Weekly Torah Commentary – Nasso June 2, 2017

Torah reading: Numbers 4:21-7:89

Haftorah reading: Judges 13:2-25

This week’s Haftorah reading tells the story of the birth of Samson, the prophet of the Lord.  Though the text tells us only the name of Samson’s father, Manoah, we find Samson’s mother listed in I Chronicles 4:3 by the name of Hatzlelponi, a descendant of Perez of the tribe of Judah.

At that time the Philistines were oppressing the tribes of Dan and Judah.  The people wanted nothing to do with confronting the Philistines and were allowing themselves to be intimidated by their enemy.  God was not pleased with their attitude and chose a plan of deliverance which began with a startling revelation to a woman who longed to conceive a child.  As the story unfolds her perceptive qualities will stand in sharp contrast to her husband’s more passive character.

An angel of the Lord appears to the woman announcing the arrival of a son and invites her to participate in the lifestyle which her son will adopt for he will be a Nazarite.  She is to observe the Nazarite dietary rules during her pregnancy and never cut the child’s hair.  The angel tells her: ‘He shall be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.’ Judges 13:5)

Knowing her husband well, Hatzlelponi reports the visitation to Manoah but purposely leaves out those elements that she knows he will object to; namely, a confrontation with the Philistines.  She also refrains from telling Manoah that the boy’s hair is never to be cut.  Her desire to see God’s plan come to fruition includes protecting the boy from his father’s objections!

Manoah declares that he wants to be included for he was not present when the angel appeared to his wife. The angel returns but appears to Hatzlelponi in the field.  It is only after she hurries to find her husband that Manoah finally encounters the angel.  It becomes quickly apparent that Manoah is far more interested in finding out the name of the angel, than learning about God’s plan for the people of Dan and Judah.  He persists in asking until the angel says his name is ‘unknowable’.  He refuses their offer of food and commands the couple instead to present an offering to the Lord.  As they do, the angel ascends to heaven in the fire of the offering.  Seeing this they fall on their faces on the ground.  Manoah is terrified and expects to die.  His wife – if you’ll allow me a modern rendition – tells him, ‘You’re not going to die.  I’ve seen the angel before and I’m still here!’

Samson1

So what do we learn from this event?

Samson’s mother is revealed as a woman who accepts the mission God gave her and is devoted to fulfilling it just as it was revealed to her.  God’s desire becomes her desire.  She is a ‘chosen woman’ as is evident from the visitation of the angel of the Lord, not just once but twice.  In her response, she echoes what her ancestors said at Sinai:  ‘We will do and we will hear.’  They committed themselves to obey God’s commandments before they heard what they were.  In other words, they declared their faith in Him.  Hatzlelponi does the same thing.  Though she was given certain details, she certainly wasn’t told everything about the life of the son she would bear.

The story of Hatzlelponi is that of a woman who embodies the spirit of willful obedience that was present at Sinai (before the sin of the Golden Calf) in contrast to her husband who haggles with the angel as if he were a merchant in the marketplace.

She also demonstrates kindness and wisdom in the way she deals with her husband’s doubt.  She does not berate him but calms him with the words: ‘had the Lord meant to take our lives, He would not have accepted the burnt offering..’  (Judges 13:23)

In the Hebrew, there is further evidence of her connection with the God of Israel: the deliberate inclusion of the Hebrew letter ‘heh’ at the beginning of her name.  That is the same letter that was added to Abram to change it to Abraham and to Sarai, to change her name to Sarah.  It is not evident in English but in the Hebrew spelling it’s immediately noticeable.  It is the favored letter indicating a connection with the Holy One and is consistently used in the names of those who are called, chosen and appointed for a specific task.

There is something else unique about her name for it is related to the name given to Joseph when he was made Prime Minister of Egypt, Tzaphenath-paneah. (Gen. 41:45)  Both names come from the same root which means ‘to conceal’ or ‘to encode’.

God took an everyday woman, concealed in her womb a child who would grow up to deliver Israel from the Philistines, and didn’t even have her name mentioned in the context of this amazing event.

Too often we can wrongly think that only the “famous” or the “well-known” can do something significant for God.  Not true!

Application:

The Lord has a plan for every individual’s life.  No one is an accident and no one is unimportant. Our responsibility is to seek Him and find out what His plan is for us, then set about walking it out with all our energy and determination.

What we need to understand is that whatever our destiny, it is important to God and therefore it is not up to us to judge its value.  If God calls you important, you are important.  He did not call any of us to be ‘human doings’ but ‘human beings’.  Your life, whatever form it takes, is what matters the most, not your career.  It’s our daily lives with all the opportunities to choose loving kindness as opposed to irritability, integrity as opposed to deceitfulness, etc., that will leave a legacy of godliness to our children and our grandchildren.

People will remember you for the kind of person you are, far more than for the job you did.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayei Sarah November 6, 2015

Genesis 23:1 – 25:18

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the story of how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, went to the area where Abraham’s relatives lived and in a series of remarkable events obviously directed by the God of Israel, he is made to know that Rebekah will be the perfect match for his master Abraham’s son. After negotiating with her family, Eliezer brings Rebekah back with him. After hearing how God had directed his father’s servant in finding Rebekah, Isaac receives her. The Torah describes that moment for us:

Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he married Rebekah. She was his wife, and he loved her. Then Isaac was comforted after the death of his mother. (Genesis 24:67)

Let’s think about this for a minute. Rebekah has grown up in her parents’ home and to this point we can only assume she’s had a ‘normal’ life. Without the benefit of knowing any later events, think of Rebekah getting up that morning, completely unaware that her entire life’s course would change that very day. She had no foreknowledge that Abraham’s servant was en route to their home. Remember – no phones, no fax machines, no internet!

She went about her ‘normal’ day, like any other day. When it was time to draw water at the well, she made her way there as she had so many times before. Seeing a stranger with an entourage of camels and servants, she understood they were travelers. Her upbringing had taught her to be kind to strangers and she did what came naturally. She offered Eliezer a drink of water and declared she would draw water for the camels as well – all ten of them!

Friends, this was no small task! It’s a known fact that a thirsty camel can drink up to 25 gallons of water or more at one time. These camels had been traveling for several day, laden with goods and gifts. Other servants accompanied Eliezer as well.

Let’s suppose that the camels only drank 10 gallons of water (most likely a gross underestimate). That means that this young girl with a bucket, drew out well over 100 gallons of water from the village well in order to provide hospitality to this caravan of strangers. And all this was BEFORE she knew anything about the reason for their presence!

Eliezer had prayed and asked God for a very specific sign – that the young woman whom God had chosen for Isaac would offer him water and to the camels as well. Rebekah didn’t know that. She did what she’d been taught to do – and her entire life and destiny was sealed by that selfless, exhausting act.

I wonder sometimes whether in the course of hauling more and more water, she wondered if the camels would ever be satisfied. Did she stop and wipe the sweat from her brow as she prepared to lower the bucket again? It was, after all, the Middle East where all this was happening. It was a tiresome, difficult task which Rebekah did willingly and kindly. In so doing, she embraced unknowingly the destiny for which she was born.

We sometimes think that the great moments of our lives are defined by a heroic or unusual event. The truth is that most of the time we have no idea until much later the power of an act of kindness and/or faithfulness. Our responsibility is simply to choose to do right, to be gracious to stranger and friend alike and only later it may be revealed that the most mundane service we provided was in fact the moment when our destiny became attainable.

In Tune with Torah this week = never underestimate the power of an act of kindness and hospitality towards others. Do what is right because it’s the right thing to do and leave the results to God.

Shabbat shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Acharei-mot & Kedoshim April 24, 2015

Leviticus 16-20

This week our Torah reading encompasses two sections: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. At the very center of this double reading, we come across a succinct yet most powerful commandment:

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I,the Lord your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:1-2)

In its simplest definition, to be holy is to live one’s life according to the disciplines and instructions of God. Holiness is the fruit of a deliberate and ongoing choice to order one’s thoughts, words and deeds according to God’s revealed will as expressed in the Bible. Holiness is not some ethereal, pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic way of life. It is at once eminently practical as well as profoundly spiritual. It is summed up in the two greatest commandments: to love God with our whole heart, soul and resources and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

To be sure, volumes have been written about holiness and a brief commentary such as this cannot begin to describe it in all its beauty. But I offer the following thoughts for your reflection:

1) Holiness is not a negative commandment; it is not a matter of what you cannot do but rather an issue of the heart. What is the predominant motive for your daily thoughts, words and actions? Do you live each day against the backdrop of a desire to delight the heart of God? Is that your over-riding purpose in life?

2) Holiness does not mean you never fail or make a mistake. What it does mean is that when you do, you turn quickly to the Lord in repentance, ask His forgiveness and learn from your failure. Holiness is a journey, not a destination.

3) Holiness is not old-fashioned, nor is it reserved for the ‘chosen few’. We live in a culture that pushes the boundaries with language, with entertainment, with alcohol, etc. It is written that Job was “righteous in his generation.” That means that in the midst of a culture that was not unlike ours, Job maintained his integrity and morality. Everyone around him could have made the same choice but Job was not moved by their choices. He stood firm in his own.

4) The choices of those who desire holiness is thought of by some as judgmental and intolerant. Political correctness frowns and criticizes those who uphold a higher standard of living based on God’s word. It does not like words or phrases such as ‘self-discipline’ or ‘obedience’ or ‘the righteous fear of the Lord’. It labels those who uphold such principles as ‘radicals’. If being ‘radical’ means that you love God sincerely from the heart and seek to live according to His ways, then to be called a ‘radical’ is the highest compliment you could receive!

5) Holiness is not ‘weirdness’. True holiness will transform you into a loving, kind, gentle and compassionate person. Loving God is not weird; neither is loving your neighbor. Mother Teresa gained worldwide acclaim, not for railing against sinners, but for extending compassion and care to the needy around her. She is remembered for saying:
‘Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier’
‘We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do’
‘In this life we cannot do big things but we can do small things with great love’.

In Tune with Torah this week = a fresh look at the true meaning of holiness is in order for all of us. How are we doing at loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourself? In these two commandments are hidden the ways and means to holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Chayah Sarah October 25, 2013

Parshat Chayay Sarah describes Avraham’s endeavors to secure the appropriate wife for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer, Avraham’s loyal servant, is tasked with the responsibility and is given very specific directions. The proposed bride may not be from the nations of Cana’an; rather Eliezer is commanded to return to Avraham’s birthplace to seek for the right girl.

Maimonides describes Avraham as an innovator. When the whole world around him worshipped multiple idols, Avraham alone came to the realization that there was One God, Creator of all, and he worshipped Him alone.

Avraham was also a courageous leader and an effective teacher. He stood strong against the conventional beliefs of his age, smashed idols and taught the truth to anyone who would listen. Untold numbers because his followers and learned to worship one God.

One could think it strange that among all of his many followers, there was not one woman whom Avraham considered suitable to marry his son. It is even stranger that Avraham sent Eliezer back to his native area, to an idolatrous society! Why?

Eliezer knew Avraham perhaps better than anyone else. So he devised a plan by which he would recognize the chosen bride to be and prayed for God’s intervention.

So let it come to pass, that the young woman to whom I shall say: Let down your pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; she shall be the one that You have appointed for Your servant, for Yitzchak. Thereby shall I know that You have shown kindness unto my master.

Notice that Eliezer’s ‘test’ made no reference to whether or not the girl worshipped one God. Rather, his test was specifically focused on the prospective bride’s attitude towards kindness and charity. He knew well that Avraham’s primary concern would be the moral character of his future daughter-in-law.

Avraham believed – and Eliezer knew well – that truth can be taught and transmitted to an open-minded student. However, character, kindness, and generosity are not achieved through study and meditation alone. To a great degree, they are dependent on upbringing, example and training in the home. If Eliezer could identify a refined and virtuous woman in that far away land, it would be a simple matter for her to learn about the one true God if she didn’t already recognize Him. Though the community which Avraham had left was bound in idolatry, nevertheless, he knew that they were a kind and moral people, teaching their children the values and character traits which he desired for his son’s wife.

Eliezer’s test brings two things to our attention. First, the young woman he was looking for must respond positively to his request for water. Secondly, she must voluntarily offer to draw water for his camels as well. What does this behavior teach us about the nature of true kindness or chesed?

Kindness is not merely responding to the requests of another. True kindness requires that we look beyond the individual’s requests and discern the actual needs of the other person.

No sooner had Eliezer formulated his test, the young women began to appear, among them Rivkah. Eliezer asked her for water for himself. She immediately responded positively. However, this response, by itself, was not enough. Rivkah asked herself, “What else does this traveler need?” Seeing the camels, she immediately offered to provide water for them as well. She was not a self-absorbed person who didn’t notice what was going on around her. Not at all. She saw Eliezer, but she also noticed his camels and the rest of his entourage, and responded with kindness.

Rivkah’s behavior also provides a revealing insight into her family. When Eliezer asks about lodging, she immediately responded that there was room — and food and straw for the camels — at her father’s home. She was clearly a member of a family that proactively looked for the opportunity to offer assistance to others. Kindness in that family was not an occasional good deed provoked by direct confrontation with a need. We can understand that it was an ongoing behavior and value or Rivkah would not have responded as she did.

Rivkah possessed the sensitivity to look beyond the specific request of a person in need and consider what was left unsaid. We also learn from her that kindness goes much further than responding to a crisis or emergency. Kindness proactively seeks for ways to help others whenever and wherever the help is needed. In other words, kindness is a way of life, not just an occasional response to a need.

In Tune with Torah this week = developing kindness as a life value is critical to becoming people who demonstrate the truth that we are “made in the image and likeness of God” for God is supremely kind to all His creation. How are we doing in developing our own — and perhaps, our children’s — understanding and practice of kindness as a way of life?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Sukkot September 20, 2013

Leviticus 22:26-23:44

The Shabbat that occurs during the eight days of Sukkot has its own reading in keeping with the holiday. So what is this holiday all about? For seven nights Jews around the world eat – and some even sleep – in the outdoor temporary huts unique to this Jewish festival. Why do we do that?

One of our greatest Sages, Rabbi Akiva, taught that the “sukkot” or huts signify the specific relationship which the chosen people enjoy with the Holy One of Israel. It is a relationship to be sure with very specific demands but also great joys.

Our forefathers wandered into the desert under the leadership of Moses after being set free from the slavery of Pharaoh. Their faith in God sustained them throughout the forty years of their sojourn and that same faith sustains the Jew to this day. For us as individuals and families to forego the comforts of our homes and ‘live’ in a temporary shelter for these seven days is the heart of the Sukkot experience. It reminds us that in fact this earth is not our permanent dwelling place, but the God of Israel who led and fed our forefathers in the desert, and Who dwells in ultimate glory in the world to come awaits our reunion with Him after this life is over.

It also expresses our complete trust in His almighty providence and provision. It is an expression of our unwavering faith that despite the uncertainties of this world and its systems, we have a heavenly Father Who watches over us unceasingly and responds to our trust in His covenant with us.

Taking our meals in the Sukkah also serves as a reminder that since this life is temporary, it behooves us to focus on that which is spiritual. As food feeds the body, so spiritual food in the form of prayer and meditation on God’s Word, feeds our soul.

Though death is not something we generally like to think about, the serious minded person understands that at some point, this life as we know it will come to an end, and then what? Our Sages remind us that “this world is like the lobby for the World to Come; therefore, prepare yourself in the lobby so that you might enter the Banquet Hall of the Great King.” Sukkot is a vivid reminder that our thoughts, words, and actions on a daily basis DO matter; that each day we are creating our position, so to speak, in the next world. Each act of kindness, each choice to serve others rather than ourselves, each opportunity to pray, to study the Torah, to hold back our tongues from speaking negatively about others — all of these and more are recorded in the heavens and on that day when we are called to stand before the heavenly Court, those good deeds will be all we can take with us. Bank accounts, homes, jewelry, possessions — they will all remain behind. Our mitzvot – our good deeds – will accompany us into the presence of the King. Doesn’t it make sense to invest in what will remain for eternity?

In Tune with Torah this week – Sukkot is a wonderful time to reflect on our daily tasks. Are they simply routine or do we take the opportunity to make each one an offering of praise to Him Who has given us life and sustains us day by day?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tavo August 23, 2013

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Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8Moses

A tremendous lesson challenges us in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. Among the most studied passages in Devarim/Deuteronomy is the lengthy passages in which Moshe describes the blessings that will abound for the Jewish people when we follow God’s mitzvot (commandments) as well as the horrific results of acting improperly. Problems like confusion, anxiety, depression, ignorance, starvation – and worse – are listed as the outcome of godless living.

What is MOST noteworthy, however, is the reason emphasized by the Torah for such undesirable consequences. These ‘curses’ unfold when “You did not serve the Lord your God with joy and goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47).

Joy….Goodness of heart…since the consequences of NOT having these two attitudes are pretty severe, perhaps we’d best take another look at what they mean.

JOY is not synonymous with happiness. JOY is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment,inner peace and confidence in the love of God. By contrast, happiness comes and goes; it is fleeting and temporary. JOY abides independent of external circumstances.

Oxford’s dictionary defines joy as, ” A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being.” Joy is found in the quiet of a life going well, but equally in a life full of turmoil and even pain, when the fleeting sense of happiness may be a vague memory. Living joyfully requires minor changes at the very center of our inner person, rather than waiting for major changes in the external aspects of our life. Since God is eternal and He has assured us in Torah and through the Prophets that His love is abiding, abundant and unconditional, inner joy is completely possible. It is a matter of deciding and embracing that the solid foundation for our life is faith and trust in the Holy One of Israel. Once that is the bedrock upon which we build our life, JOY (and the inner peace that comes with it) becomes a permanent state of heart, even in the worst of external times.

This is not to say that we become utterly “unflappable”. Hardly. Daily life is, as a friend of mine once said, “just so daily” and it serves us sweet moments along with sour ones. We may not have much happiness in the sour moments, but our joy in the overall goodness and providence of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) remains unshaken.

“..and in goodness of heart…” We are all familiar with the phrase “out of the goodness of his heart…” which indicates a person whose general mode of behavior is characterized by kindness. Jewish teaching holds Chesed (Kindness) in very high esteem and it is taught as a major character trait to be developed in children and adults alike. In his book, KINDNESS, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes, “Kindness is one of the pillars of the world. Every act of kindness elevates your character and makes you a kinder person. A kind person is the agent of the Creator Himself.”

“Kind words,” said Mother Teresa, “are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.”

It is profoundly significant that the lack of these two qualities — JOY and GOODNESS OF HEART (kindness) — are the given reasons for curses to come into our lives as opposed to blessings. Just that thought should give us pause…and more pause.

In Tune with Torah this week = the new Hebrew year is now a mere two weeks away. As we approach the latter part of the month of Elul, this month of introspection and repentance, the two character traits highlighted in this week’s Torah portion demand our attention. Is joy an established foundation in our innermost souls? Does the joy of the Lord sustain us in difficult times? What is our kindness quotient? Do we labor at kindness in thought, word and deed? Do we need any more important motivation than to work at these two character traits as we read this week’s Torah protion?

Shabbat Shalom