken it” (Ovadiah 1:18). Tiferet Shlomo explains that the angels that Ya’acov sent to Esav, were created by Ya’acov’s recitation of the Shema prayer (Keriat Shema). This is alluded to in the verse quoted above that the house of Esav will become straw, (קש kash in Hebrew), consisting of the letters kuf and shin, the initials of the Shema prayer קריאת שמע. Today, as well, the angels that emanate from reciting the Shema with great intention have power to overcome the destructive spiritual energy of Esav. Ya’acov transferred his ability to recite the Shema with such special intensity, to his son Yosef. When he was reunited with Yosef in Egypt, Ya’acov recited the Shema, (see Rashi, Bereishit 46:29). The Maharal explains that when Ya’acov saw how Yosef had become the king, he finally understood the big picture and the reason for his suffering all these years. This realization filled his heart with great love and awe for Hashem, and enabled him to recite the Shema with the very highest kavana (intention) (Gur Aryeh, ibid). Since, the reunion of Ya’cov and Yosef completed the manifestation of Hashem’s unity in the world, therefore, at that very moment, Yosef’s power to eradicate the negativity of Esav, became anchored in the world, through the secret of the Shema Yisrael.

The Tikun of Yosef and Rachel
The ability to overcome Esav, originated at the time of Yosef’s birth. This is why Ya’acov waited until Yosef was born, before he felt secure to face Esav. The midrash explains, “Esav does not fall except through the children of Rachel…” (Bereishit Rabah 75:5). It was Esther and Mordechai, Rachel’s descendants, who defeated Haman, the descendant of Esav, during the Purim story. It was Yehoshua, the son of Efraim, and descendent of Yosef, who conquered the Land of Israel. In the future, it will be through the power of Yosef, son of Rachel that we will ultimately overcome the oppressing nations descended from Esav. When Ya’acov’s four wives and eleven sons bowed down before Esav, why did Yosef and Rachel approach last? (Bereishit 33:6-7). Tiferet Shlomo explains, that everything that happened to Ya’acov and his wives teaches us about the future. The final tikun (rectification) is that of Yosef and Rachel, as we learn from the fact that the statement, “The house of Ya’acov shall be fire, and the house of Yosef flame” (Ovadiah 1:18), is followed by the prophesy about the end of days, “Liberators shall ascend upon Mount Tzion to judge the mountain of Esav; and the kingdom shall be Hashem’s” (Ibid. 1:21). Likewise, the final geulah (redemption) will be in the merit of Rachel, as it states, “Thus says Hashem…Rachel is crying for her children…and your children shall return to their own borders” (Yirmeyahu 31:14-16).

The Power of Awe, Self-restraint and Tzniut
What are the qualities that Rachel and Yosef embody, which ultimately will defeat Esav and bring redemption? Rav Tzaddok of Lublin explains that it is the quality of Yosef’s fear/awe of G-d that has the power to overcome Amalek, Esav’s grandson. Amalek lacked this quality completely, as it states about him, “He did not fear G-d” (Devarim 25:18). Yosef, however, attributed this quality to himself, as he proclaimed, “I fear G-d” (Bereishit 42:16). Yosef’s fear of G-d was connected with his gevurah, the power and strength to overcome temptation. This is manifested by his ability to withstand the seduction of Potifar’s wife. Yosef, is, therefore, known to be the “guardian of the brith (covenant)”, referring to his holiness and chastity in action, speech and thought (Machshevot Charutz 13, Pri Tzadik, Purim 7). Yosef received this power from his mother Rachel, who is praised for her tzniut (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 29:125). Rachel did not reveal to her sister, Leah that she and Ya’acov were in love. When Lavan seized the presents Ya’acov sent to Rachel and gave them to Leah, Rachel remained silent (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayetze Chapter 6). It is interesting to note that in spite of the fact that Rachel, the shepherdess, is called “the revealed world” in contrast to Leah, who represents “the hidden world” (Sefer Etz Chaim, Sha’ar 38, Chapter 2), Rachel is praised particularly for being hidden, silent, and modest. This teaches us that we specifically need modesty to survive spiritually in the outer world of affluence and physical attraction.

Spiritual Survival in the Outer World Depends on Being Inward Bound
Like his mother Rachel, Yosef was involved in “the revealed world” while being the master of modesty and restraint. In his role as the ruler of the most powerful empire of his time, he was involved in worldly affairs to the highest degree. Yet, all his power, honor, and wealth did not mar his inner holiness. Yosef did not let any of the worldly glamour influence him in the slightest. Rather, he remained unaffected in his fear of G-d and chastity. This is in contrast to Esav who was known for flaunting his assets. The midrash notes that Esav resembled a pig with its split hooves that makes it look outwardly kosher. Only when we look internally and perceive that it doesn't chew its cud do we realize that despite outward appearances it is a non-kosher animal (Bereishit Rabah 65:1). In contrast, our spiritual survival in exile depends on being modest while nurturing our internal holiness.

Developing Our Inner Fire
Esav’s power is specifically overcome by the tzniut of the children of Rachel. Even when involved in the world, whether in business, academics, arts, as farmers or doctors, they remain modest, G-d-fearing, and anchored to the Torah. It is quite a challenge to develop the character of tzniut in the competitive outer world, which values the external accomplishments of good grades, degrees, money and social prestige. As Gila Manolson writes in Outside Inside, true tzniut is to understand that “What I do” does not take the place of “Who I am.” Maintaining our spiritual center entails the awareness that the roots of our identity extend far beneath our performance. The more we realize that we are only vehicles for Hashem’s light to shine through, the less we care about being famous and powerful, and the less we depend on the praise of others for our self-gratification. When we stop “casting our gems to the boars,” and learn to focus our light inward, then our tzniut will generate a potent inner force that allows the Divine light that we reflect to eradicate the immorality of Esav. This process can be compared to a magnifying glass that concentrates the light of the sun into one inner point to create fire. The deeper we internalize the essence of tzniut, the more our internal light will become fire and flame to consume Esav’s external stubble of self-indulgence, greediness and hatred. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ya’acov’s Toil to Deserve His Wives

At the Raise Your Spirits Theater's production of
"Judge: The Song of Devora"
In my commentary on this week’s haftorah I discuss the hard work of Ya’acov for his wives according to both the simple meaning (peshat), midrash and Kabalah. According to the basic understanding, Ya’acov’s toil for the sake of his wives was a great heroic deed that we should emulate. It may seem at first glance as if the mystical level contradicts this but in the end you will see that also according to Kabalah, it was only through this hard, even excessive, work that Ya’acov was able to do a tikun (rectification) for Adam, and rescue his seed from the captivity of the serpent.

Haftorat Parashat Vayetze
Hoshea, Chapter 12:13-14:10
Willingness to Work Hard to Deserve His Wife
This week’s Haftorah (according to the Ashkenazim) opens with a verse that pertains directly to women, “Ya’acov fled to the land of Aram, and [there] Israel worked for a wife, and for a wife he guarded” (Hoshea 12:13).Why does the prophet mention that Ya’acov/Israel both “worked for a wife” and “guarded” for a wife? According to the peshat (simple meaning), after Ya’acov had worked seven years for Rachel, but received Leah in her place, he had to continue to guard Lavan’s flock for an additional seven years in order to “earn” Rachel. The fact that Ya’acov worked so hard in order to receive his wives, teaches us how high the woman is regarded in the Torah. A man needs to prove himself worthy to deserve a wife. Perhaps the archetypal killing of the dragon, for the sake of receiving the hand of the princess, derives from the story of Ya’cov, who with great mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice) rescued Rachel and Leah from the evil Lavan. Also today, a man needs to appreciate the worth of his woman, and be willing to toil hard in order to deserve her. This is contrary to the attitude of certain men nowadays. A dating couple once came to me for advice. The man felt that in order to be ready to commit to marriage, he needed the woman to prove herself worthy, by helping him build up his business. This man ought to learn from Ya’acov, and regard the woman in a positive light, to the extent that he would feel the need to prove himself worthy of her. Women too, need to build up their self-confidence. Especially women, who have been abused, may have such a low self-image, that others can easily take advantage of them. Working on ingraining the self-image of a bat melech (princess) within themselves, will help them realize that they are entitled to a husband, who is willing to work hard for them. Being ready like Ya’acov, to go into hardship, and give up so much for the sake of meriting his bride, is a prerequisite for shalom bayit (peace in the home) as it helps the husband continue to appreciate his wife, throughout their subsequent marriage.

Keeping the Mitzvoth with the Help of His Wife
We find a homiletic interpretation of the above mentioned verse by Rabbi Avraham Shapira in Sefer Ohr HaMeir. He explains that working/serving (avad) refers to keeping the positive mitzvoth while guarding (shamar) refers to avoiding (guarding oneself from) transgressing the negative mitzvoth. The Hebrew prefix used in “for a wife” is the “beit” which also means “in” or “with.” Ya’acov could only keep the mitzvoth, both positive and negative, together with his wives, as it is the wife who enables a man to serve Hashem to the best of his capacity. In addition to those mitzvoth, which are impossible to keep without a wife such as “be fruitful and multiply” (Bereishit 1:28), the wife also polishes the diamond of her husband’s character. She challenges him to reach his highest potential, becoming a more sensitive and caring person. She also guides him to leaving the old ways behind and encourages him to focus on his mission. For example, in this week’s Parashah Rachel and Leah tell Ya’acov with one voice: “…now then, whatever G-d has said to you, do!” (Bereishit 31:16). Even today, most men need the support of their wives to keep the mitzvoth, including the mitzvah of setting aside fixed times for Torah learning.

A Spark of Ya’acov’s Spirit Guarded within His Wife
According to The Gate of Reincarnation by the Ariza”l, our verse includes a deep secret about soul reincarnations. Ya’acov, our father, worked fourteen years for Lavan “for a wife” – in order to marry his daughters. However, why did Ya’acov have to herd the sheep of this evil Lavan for so many years, rather than just trusting more in Hashem, who, had promised him, “I will never leave you…”? (Bereishit 28:15). According to Ariza”l’s kabbalistic interpretation, the consequence of Ya’acov’s subjugating himself to Lavan, and working so hard to marry his daughters, is alluded to in the last part of our verse, “For [In] a wife [he was] guard[ed]”. As we mentioned, the prefix “beit” used in “for a wife” also means “in.” Thus Arizal explains that a spark of Ya’acov’s soul was guarded within his wife.

Avigail – Soul-reincarnation of Ya’acov’s Spirit
The first time a man has relations with his wife, he places a spirit (רוחא) within her. Ya’acov, therefore, placed one spirit within Rachel and one within Leah. The spirit within Rachel was transferred to her son Binyamin, when she died in childbirth. Therefore, he was born the moment Rachel’s soul departed. However, the spirit that Ya’acov had placed within Leah, was reincarnated in Avigail the prophetess, Naval’s wife. This originally male spirit was transformed into a female, because Ya’acov worked so hard for Lavan, for the sake of a wife. Therefore, the spirit that Ya’acov deposited within Leah was guarded literally within a woman – Avigail. This is the secret of Avigail’s speech to David, “Now this blessing which your maidservant has brought (hevi) to my lord…” (1 Shemuel 25:27). By not using the feminine form of the verb heviah, she alludes to the fact that the root of her soul was masculine rather than feminine. Her husband Naval, was the reincarnation of Lavan. Their names consist of the exact same letters, (lamed, beit and nun). As a consequence of Ya’acov working excessively for Lavan, part of his spirit was reincarnated in Avigail, who married Naval, in order to now serve him as a wife serves a husband. This was a replay of Ya’acov’s serving Lavan for the sake of a wife in their previous reincarnation.

Rescuing Rachel, Leah and Avigail from the Primordial Serpent
The real secret behind all these reincarnations is that Ya’acov’s soul emanated from Adam the first man (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 84a). From Adam, two holy drops of seed, which were to become Rachel and Leah, fell into the captivity of the primordial serpent. Ya’aov needed to work guarding Lavan’s sheep for all these years, until he was able to recover these two holy drops from Lavan, whose soul derived from the serpent. Only then, was he able to rescue Rachel and Leah, from the captivity of their serpent father. Ya’acov’s hard work for Lavan had repercussions for many generations, and impacted King David, who was also a reincarnation of Adam. It was Ya’acov’s work that empowered David to rescue Avigail from the power of the primordial serpent, personified as Naval, the reincarnation of Lavan. This was the completion of tikun for Adam to return his holy drops from the other side. (Ariza”l, The Gate of Reincarnation, Introduction thirty six).

May we merit that our hard work too will engender tikunim (rectifications) and speed up our final redemption!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The “Esavs” and the “Ya’acovs” of Today

This week’s haftorah touches upon a question I received from one of my readers, regarding Rivkah’s binah, which I highlighted in my commentary of last week’s haftorah  (see the comments on my blog). Our haftorah spells out what is hinted in the Torah portion regarding the truth of Rivkah’s perception concerning her sons. Hashem clearly validates Rivkah’s affinity for Ya’acov, while outrightly condemning Esav. However, even Esav has redeeming qualities. “For there was venison in his mouth,” can be understood to refer to holy sparks concealed within his head, which was buried in the Machpelah cave. Read on to learn about the “Esavs” and “Ya’acovs” of today and how to elevate the sparks of Esav. 

Haftorat Parashat Toldot
Malachi Chapter 1:1-2:7
“…I loved Ya’acov, but I hated Esav…”
This week's Haftorah opens with the Prophet Malachi bringing to our attention the tremendous love Hashem has for Ya’acov and his children, contrasted with how He hates Esav, his twin brother. No matter how much Ya’acov’s offspring – the Jewish people – sin and shows lack of honor, we remain Hashem’s selected people for eternity. When Hashem admonishes us and punishes us, it is only because of His great love for us. “I loved you, said Hashem, but you said, ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esav a brother to Ya’acov? Says Hashem. Yet, I loved Ya’acov, but I hated Esav, and I made his mountains desolate and his heritage into [a habitat for] the jackals of the desert” (Malachi 1:2-3). According to Rashi, Hashem’s love of Ya’acov’s descendents is expressed though His giving them the most pleasant land – the Land of Israel; and His hatred of Esav’s descendants is expressed through pushing them away from the Land of Israel, for the sake of Ya’acov.

Rivkah’s Perception and Unconditional Love Reflected in Hashem’s Love of Israel
Malachi rebuked the Jewish People for not treating the Temple with proper reverence, and the Kohanim (priests) for offering blemished animals on G-d's altar. Nevertheless, the selection of the Jewish people can never be rescinded, since Rivkah ensured that Ya’acov rather than Esav received Yitzchak’s blessing to continue his spiritual mission. While Yitzchak was blinded by the honor Esav showed him (Rashi 25:27and 28), Rivkah was able to see through the façade of Esav’s politeness and understand the true nature of her children. “And Yitzchak loved Esav because he was hunting with his mouth, but Rivkah loves Ya’acov” (Bereishit 25:28). Whereas Yitzchak’s love is written in the past tense (“loved”), Rivkah’s love for Ya’acov is written in the present (“loves”). According to Kli Yakar Yitzchak’s love for Esav was conditional, he only loved him when he brought him food, but Rivkah's love for Ya’acov was unconditional and therefore beyond time. Her unconditional love described in this week’s parashah is reflected in Hashem’s unconditional love for Ya’acov’s descendants as described by Malachi in this week’s Haftorah.

Distinguishing between the “Esavs” and “Ya’acovs” of Today
It is not incidental that this week’s Haftorah is taken from the Book of Malachi, the last of the prophets and a member of the Anshei K’nesset HaGedolah, (The Men of the Great Assembly). They defined the contents of the Tana”ch (Hebrew Bible), realizing that the Spirit of Prophecy was about to withdraw from the Jewish People for an extensive period. During our long exile at the hand of Esav’s descendants, it is difficult not to be blinded by the glimmer of exterior accomplishments. Material goods and comfort-craving have become the underlying motive for the vast assimilation that we witness in the Western world. Ya’acov’s descendants have readily joined the ranks of Esav at the fancy shopping malls, football games, television sets, and gourmet restaurants. Even the Torah true families in the Western World are not shielded from the powerful influence of the enticing “Esavness.” At this time we are reminded not to be like “Yitzchak [who] loved Esav because he was hunting with his mouth” – i.e. trapping him with words (Rashi), or enticing him with advertisements for all kinds of goodies. Rather, we women must strive to be like Rivkah and see through the trappings of exterior gloss and “love Ya’acov.” Instead of amusement-parks, circuses and operas, we yearn for the “Voice of Ya’acov” – the holiness of Torah learning and tefilah (prayer).

Elevating the “Hands of Esav” Without Compromising Our “Voice of Ya’acov”
In this week’s Haftorah, Hashem confirms Rivkah’s perceptiveness, by echoing her choice of affection “…but Rivkah loves Ya’acov” with Hashem’s proclamation, “…yet, I loved Ya’acov.” Hashem’s love of Ya’acov is due to his devotion to Torah and mitzvot. Esav, on the other hand, is detested “…but I hated Esav…” because of his conniving self-indulgence and cruelty. Despite the contrast between Ya’acov and Esav, the fact that they were twin brothers, teaches us how difficult it can be to tell them apart. At times, there is only a hair’s breadth of difference between using secular knowledge, the internet, and movies in the way of Ya’acov rather than that of Esav. Everything in the secular world is at our disposal to elevate and serve Hashem, as long as we ensure that it remains the exterior “vessel” rather than interior the “light” for us. When Rivkah dressed Ya’acov up as Esav, she empowered Ya’acov and his descendants to use the mantle of Esav, as long as it remains an exterior garment, for Torah and Mitzvot. “The voice is the voice of Ya’acov, but the hands are the hands of Esav” (Bereishit 27:22). As long as we ensure that our inner voice of Torah and tefilah remain pure and unaffected by “the hands of Esav” with which we connect to the world, then indeed, we, have the ability to use the tools available in the modern world. Unfortunately, “the hands of Esav” easily lure us to becoming trapped in exterior impressive wrappings such as hedonistic indulgence and honor seeking, causing us to choose secular degrees and over the pursuit of holiness. Let us tap into Rivkah’s ability to distinguish between the “Esavs” and “Ya’acovs” of today, and keep our inner purity intact!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Developing our Feminine Attribute of Binah

These last few Haftorot are so inspiring and jam-packed with stories of heroic women. From our haftorah, we learn that it is specifically by developing our feminine attribute of “binah” that we can have an impact on the world, giving birth to the cosmic redemption. Learning about how the Davidic line was ensured by the special binah of Rivka and Bat Sheva, inspires us to develop this quality in ourselves to build our homes and thereby the Jewish Nation. 

Haftorat Parashat Chayei Sarah
1 Melachim, Chapter 1:1-31
Women Determine the Lineage of G-d’s Selected People
This week’s Haftorah, from the beginning of the Book of Kings, describes how the true lineage of King David is assured. This parallels the Torah reading of Parashat Chayei Sarah which describes the selection of Rivkah who ensured that Ya’acov received the birthright, and thereby became the carrier of the spiritual mission of his fathers. Just as Rivkah who understood the true nature of her sons, took action to ascertain that only the worthy son received his father’s blessing, Bat-Sheva too, convinced King David to crown her son Shlomo. The connection between the Torah reading and its haftorah teaches us about the important role of women in determining the lineage of G-d’s selected people. Even if the kings are men, their kingship is totally dependant on women, without whom Hashem’s chosen king, would never be able to reign.

Binah – The Ability to Distinguish
What gives women this ability to discern the true heir of G-d’s spiritual mission and bring about his selection? Women are known to have binah yeterah (Midrash Rabah, Bereishit 18:1). This term is usually translated as “extra intuition.” The root of the word binah is connected with the word bein which means between. Binah, therefore, entails the ability to distinguish between different or opposing matters. It is this quality that gave both Rivkah and Bat-Sheva the ability to clearly discern who Hashem had selected to be the successor of their husbands. Likewise, the attribute of binah is required for taking the necessary steps in order to ensure that only the son who is worthy becomes the next in line. Through her exceptional binah, Rivkah understood that being direct with her husband would not accomplish her goal. However, every man and situation is different. By employing the quality of binah, Bat-Sheva knew how to explain the matter directly to King David, in a way that would convince him. Malbim notes, for example, that Bat-Sheva omitted mentioning how the rival king Adonyahu had invited all King David’s servants to his coronation. This was in order not to discourage her husband and make him fear a revolt. On the contrary, she empowered him by emphasizing how the eyes of all Yisrael were upon David, relying on him to choose his successor (1 Melachim 1:20). This encouragement was especially important at that time, when David was lying on his deathbed, and may have lacked the strength to take action, if not for the support of his devoted wife. Thus, without Bat-Sheva the Davidic dynasty may not have been established.

The Son of Chagit
How did Adonyahu have the chutzpah to get himself crowned during his father’s lifetime, and disregard the prophecy that Hashem had selected Shlomo as the next king? The verse states about Adonyahu “…he also was a very good looking man; and his mother bore him after Avshalom” (1 Melachim 1:6). Yet, it mentioned in the previous verse that Adonyahu’s mother was Chagit, whereas Avshalom’s mother was Ma’akah (2 Shemuel 3:3). Rashi explains that although Adonayhu had a different mother than Avshalom, the verse connects them because Chagit raised Adonyahu in the same way that Ma’akah raised Avshalom. It is likely that the mothers’ emphasis on external appearance and self-indulgence caused both of these sons to become self-centered and power-greedy. In addition to being handsome and charismatic, Adonyahu was able to assemble a large group of followers, because many people doubted whether it was permissible to crown Shlomo as the next king. Since David’s initial relation with Bat-Sheva was problematic, they were questioning whether Bat Sheva’s offspring was fit to sit on the throne.

Perfect Repentance Through Avishag the Shunamite
The beginning of the Book of Kings comes to verify that King Shlomo indeed is King David’s rightful successor. This is why the Book of Kings begins with the bizarre story about how a beautiful virgin is brought to warm David during his old age (1 Melachim 1:1-4). My teacher at Michlaha, Rav Carmel, explained that in order for Shlomo to become the next king, David had to prove that he indeed had repented from the incidence with Bat-Sheva. Although David shared his bed with the most beautiful young virgin in the whole country, “The king had no intimacy with her” (1 Melachim 1:4). Since David already had eighteen wives – the maximum allowed for a king – he held himself back from living with Avishag the Shunamite, in spite of her beauty and closeness to him. This proves that David had attained the highest level of repentance – teshuvat hamishkal – which requires overcoming the desire to sin despite being in the exact same situation with equally powerful temptations as when originally committing the transgression.

Even during Old Age – A Man Remains a Man
Perhaps David had now become old and weak, no longer having the same desire, as many years ago, when he first spotted Bat-Sheva bathing on the roof? This is indeed Avishag’s argument to David, when he refuses to marry her. The Talmud asks: What are the facts regarding Avishag? – It is written, “King David was old, stricken in years…” (1 Melachim 1:1). Further it is written, “They sought for him a beautiful maiden…” (Ibid. 3); and it is written, “And the maiden [Avishag] was very beautiful, and she attended the king and ministered unto him” (Ibid. 4). She said to him, ‘Let us marry,’ but he [David] said, ‘You are forbidden to me.’ ‘When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous,’ she mocked. Then he said to them [his servants], ‘Call me Bat-Sheva’ “And Bat-Sheva went to the king into the chamber” (1 Melachim 1:15). Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name, ‘On that occasion Bat-Sheva dried herself thirteen times’ [i.e. they had consecutive intercourse] (Sanhedrin 22a). This anecdote clearly shows that David had indeed repented in the very highest way, and that it was not because he was too old that he held himself back from taking Avishag. It, moreover, teaches us that women should not be lax in tzniut (modesty) just because a man is very old. No matter how old, a man is still a man!

Bat-Sheva’s Role in Bringing the Mashiach
Bat-Sheva gets the last word in this week’s Haftorah as she blesses King David, “Let my lord King David live forever” (1 Melachim 1:31). The Brisker Rav (Rabbi Yitzchak Zev HaLevi Soleveitchik) asks why Bat-Sheva only uttered this blessing now and not beforehand. He explains, according to Rambam (Perek Chelek, 12), that Mashiach must come from the house of David and specifically from the seed of King Shlomo, as it states “…He has chosen Shlomo my son to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of Hashem over Israel…I will establish his kingdom forever… (1 Divrei Hayamim 28:5-6). Only through the selection of Shlomo is the eternal house of David established. Therefore, David’s promise to Bat Sheva, that “Indeed, your son Shlomo shall reign after me” (1 Melachim 1:30), laid the foundation for his everlasting royal lineage, culminating in the Mashiach, as his direct descendant. This explains why Bat-Sheva could only bless David with eternal life, after he had sworn to crown Shlomo. From this we learn about Bat Sheva’s impact on the Messianic lineage, and her keen awareness of the importance of Mashiach who was to descend from the relationship between her and King David. Likewise, today, we women are the movers and shakers in bringing about the final sprout of David.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Power of Women’s Emunah

Shabbat Shalom...
I’m excited about this week’s haftorah which is all about how the power of women’s emunah brings about Hashem’s miracles in the world. When Sarah was told that she would bear a son in this week’s parashah, she laughed within herself. Most commentaries explain this laughter as indicating a slight lack of emunah. The steadfast emunah of the women in our corresponding haftorah rectifies her minor lack of emunah. Ovadia’s wife went deep into debt, in order to save and sustain the prophets of Hashem. With the help of the prophet Elisha, the light of her emunah became miraculously transformed into oil, with which Ovadia’s widow could pay off her debt and sustain her family. Through the unfaltering emunah of the Shunamite women, she was able to cause her beloved son to be revived. Today, we too, can link ourselves to their chain of emunah, to revive the spirit of our people and continue to plant and rebuild our Land!

Haftorat Parashat Vayera
2 Melachim, Chapter 4:1-37
The Miracle of the Perpetual Oil – Emanating from Our Inner Light
This week’s Haftorah includes two stories about two different righteous women who turned to the prophet Elisha. The first woman, described in the beginning of our Haftorah, is identified by Rashi as the wife of Ovadia. She is called “One woman” (2 Melachim 4:1), to indicate that she is special and important. This woman had become impoverished, because together with her husband Ovadia, they had sustained one hundred prophets. They had kept these prophets hidden in two caves, out of sight from the wicked Queen Izevel, who desired to kill them (1 Melachim 18:13). When the creditor came to take her two sons as slaves, Ovadia’s widow cried out to Elisha for help (2 Melachim 4:1). Elisha then instructed the woman to use a pot of oil – the only thing she had inside her home – as the medium upon which Hashem’s blessing would fall. The oil miraculously increased, according the capacity of the many empty vessels, the woman was told to borrow from all her neighbors. By selling the oil, the woman was able to pay back her debt and sustain herself and her sons. The oil symbolizes light and teaches us that we can draw down Hashem’s perpetual blessing, by getting in touch with our inner light and essence.

Worthy of Receiving Hashem’s Blessing Through Our Own Efforts
Hashem is Almighty and can create anything from nothing; why did He not create a new source of sustenance for Ovadia’s widow? Why was it important that she find something that already belonged to her, in order to receive Hashem’s blessing of increase? Rather than spoon-feeding us, Hashem desires to work together with us as a team. In order to receive Hashem’s blessing, the initial beginning must come from us. When we open ourselves towards Hashem as much as the eye of a needle, He opens for us the opening of the world (Song of Song Rabah, Parashah 5, Piska 3). This principle ties together this week’s parashah with the two parts of its Haftorah. Hashem blessed Sarah with the conception and birth of Yitzchak, because she had perfected herself by her modesty, hospitality, and self-sacrificing initiative to ensure that Avraham would have offspring. Likewise, the woman from Shunem, described in the remainder of our Haftorah, deserved the blessing of a child and his miraculous revival because of her greatness, generous hospitality, and righteousness.

The Bread of the Shunamite Woman
“It happened one day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where there was a great woman, and she pressed him to eat bread. And so it was, that whenever he passed by, he turned aside there to eat bread” (2 Melachim 4:8). Rashi explains that the expression “great” refers to the importance of the woman, who was the sister of Avishag the Shunamite, King David’s last wife. Radak adds that she was wealthy and famous. According to Malbim, her greatness was expressed through her good deeds and great desire to feed the holy prophet Elisha. He would only eat in the home of the righteous, stipulating that they truly desired to give with their full heart. From the first time Elisha ate in the home of this righteous woman, he was aware that she offered her bread with the highest intention. Thereafter, he chose to pass by her home in order to give her the merit of this great mitzvah.

Sustaining Torah Scholars Makes the Shechinah Dwell
“Whoever hosts a Torah scholar in his home is considered as if he offered a sacrifice” (Berachot 10b). We learn this principle from the righteous woman in our Haftorah who told her husband, “I perceive that this is a holy man of G-d who passes by us continually” (2 Melachim 4:9). According to Malbim, she understood that just like sacrificing causes the Shechinah to dwell on Israel, so too does sustaining a Torah scholar, who is like the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, where the Shechinah dwells. Therefore, the food which the woman offered with a pure heart to sustain the prophet, together with his holy intention while eating for the sake of Heaven, brought down the Divine Presence. Today, we women also have the ability to infuse our homes with the Shechinah by inviting and sustaining Torah scholars. When Rabbis visit from Israel, it’s an amazing opportunity to merit this great mitzvah, by taking care of their needs. In addition to providing food, the woman from Shunem arranged to make a separate chamber for the prophet, because she desired to make a dwelling place – Tabernacle – for the Shechinah, which dwelled on the prophet.

As the Time is Alive
As a reward for her hospitality, the woman in our Haftorah like Sarah in this week’s Parashah is promised to embrace a son, “About this time in the coming year” (Ibid. 16). The Hebrew expression Ka’Et Chayah – literally: “As the time is alive” is used in both places, since there is no time more alive than the time of giving birth. For just as Hashem is the life of the world, bringing a new soul into this world, brings down the life of the Divine Presence infused in the baby’s neshamah. The wisdom and foresight of the woman from Shunem is evident from her pleading, “No, my lord, you man of G-d do not disappoint your handmaid” (ibid.). With these words the woman implored Elisha, “Even if I will give birth to a son, if he would, G-d forbid, die afterwards, then what do I gain from your promise?”

The Power of Trust
“And the woman conceived and bore a son…” (ibid.17). However, after the child had grown, he became sick and died in his mother’s arms. Malbim notices how the Shunamite woman did not undertake any medical procedure because of her bitachon (trust) in the promise of the prophet. Even after the death of her son, she didn’t cry out or even tell her husband. She only laid him on the bed of the man of G-d, and requested a donkey so that she could “run to the man of G-d and then come back” (Ibid. 22). When her husband unknowingly asked, “Why do you go to him today? It is neither New Moon nor Shabbat?” (ibid. 23), she only answered a firm “Shalom.” Sefer Chassidim learns from this verse that it is a mitzvah for women to learn Torah, just like the Shunamite woman who would go to hear Elisha teach every Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat. When Elisha saw that she had come at an unusual time, he immediately understood that something was seriously wrong. The Shunamite woman went to Elisha and held on to his feet, to hint that she wouldn’t let him go until he agreed to walk with her. Malbim explains that usually when Hashem punishes someone, He first reveals the matter to the prophet, in order that he request mercy. From the fact that Hashem had hid the matter from him, Elisha recognized that the death of the child was not a punishment for any sin on the Shunamite’s part. He then followed her home, prayed to Hashem who revived the child through the acts of the prophet. Elisha “placed his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands…” (Ibid. 34), in order to allow for the three parts of his soul: nefesh, ruach and neshama, to return to his body. Which zchut (merit) caused this miraculous revival of the dead? I believe that it was the Shunamit’s remarkable trust in the goodness of Hashem’s blessing through the prophet that had the power to revive her son. We can learn about the power of belief from the trusting perseverance of this righteous woman. Miracles continue even today. Through persistent emunah we can move mountains. May we tap into this power of steadfast belief to bring about goodness in our lives and revive our people on the Land!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Physical and Spiritual Renewal

Shabbat Shalom…
Now that we finally have entered the month of Cheshvan, I enjoy the renewal of our daily routine following all the commotion of the holidays. After being loaded with all the lights of our spiritual experiences of Tishrei, we return to our daily day tasks with renewed strength.
I’m excited to teach such wonderful serious students, who are eager to learn and fulfill Hashem’s will. Both at the midrasha and in my personal garden we are busy sowing the winter crop of greens, fennel, carrots, radishes and beets. What a wonder to behold the seeds from the old dried up plants of last years crop shoot forth fresh young sprouts! This week’s Torah and Haftorah reading is in sync with this physical and spiritual renewal that we experience at this time of the year.

Haftorat Parashat Lech Lecha
Yesha’yahu, Chapter 40:27, Chapter 41:16
Trusting in Hashem brings Spiritual Renewal
Wouldn’t you love to be able to keep going at whatever you are doing tirelessly? How wonderful it would be to receive the renewed strength of youth even after being “over the hill?” The opening verses, of this week’s haftorah, taken from the end of Yesha’yahu chapter 40, ascribe both physical and spiritual renewal to those who trust in Hashem, “But those who place their hope in Hashem, shall renew their strength. They shall soar aloft with wings, as eagles. They will run, without becoming weary, they will go, and not become tired” (Yesha’yahu 40:31). In contrast to the young, described in the previous verse, “Even the youth shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fail” (Ibid. 30), those who trust in Hashem continue to receive renewed strength.

Returning the Strength of Our Youth
Just like the eagle sheds its feathers and receives a new set of feathers every ten years, so do the People of Israel have the power of renewal, even after their physical strength has waned (Radak, Yesha’yahu 40:31). This renewal is the foundation, upon which, the Jewish people are conceived. In Parashat Lech Lecha, the first Jewish mother, Sarah, receives the blessing of renewed youth at the age of eighty nine as it states, “I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations…” (Bereishit 17:16). Rashi explains that the first blessing refers to her restored youthfulness, while the second blessing refers to her being endowed with abundant milk to nurse.

Raising Israel from the Ruins of the Holocaust
I believe that the return of Sarah’s youth also serves as a metaphor for the Jewish people. At our weary our old age, after the long winding exile, we are receiving both spiritual and even physical renewal in our Land. While the other nations are shutting down their businesses, the economy of Israel is shooting forth as Metzudat David explains; “The young men [who] utterly fail” refer to the other nations. My parents, who live in Europe, noticed on their recent visit how the streets of Jerusalem are bursting with activity and new life. In contrast to many cities in Europe and North America, where the streets are empty due to the unfortunate fact that one store after the other closes down; my father was amazed at how busy the shoppers are in the streets of Jerusalem. “Why should I go to a museum and watch relics from ancient times gone by, when I can sit on a bench on Ben Yehuda Street and experience the current hustle and bustle of Israeli retail life?” asked my father. I happily agreed that we are observing the fulfillment of the prophesies of redemption in our time. “He [Hashem] gives power to the faint, and to the powerless He increases strength” (ibid 29). Hashem has raised His faint people from the ruins of the Holocaust, built us up and revived us in this Land.

Renewed With the Eagles’ Wings of Nefesh b’Nefesh
According to Metzudat David, those who place their hope in Hashem will grow wings like the eagles and fly to their land. The journey of returning to the Land of Israel will recharge them with the strength to continue to be on the go and run speedily without tiring. This can be compared to Avraham and Sarah who began their journey to the Land of Israel at the advanced age of seventy-five and sixty-five respectively. It is not such a big deal to make aliyah during one’s years of youth, as I, myself, can testify. I left my old country behind to move to Jerusalem at the age of nineteen. During the late teens and early “tweens” we look for adventure and change. However, as we grow older, we need the stability of settling down. Nevertheless, the fact that Avraham and Sarah made the journey to their home land at such an advanced age, paved the way for the many families with teenaged children, who now demonstrate their trust in Hashem by fastening the eagles’ wings of Nefesh b’Nefesh. The challenge of transplanting and adjusting the family to new surroundings falls primarily on the woman. It is the emunah and trust of the Jewish women of today that facilitate the new wave of North American immigration to Israel. At a time of old age, recession, and diminished strength, these women realize that we have the opportunity to rebuild ourselves and grow new roots on the soil of our sacred Land.