Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Thanking God Even When the Going is Really Rough

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Parshat Vayishlach begins with Yaakov’s troubles and worries over finally meeting Eisav again after so many years apart. And while that encounter goes surprisingly pareve-ly, his next significant stop, in Shechem, destroys his daughter’s life and almost destroys his family. 

When one looks at the forefathers, it is easy to see that they had their challenges, their trying moments, and even extended time periods of difficulty. It’s not a competition, but I think Yaakov had it worst, as we’ll soon see. But even after Shimon and Levi wipe out Shechem, much to their father’s disappointment, Yaakov still manages to go to Beit El, under God’s reminding instruction, at which time he declares “I will build an altar there to God who answers me on the day of my distress, and has been with me on the path on which I have gone.”

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Rachel's Struggle and Rachel's Cries

Parshat Vayetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the more fascinating family relationships in the Torah surrounds that of Yaakov with his wives, and that of the wives themselves with one another. All of what you will now read is aimed at opening conversations, and not to diminish the status the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people hold in our eyes. In fact, looking at their experiences as very real, human experiences should be more the source of inspiration and what to learn from rather than to be critical of their roles in our national story.

The fact that Yaakov ends up having 4 wives at the same time is an anomaly. While Avraham had Sarah and Hagar at the same time (and took Keturah as a wife when he was a widower living alone) is something he did not want or initially agree to, but only accepted at his wife’s insistence, after ten years in Canaan (and an unknown amount of time they were married prior to coming to Canaan), and Sarah’s embracing her barrenness.

Yitzchak only had Rivkah in his life.

Yaakov intended to only have Rachel in his life. That he married Leah was a result of Lavan’s trickery. His keeping her as a wife (though he had every right to divorce here) was likely the result of his own honesty and kindness towards Leah. And, like Hagar to Avraham, Bilhah and Zilpah became his wives at his wives’ insistence.

But even in that arena, we need to raise an eyebrow about Leah’s role.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

How Tensions Resolve Themselves

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Our parsha shares with us 3 stories. The first is the background of the birth of Eisav and Yaakov and the sale of the Bechora, the second is the one chapter dedicated to the life of Yitzchak, and the final tale concerns the blessings seemingly designated for Eisav which Yaakov received based on his mother’s intervention and instruction.

If I could summarize each of these stories with their aftermath objectively, based on the text we have, it would sound like this:

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Shidduch Criteria - Bigotry or Common Sense?

Parshat Chayei Sarah

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When it came time to find a wife for Yitzchak, Avraham was very clear in his instructions to his servant. Swear “that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live. Instead, you must go to my native land, to my birthplace, and obtain a wife for my son Yitzchak.“ (24:3-4)

Was Avraham instructing his servant to specifically find Rivkah, about whose existence he learned of in the end of Chapter 22? Was he generally instructing his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak specifically from his family? Or was he being discriminatory against his neighbors, while remembering fondly or wistfully the Haranite, Aramite, or Casdean women?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Avimelekh, The King Who Plays the Blame Game

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Avimelekh, king of Gerar, is a tragic figure. He’s a king, but he is very insecure. He thinks his position allows him to do things no civilian could get away with, but every time he gets called on his behavior, he lays the blame on others and never takes responsibility.

After having taken Sarah to his palace, against her will, God appears to Avimelekh and tells him, you’re a dead man because you stole a man’s wife. His response? “Didn't [her husband] tell me that she was his sister? She also claimed that he was her brother. If I did something, it was with an innocent heart and clean hands.'” (Chapter 20:5)

Was it really? Did you have to take her at all? Did she come to your home of her own accord? Did she consent? Isn’t taking a woman against her will a problematic behavior?

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Avraham's Relationships and Sarai's "Chamas" (חמסי עליך)

Parshat Lekh Lekha

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The first comment Rashi shares in the Torah is that the law book begins with narrative in order that the nation of God should be able to demonstrate why the land of Israel belongs to them. With this sentiment, it could be easily argued that the narrative could have simply begun with Avraham. We had no need for the accounts of Creation (Ch. 1 – “6 days” and Ch. 2 – “Garden of Eden”), and we had no need for the flood and the dispersion.

The Torah could have simply stated that God created the world, and after 1656 years He felt the need to recreate the world through a flood. A few hundred years later, Avraham discovered God in a way others had not before him, and then God sent him on a journey to “a land that I will show you.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

120 Years - Maximum Amount of Time to Do Teshuvah

Parshat Noach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Reading through Chapter 5, we find people living to be over 900 years old. In his Haamek Davar, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin argued that that kind of existence was possible in a Garden of Eden, and even afterwards, but Rabbi Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Haktav V’hakabbalah notes that the atmosphere of the world changed after the flood, and people could no longer live that long.

In fact, ages were cut in half post flood (look at the two generations following Noach), and even further cut in half (down to under 200) by the time Avraham came around.

While I know that most people would like to continue living as long as possible, that assumes good health and not being a burden on anyone. Some who suffer just want all to end so their suffering can end. There are certainly different views on what makes life “too long.” Even for those who have good health until the final day, one question often comes up – “how do I spend my time?” (That is something people ought to think about if they have plans to retire, unlike those whose plan is to "work until I die.")