Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Do We Need a Mezuzah?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parshat Bo
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I’ve recently become observant and realize that I need to get mezuzot for my home. I was just wondering, why we need these mezuzot, what is in them and what do they do?
Shoshanna Miller (name changed)

Dear Shoshanna,
I love when I get questions like yours. When one has been Torah observant for a long time, there is a tendency to take the mitzvot for granted and forget about why we do them. Although I’m a ba’alat teshuva like you, I grew up with one mezuzah on the front door of my parents’ home. It is very small, and whenever I visit, I wonder if it is even kosher. In our own home in Israel, in accordance with my husband’s research and rabbinical guidance, we have a mezuzah for every single room (except for the bathrooms) including the archway that separates the kitchen from the dining room and, surprisingly enough, even the chicken coop. Our mezuzot are placed on the right side of the door, in the upper third of the doorpost. Some people may think that a beautiful mezuzah cover is all there is to the mezuzah, not realizing that it’s just a cover. Yet, the main thing is what is inside. What is actually written inside the mezuzah and why is it so important for every Jewish home?

Guardian of the Doorways of Israel
‘Mezuzah’ refers to the parchment scroll within the cover, on which the Shema – the declaration of the oneness of G‑d, with its two following paragraphs are handwritten by an expert scribe (Devarim 6: 4‑9 and Devarim 11: 13-21). Perhaps, you have noticed the three Hebrew letters on the mezuzah cover: ש/shin, ד/dalet and י/yud. These letters are also written on the reverse side of the parchment, which may appear through a transparent cover. These three letters spell out a name of G-d ש-די/Sha-dai, which is an acronym for שומר דלתות ישראל /Shomer delatot Yisrael – “Guardian of the doorways of Israel,” which signifies that the mezuzah channels G‑d’s watchful supervision over the home, and excludes the negative forces of the other side from entering the home. Everything open needs guarding. When we merit, the name, Shadai dwells upon us and protects us. Placing a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants – whether they are inside or outside. The mezuzah helps us to connect ourselves with holiness when we come and go. It is a righteous custom to kiss the mezuzah every time we come and go, in order to remind ourselves that Hashem is our Creator (Hanhagot Hatzadikim, Rabbi Shlomo Baruch of Budapest). Moreover, when we enter our home, the mezuzah reminds us to avoid anger, quarrel and additional negative behavior. When we leave our home, the mezuzah reminds us to curb our egotism in dealing with our fellow-creatures, and avoid being rude, whether at home or in our workplace (Rabbi Gedalia ben Isaac of Lunietz).

A Jewish Home – Dedicated to Serving G-d
A mezuzah at the doorway signifies a Jewish home dedicated to Hashem and separated from the gentile environment. The first time mezuzot are mentioned in the Torah is in Parashat Bo, when the Israelites were instructed to smear some of the blood of the Pesach lamb on the doorposts:

ספר שמות פרק יב פסוק ז וְלָקְחוּ מִן הַדָּם וְנָתְנוּ עַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וְעַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר יֹאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ בָּהֶם:
“They shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it” (Shemot 12:7).

The slaughtering of the sheep was a statement of the separation from the Egyptians, who worshipped sheep. Engaging in such a ‘provocative’ act, right under the noses of the Egyptians, certainly required protection from their hostility.

Emblem of Our Redemption
Further on in Parashat Bo, right before the last plague of the firstborn, the Israelites were instructed once again about the mezuzot. They were to take a bunch of hyssop dipped in blood and use it as a paintbrush to mark their homes:

ספר שמות פרק יב (כב-כד) וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ עַד בֹּקֶר: (כג) עָבַר הָשֵׁם לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח הָשֵׁם עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף: (כד) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְחָק לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ עַד עוֹלָם:

“Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two mezuzot (doorposts). None of you shall go out of the entrance of the house until morning. For when Hashem passes through to smite the Egyptians; He will see the blood upon the lintel, and the two doorposts, and G-d will pass over the door, and not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to smite you. You shall observe this as an ordinance for you and your descendants forever” (Shemot 12:22-24).

The mezuzah that distinguished between life and death became the emblem of the Jewish people. Just as our redemption culminated with the last plague of the firstborn, it could be said that the mezuzah at the doorpost of the death of the firstborn Egyptians gave birth to the Jewish people. The mezuzah reminds us that in order to break out of the Egyptian exile, we needed the courage to slaughter their ‘god’ and use the life force of its blood for the sake of serving Hashem. The birth of Israel took place specifically at the doorpost to symbolize that the door out of bitter exile had now opened into freedom.­­­

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why is Listening so Important in the Torah?

Ask the Rebbetzin - Parshat Vaerah
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,

I’m writing to because I’m a scholar of listening and am very interested in listening in Judaism. I was hoping that you could direct me to some good resources, or examples of listening in Judaism. While I cannot read Hebrew (to my shame, honestly), I’m happy to read different kinds of texts. I just need a couple of shoves in the right direction. The Shema is the obvious place to start, but I’m very interested in other kinds of listening you can think of – especially the healing aspects. I’d be very happy for anything you can point me to. Although I’m a Jewish woman, I’m not a scholar of Judaism or Jewish thought. Would you help me?
Thanks very much for your time and consideration.
Shelly Shimoni (name changed)

Dear Shelly,
Listening is indeed very important in the Torah. In fact, the root שמע/shema – ‘listen’ appears 1216 times in the Tanach (Bible), and 238 times in the Chumash. It starts with Adam and Eve hearing the sound of G-d walking in the Garden (Bereishit 3:8) and ends with the Israelites listening to their new leader, Yehoshua (Devarim 34:9). Although this week’s parasha is called וארא/Vaera – “I appeared,” which is related to the word for seeing, the central theme of Parashat Vaera is actually שמיעה/shemiah – ‘listening’ or ‘hearing.’ We learn this from the fact that the root, שמע/shema is mentioned no less than 15 times in Parashat Vaera (mostly in the negative, describing the inability of the Israelites to hear).
Why is listening so important in the Torah and why specifically at the end of the Egyptian exile?

Hearing and Opening Our Channels of Intuition
We learn from Avraham, our father, that ‘listening’ in the Torah refers to our ability to tune into our inner voice where we are connected to Hashem’s truth. Even before the Torah was given, it states about Avraham, “Since Avraham שמע/shama – listened to My voice and kept My charge: My commandments and My teachings” (Beresishit 26:5). From here, our Sages teach that Avraham learned the entire Torah through his kidneys, which became like two pitchers of water that would overflow with Torah (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 95:3). Modern spiritual movements advise us to follow our “inner voice” and trust our intuitive knowledge. Yet, we have to remember that we are not Avraham and our inner voice may be tainted by the desires of our ego. Nevertheless, women are attributed to have extra intuition, which is essential for making numerous daily decisions such as, which doctor to choose, which school to send our children, which non-profit organization to support etc. We can’t just disregard our inner voice, and always rely on our husband or other authorities to make our decisions. We also need to listen to our intuition in order to decide the right balance between consultation with outside advisors and tuning into our voice within. Through meditation, prayer and spiritual healing, we may work further on purifying our intuitive channels to be more attuned to Hashem’s will.

Hearing and the Kidneys
Hearing the deepest truth is attributed to the kidneys in the Talmud: “The Kidneys give advice” (Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 11a). Recent research proves a connection between the kidneys and our hearing. A study done in Australia, published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases, October 2010, ( showed a link between chronic kidney disease (CKD) and hearing loss. This connection has been known in the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine, where it is explained that the ears, which resemble the kidneys in shape, reflect the condition of the kidneys. “The kidney qi communicates with the ears; if the kidney functions properly, the ears can distinguish the five essential sounds” (Neijing If we work on strengthening our sense of hearing by paying attention to our inner voice and listening to what others tell us and by engaging in active listening, we may preserve our kidney health, B”H!

Our Ability of Expression Corresponds to the Attention of the Listener(s)
As a teacher, I have experienced that I’m able to teach much better when my students are attentive and excited to hear what I have to share. Likewise, when someone is telling over Torah at the Shabbat table, if we give ear to truly listen, the person will be able to express himself much more eloquently. The more parents make an effort to listen to their children, the more articulate the children will become in their ability to express themselves.

ספר שמות פרק ו פסוק יב ...הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם:

…“Behold the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, and I have uncircumcised lips?” (Shemot 6:12).

The prophet’s ability to prophesize depends on the people’s capacity to listen. Sefat Emet explains that there is an innate connection between Moshe being of uncircumcised lips, and the Israelites inability to hear. The reason why Moshe was of uncircumcised lips was specifically because Israel could not listen to him. It was this inability of the Jewish people to listen, which prevented them from receiving the Ten Commandments directly from G-d (Women at the Crossroads: A Woman’s Perspective on the Weekly Torah Portion p. 51).

Removing the our ‘Spiritual Earwax’
Moshe was of uncircumcised lips, yet, the Israelites in Egypt were of uncircumcised ears. The prophet, Yirmeyahu, uses this expression, as it states, “To whom shall I speak and give warning that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised (עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם/arela oznam), and they cannot pay attention…” (Yirmeyahu 6:10). Being uncircumcised implies that there is a foreskin or blockage which separates between a particular limb and its inner truth. Although “words that come from the heart enter the heart,” sometimes, we have a foreskin on the ear that doesn’t allow words to enter. The harsh work of the oppressive Egyptian slavery caused the ears of the Israelites to be blocked.

ספר שמות פרק ו (ט) וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה:

“But when Moshe spoke this to the Israelites, they did not listen to Moshe through anguish of spirit due to harsh labor” (Shemot 6:9).

The Israelites in Egypt had no respite for listening to Moshe because their physical anguish dominated their souls. Preoccupation with mundane worries blocks our inner channels and separates us from connecting with Hashem’s Oneness. G-d gives us the gift of an extra soul on Shabbat in order to free ourselves from the enslavement of our body. When we separate from the worries and hard work of our weekly routine, we have the opportunity to remove the ‘spiritual earwax’ from our ears as we earnestly implore Hashem, “purify our hearts to serve You in truth” (Rav Tzaddok HaKohen, P’ri Tzaddik, Vaera 6). Then, we are ready to immerse ourselves in the verbal mikvah of the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that purifies us from all doubts and worries by opening our spiritual channels to be aligned with the Oneness of Hashem.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Why is Our Greatest Prophet Called Moshe?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Shemot
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
My name is Moshe and I always wondered about the meaning of my name. I know the Torah says that when Pharaoh’s daughter rescued the little ark in which the baby was floating on the Nile, she called him Moshe because she had pulled him out of the water. Yet, I don’t quite understand the connection between the name Moshe and being pulled out of the water and why this should be a fitting name for our greatest prophet who brought us the Torah.
Moshe Wasserman (name changed)

Dear Moshe,
I like your question. It is important to understand the meaning of our names, since the names that our parents give us are inspired by prophetic insight. When naming their baby, parents receive Ruach Hakodesh (prophetic insight) so that the name matches his or her soul (Arizal, Gate of Reincarnation, Introduction 23). Therefore, the study of our Hebrew name is to study ourselves which enables us to improve ourselves and get closer to Hashem. The work that a person is involved with is according to his name (Ba’al Shem Tov, Bereishit 135). Let us look into the Torah and commentaries to unravel the deeper meaning of the name Moshe. Perhaps, we can understand why it was a fitting name for our greatest prophet. This may also help you to understand your own soul mission.

Pulled and Pulling Out
After saving Moshe, Pharaoh’s daughter tried to find a nursemaid for him, but Moshe refused to nurse from a gentile. Thus, Pharaoh’s daughter ended up paying Moshe’s mother to breastfeed her own son. When Moshe was weaned, his sister Miriam brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her own and called him by the name Moshe:

ספר שמות פרק ב:י וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת פַּרְעֹה וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ משֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ:

“The child grew and she took him to the king's daughter, who adopted him as her own son. She called his name Moshe saying, ‘I pulled him out of the water’” (Shemot 2:10).

It is interesting to note that the etymological connection between Moshe and being pulled out of the water is only found in the Hebrew language. As the word משֶׁה/Moshe is related to מְשִׁיתִהוּ/meshitihu – “I have pulled him out.” How come the Egyptian princess gave Moshe a Hebrew name, and how did she know Hebrew in the first place? Our sages explain that she converted, and had learned the Holy Tongue. She named him for the miracle that he was pulled from the water, and to remember that he was from the Hebrews. Therefore, he is not mentioned in the entire Torah except by this name. Being pulled out is passive, and thus Moshe’s name should have been in the passive form משוי/Mashui or נמשה/Nimshe. Why, then, did she name him “Moshe” in the active form? With this name, Pharaoh’s daughter suggested, “just as I have pulled him out, likewise he will pull others out – he will pull Israel out of Egypt (Chizkuni, Shemot 2:10). He will help others escape and pull them out of troubles. Although, I pulled him from the water, it was only in order that he should help pull out others (Sforno, Shemot 2:10).

Innate Water Connection
Moshe is drawn from the water and his entire essence is connected with the drawing of water. His name means not only, “I drew him out of the water.” It also means drawing water for others, and drawing others out of the water. Pharaoh’s astrologers erred when they said that Moshe would be struck by the waters of the Nile. His daughter understood that Moshe would not be damaged by the waters of the Nile, for “from the waters [of the Nile] I have pulled him.” Rather, he will be struck by those waters that he will pull out for others. Therefore, she called him Moshe with regards to the future, referring to the waters of Meriva (Ba’alei Tosfot, Shemot 2:10).

וַתֹּאמַרְןָ אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים וְגַם דָּלֹה דָלָה לָנוּ וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת הַצֹּאן: (שמות ב: יט)

“They said, an Egyptian man delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock” (Shemot 2:19).

Moshe saved Yitro’s daughters who had been thrown into the water by the other sheepherders. We learn this from the repetition of the word דָלָה /dalah – drew. He drew water for the flock and he also drew us out [of the water] (Ba’alei Tosfot, Shemot 2:17). The Torah is called Torah from Heaven. In Hebrew, heaven is שמים/Shamayim – there is water. Moshe had to draw the Torah out/down from the upper water and draw the people out/up from the lower water. Water symbolizes a new dimension. There is an entire world of life going on under the water. Moshe was able to access the upper dimension, where there is no eating and drinking by staying forty days without eating and drinking on the mountain. With Tziporah’s help, he was also able to come back down and pull the people up. Moshe, who was born and passed away on the seventh of Adar, is a Pisces, which is a water sign.

Moshe’s Many Names
Actually, Moshe had many names. His mother, Yocheved, originally called him טוּבִיָה/Tuvia when “She saw that he was טוֹב/tov – good” (Shemot 2:2).It is a great merit for Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, that the name she called Moshe is the one that Hashem chose to call him throughout the Torah. , She received this merit because of her kindness in saving Moshe, despite the danger she thereby imposed upon herself. From here, we learn the reward of those who bestow kindness. Indeed, Moshe had ten names. Nevertheless, “Hashem told Moshe, by your life, from all the names that you are called, I will not call you except by the name that Bityah, daughter of Pharaoh, called you, “she called his name Moshe,” “He [Hashem] called to Moshe” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 1:3). The name “Moshe” reflects the general personality of Moshe, whereas each of his other names describes a particular attribute. Moshe was called Yered [bringing down] because he brought down the manna. He was called G’dor [fencing] or Avigdor because he was able to keep the rebellious nature of the Israelites in check. He was called Chaver [friend, connection] because he connected Israel to their father in Heaven. His name was Socho because he was like a protecting Sukkah for Israel. Yekutiel [from tikvah – hope] means that Israel hoped for G-d in his days. His name was Zanuach [relegated] or Avi Zanuach, because he put aside the sins of Israel (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 13a). Moshe was called Shemayah [Hashem heard him] because Hashem heard his prayer, and Halevi [the Levite] as he was from the Tribe of Levi (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).

Pulling Moshe’s Soul Down to Earth
Ohr Hachayim notices that the naming of Moshe is in the opposite order of all other naming in the Torah. Usually, the reason for the name is mentioned before the name as in: “Whoever will hear will laugh... and she called his name Yitzchak.” Bityah hid the reason for the naming of Moshe since it was against the law of Egypt. She simply called him Moshe, without an explanation, however, Scripture adds the explanation. Alternatively, it is also possible that Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t know the entire reason for the name that Hashem gave her except the reason she mentioned. According to Arizal, Pharaoh’s daughter knew that she didn’t only pull Moshe out of the water. She pulled him out of the higher world to bring his soul down to earth. Her intention was to draw Moshe down from the world of Emanation into the world of Creation. This is the meaning of “the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash on the Nile.” For the Nile (יאור) is the gematria of Creation (בריאה) and also has in it some of the letters of בריאה/beriah. (י-א-ר)… (Arizal, Likutei Torah, Yesha’yahu). The name Moshe, moreover, has the numerical value of 345, which is the gematria of K-El Shaday – corresponding to the world of creation (Arizal, Sha’ar HaPesukim, Yesha’yahu).

The name Moshe characterizes a man of great spiritual depths who is connected to the higher worlds. Thus, you may be a person of much potential and strength of which you, yourself, are not even aware. We can now understand why Hashem agreed with Bityah – daughter of Pharaoh, since it was by the greatest wisdom that she called his name Moshe. (Avodat Hakodesh 2:30).

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why Do We Bless Our Sons to be Like Ephraim and Menashe?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Vayechi
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I was wondering why we bless our sons Friday night to become like Ephraim and Menashe. Who were they and why do we wish that our sons emulate them? Is it only the father who can bless his children? What if the mother would like to bless her children as well?
Bracha Gittelson (name changed)

Dear Bracha,
I’m glad you asked, since one of the most beautiful Jewish customs is the blessing parents impart to their children at the onset of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Therefore, it is important to understand the meaning behind the words of the blessing. Before his passing, Ya’acov imparted a special blessing to Yosef’s sons: Ephraim and Menashe (Bereishit, Chapter 48). Ya’acov proclaimed that these two grandsons were like his own sons. “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon” (Bereishit 48:5). This is how Menashe and Ephraim became two independent tribes with their own portions of land in Israel. Before his blessing, Ya’acov added the following words:
ספר בראשית פרק מח פסוק כ ...בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה...
“…By you, Israel will bless, saying, May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Menashe… (Bereishit 48:20).

“When one wishes to bless his sons he will bless them by reciting the formula with which they were blessed – a man will say to his son, ‘May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Menashe!’” (Rashi). Daughters receive the blessing: “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah!” What happened to the patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov? Why does the blessing mention Ephraim and Menashe instead?

Brothers of Peace
Rebbetzin Chana Bracha’s two sons 
Mordechai Meir & Netanel Shalom 

Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jewish brothers who got along. The discord between Avraham’s sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. Regarding the second generation, Esav repeatedly sought to kill Ya’acov. In the third generation, the jealousy and animosity of Yosef’s brothers caused them to sell him into slavery. The brotherhood of Ephraim and Menashe breaks this pattern. When Ya’acov switched his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim with his right hand before the older Menashe, he highlighted that these siblings had no rivalry (Bereishit 48:13-14). Ya’acov stated about Ephraim, “…truly his younger brother shall be greater than he...” (Bereishit 48:19). Because Ephraim accepted being younger and made himself small, he merited greatness (Chafetz Chaim on the Torah). Ephraim could have become haughty and lorded over Menashe, who in return could have been jealous of Ephraim for having surpassed him. Their greatness was that Menashe acknowledged the achievements of Ephraim, and Ephraim did not pride himself over having surpassed his brother (Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dubno, Agra d’Kalah, Vayichi). Ya’akov was thus able to bless Ephraim before Menashe, and this itself is the blessing. “How good and pleasant for brothers to live peacefully together” (Tehillim 133:1). There is no greater blessing than peace among siblings. Parents’ greatest desire is that our children live in mutual respect and shalom. Therefore, we bless them to be like Ephraim and Menashe.

Exile Survival
Throughout the ages, Jewish parents have prayed that their children withstand the temptations of exile, and keep a strong, proud Jewish identity. Ephraim and Menashe were the first generation raised in exile. They grew up in Egypt, in a profoundly secular society, surrounded by lustful, immoral people. Yet, they maintained faithful adherence to Torah ideals and practice, as taught by their grandfather Ya’acov, and transmitted through their father Yosef. To be great among great people is a challenge, but to maintain a high level of spirituality and character among a society devoid of ethics is the real test. This is why Ya’acov chose these two boys to be as his own. They proved true strength of character. Therefore, we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, expressing our hope for proud Jewish children – and grandchildren (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on the Torah). Ya’acov’s twelve sons were the branches (shevatim), connected to the root of the three patriarchs. Ephraim and Menashe were the first fruits growing from these branches. We all want to bless our children to become as a fruit attached to the branches of Israel. Therefore, when we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe we recognize that the grandchildren reveal the foundation and future direction of our family.

Be Fish-like and Swim Upstream!
ספר בראשית פרק מח פסוק טז הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ:
“May the angel, who redeemed me from all evil, bless the youths; and let my name be called through them, and the name of my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak; and let them multiply like fish in the midst of the earth” (Bereishit 48:16).

It is the nature of fish to live under the water, and to be hidden from the eyes of people, who are unaware of the rich life beyond the surface of the water. The destiny of Israel among the nations is similar. During many generations, Israel lived among the gentiles (in the midst of the earth) like fish in deep water. They were part of a different world, which their gentile neighbors were unable to penetrate (Hirsch on the Torah). How do we know if a fish is healthy? If it can swim upstream, against the tide. This is what we wish for our children, too. We would love to protect them forever in our loving, nurturing environment. However, that is usually not possible – nor should it be. There will be times in their lives when their peers, society or the environment will challenge their beliefs and morals with which we raised them. Therefore, we bless and encourage them to become like Ephraim and Menashe – to have the strength to withstand the pressures of society in order to do what is right (Rabbi Shmuel Kogan,

Various Blessing Traditions
We complete the blessing for both sons and daughters with the blessings of the Kohanim: “May Hashem bless you and protect you! May Hashem shine his face upon you and be gracious towards you! May Hashem lift his face up to you, and give you peace!” Different families have varying traditions. Often, only the father blesses his children. This is how it was in our family at first. Yet, I’m really happy that our youngest son requested that I bless him as well, for I treasure that special moment of bestowing him all my love and blessing. Of course, there is absolutely no halachic problem for a mother to bless her children. It is part of the privilege of being ba’alei teshuva to choose our own minhagim (customs). My Sephardic daughter-in-law told us that in their family tradition, the grandmothers also bless their grandchildren on Friday night. Usually, we give the blessing while placing both our hands on the child’s head or just above it. Some parents bless each child in succession, from oldest to youngest. Others bless all of the girls together, and all of the boys together. After the blessing, some parents take a moment to whisper words of praise, encouragement and love to their child. Most of us conclude the blessing with a kiss or a hug.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How can I Forgive My Sisters?

Ask the Rebbetzin – Parashat Vayigash
Printable Version

Dear Rebbetzin,
I need your help. I have been so greatly mistreated by my sisters that I don’t know how I could ever trust them again. I loved and honored my parents in a very deep and personal way. In their later years, they both developed dementia and I brought them to live with us. I took care of them for two and a half years. I organized all kinds of activities for them. My mother especially enjoyed the Yoga classes. They were doing so well with us, since we didn’t have children. They became like my babies. I dedicated my entire life to giving them the very best care. The way that they were taken away was both shortsighted and cruel. One day, one of my sisters, who had the power of attorney, came with a letter from the lawyer forcing me to let her take my parents away since having them live with me was too expensive, and was depleting their inheritance. My sisters placed my parents in a home. There, they were not treated well and they both died soon afterwards. Since then, my relationship with my sisters has been strained, to say the least. How could I ever forgive them?
Yosefah Aharonson (name changed)

Dearest Yosefah,
My heart truly goes out for you. Your situation is indeed extremely painful. In my experience, it can be a great challenge to keep holy and healthy family relationships when our parents age and decline, although this is the time when sisters need each other most. I believe situations such as yours are the most difficult to truly forgive from the deepest part of our heart. Especially if your sisters act as though they did nothing wrong, and can’t even understand why you ‘allowed yourself’ to feel hurt. People often ask me, “Do I really have to forgive when the person who hurt me so much never apologized?” “What if the person continues to hurt me repeatedly, how can I find it in my heart to forgive her?” Yosef is a model for forgiveness, especially in relation to siblings.

Undergoing the Harshest Treatment Ever by Blood Siblings
Can you imagine a more painful situation than Yosef’s? He was a tender youth of just 17 when his 10 brothers ganged up against him and planned to kill him, just because he received a special cloak from their father and told over his dreams. In the end, his brothers decided not to murder him in cold-blood with their own hands. Instead, they threw him into a dangerous pit, filled with snakes and scorpions (Rashi, Bereishit 37:24), and ignored his cries for help. Finally, one of his brothers, Yehuda, had ‘mercy’ on him. He convinced the others to pull him out of the pit and sell him as a slave to a convoy of Yishmaelites going down to Egypt. Still a mere teenager, Yosef now found himself in a lewd, perverse, idol-worshiping, necrophilic society surrounded by evil, insidious taskmasters who tried to take advantage of him in every way. Before he grew to greatness, he worked as a slave, was sexually assaulted and spent 12 years in prison (Da’at Zekeinim M’ba’alei Tosfot, Bereishit 39:5). For all this, he could thank his brothers. Even more so, can you imagine Yosef’s agony over the pain that his brothers caused his dear father all these years?

Why did Yosef Forget His Father’s House?
“The deeds of the fathers are a sign for their children.” I believe that Hashem allowed Yosef to go through the worst possible ordeal with his brothers, because he had the capability of truly forgiving them. By doing so, he paved the way for each of us to be able to forgive our siblings, even for the most extremely hurtful behavior. Yosef testifies that he was able to forgive and forget by the naming of his first son, “Menashe – Hashem has made me forget all my hardships and all my father’s house” (Bereishit 41:51). Why would he want to forget his father’s house? That doesn’t seem very respectful. We would have expected the verse to mention only forgetting the pain inflicted by his brothers. Why include forgetting also his honorable father? Moreover, why didn’t Yosef spare his father further pain by sending him a note to tell him that he was still alive? Even if that wasn’t possible when he was a slave or prisoner, surely after he had risen to greatness and convoys from the entire Middle East came to receive grain from him, it would have been easy to send back a note to his dear father. It also seems as if Yosef was taking revenge on his brothers, by accusing them of being spies and thieves, putting them in prison, and causing them and his father additional pain by making them bring Binyamin.

Accepting Hashem’s Decree Overrides Everything
Rabbi Ya’acov Tzvi Mecklenburg explains that it was extremely painful for Yosef, the righteous, to overcome his great desire to soothe his dear aching father by letting him know that he was still alive. Yet, he knew that his dreams were prophetic and it was Hashem’s decree that they be fulfilled. It was decreed according to his dreams that also his father was to bow down to him. Thus, Yosef knew that Heaven was preventing him from fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring his father by revealing his identity. In order to fulfill Hashem’s will, he was obligated to forget even his father’s house for the time being. Moreover, Yosef did everything he could to spare his brothers from the embarrassment of bowing down to him knowing that he was Yosef. Therefore, all his actions towards his brothers were in order to fulfill the Divine decree in the least painful way for them (Ketav V’kabbalah, Bereishit 41:51).

Forgiveness doesn’t Preclude Causing Repentance
From Yosef we learn to accept Hashem’s decree even in the case where it may cause our parents great pain. Whatever our siblings did against our parents and us was meant to be, otherwise Hashem would not have allowed it to happen. Therefore, it is counterproductive to harbor negative feelings over it. Yosef teaches us, that there is nothing anyone could do against his brother or sister that cannot be forgiven. The clue to granting this forgiveness is emunah that whatever your sisters did against you was fulfilling Hashem’s ultimate will, even if we don’t understand why. Yet Yosef did provide a test for his brothers to enable them to repent completely for their jealousy. Although the brothers hated Yosef because their father favored him, Yosef was able to help them overcome their jealousy by giving them the opportunity to accept that Binyamin was dearer to their father than each of them. Perhaps we can learn from Yosef, that after we have completely forgiven our siblings in the very depths of our heart, we must strive to help them rectify their wrong. However, we can only accomplish this through the greatest love without a trace of revengeful notion such as, “You see I was right!”

Forgiveness Saves Lives
Not only must we strive to feel forgiveness in our heart, moreover, if possible we must express it to our sisters at the right time as Yosef did:
וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:... וַיִּשְׁלָחֵנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם לָכֶם שְׁאֵרִית בָּאָרֶץ וּלְהַחֲיוֹת לָכֶם לִפְלֵיטָה גְּדֹלָה: (ספר בראשית פרק מה, פסוק ה, ופסוק ז)
“Now be not distressed, or angry with yourselves because you sold me hither; for G-d did send me ahead of you to save life…G*d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance” (Bereishit 45:5,7).

Yosef’s clearly realized how all the pain he had suffered through his brothers was part of Hashem’s master plan for a higher purpose. Therefore, within this greater perspective, he was able to totally forgive regardless of how much he had been wronged. It is interesting to note that the word לְמִחְיָה translated “to save life” has the same letters as מחילה/forgiveness. Perhaps the reason why Yosef was chosen to save the lives of the Jewish people was his ability to forgive. When we truly forgive we preserve our own and the offenders life.