Monday, November 19, 2018

Death Of Rachel - Tragedy Beyond Words

Parshat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

While opinions abound as to how old Rachel was at her death, one thing is pretty clear – from the time Yaakov meets her at the well until she dies is a period of no more than 22 years.

This means that her children, Yosef and Binyamin, were respectively 8 and a newborn at her passing.

Knowing what I know now, it boggles my mind that Yosef’s brothers treated him the way they did into the teenage years, seemingly not having a sensitivity that their younger brother, bereft of his mother, might need a different kind of treatment, be given a pass more often, due to his tragic reality.

A confession: When I was a novice teacher in high school, I was asked to give a dvar torah at a school shabbaton, and somehow I mentioned in a terrible moment of naïvete (I don’t remember the parsha – but it was pretty early in the school year) that “thank God it doesn’t happen today, but the Torah is teaching us how to treat those who are orphaned at a young age.”

One of the administrators called me over afterwards and told me that one of my students had lost her mother a few years prior. It was an eye-opening moment. I later apologized to the student for my insensitivity, and have since tried to be a lot more careful – knowing that the facts of life are simply facts, and that opining about them is where we get into trouble.

Of course since then, I’ve seen too many people pass away far too early. In the last 6 months, I’ve seen peers of mine, all in their 30s, burying spouses. And I’ve heard of other similar stories. In the count of the recent families I know (sadly there are more) – 15 children are now without one parent. The ones I mention died of natural causes. What of those who are killed in terrorist attacks? Battles? Or (not to equate, though the tragic results are the same) car accidents?

In the context of talking about “Daas Torah” and what it means for rabbis heavily embedded in Torah study to have a keener sense and understanding of the world, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein shared an incredible anecdote, which has troubled me since the first time I read it.

“Many years ago, I travelled to Bnei Brak to console my rabbi and teacher, Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt'l, in his mourning, when his wife had passed away.
“When I went to see him, I found him sitting alone. We had a private conversation, and this was conducted in a very open and honest fashion, from one heart to another. Rav Hutner told me that one of the talmidei chachamim who came to console him, tried to convince him and to 'explain' to him how his wife's passing was 'positive', inasmuch as she was now in the world of truth, a world which is entirely positive and other such nonsense.
“And indeed, it is not uncommon to hear such things when one goes to console a mourner, especially when the deceased passed away while being involved in a mitzva or has fallen in battle, in sanctification of Hashem's name.
“It is superfluous to state that saying such things is totally unsuitable. I remember that when Rav Hutner told me this, he raised his voice and he applied the following severe words of the Midrash to that talmid chacham (Vayikra Rabba 1): "Any talmid chacham who lacks 'da’at' is worse than a putrid animal carcass!" 

Rabbi Lichtenstein shared the rest of Rav Hutner’s comments (you can find it here, on pages 8-9) to support his point in the article. But the story is what resonated most with me.

Are there people who are so unaware, that they could say the most ridiculous things, just to fill the awkwardness of silence in a house of mourning?

Rachel’s death was a travesty. It destroyed Yaakov. He was never the same again. He didn’t deal with the brothers properly, even as he spoiled Yosef. He was ridiculously overprotective of Binyamin, who will still be identified as a “naar” when he is an adult of 30, the father of ten children, unable to leave his father’s side, because his leaving may cause Yaakov to die.

But there is one thing we can take from Rachel’s death, because just before she died she gave birth to a child. The same verse that she says she named him “Ben Oni” says that his father called him “Binyamin.”

Some commentaries say Ben Oni means “the son of my suffering.” Others, such as the Malbim and Ramban, suggest that Oni means “strength.” Ramban essentially says that Yaakov took from pain and turned it into strength, while Malbim says the “change” reframes the name and makes it more clear. Calling him Binyamin (“son of right hand”) means the same thing. “Son of strength.”

Rabbenu Bachaye also says “Son of Strength” (30:23) as he notes that Rachel’s name for her son, Ben Oni, came from a perspective which denotes God’s name of judgment, while “Binyamin” invokes God’s name of mercy.

And this, I think, leads us to what is the most equitable response. The death of a loved one, at any age, combines God’s attributes of Judgment and Mercy. We understand neither, so for us there is only sadness.

However, there is hope – we give a blessing to people when we visit them that God should be the ultimate comforter. We bless a surviving spouse to eventually find strength amidst the pain. We commit as a community to be as helpful and supportive as we can. And we also must take extra care and be as sensitive as possible to the reality that while everyone is sad when losing a parent (at any age), children who lose a parent while they still live at home are the “Y’tomim” of which the Torah speaks – the ones who must be protected, cared for, watched over, and supported in any way possible. Because they are God’s children, and he expects us to fill the void.

Reality is sometimes troubling, difficult, exceedingly challenging. But like our ancestor Yaakov, who was renamed in our parsha twice, we should be blessed to live up to our namesake as we too “struggle with God” and the challenges He sends us “yet we overcome.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

"Does He Have Peace?" "Peace..."

I feel like I'm in a time warp. I wrote the exact same message 6 years ago, but from a completely different angle. Why does Hamas like to attack Israel in the week of Parshat Vayetze? #SMH

Parshat Vayetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When Yaakov first arrived in Haran, he encountered shepherds waiting at a well. There is certainly a chance that this is the same well where his mother was discovered 97 years earlier. And if it is, certainly things have changed. Whereas once upon a time the girls of the town might come on their own to draw water, now some kind of pact has led to a large stone being placed atop the well, so all the shepherds can draw water and can keep each other honest.

Wanting to know a little bit about his uncle, Yaakov asked the shepherd a few questions, to which they provided very terse answers.

“Where are you from?” “From Haran.”

“Do you fellows know Lavan?” “We know.”

“Does he have Shalom?” “Shalom.”

It seems that they follow this response with a notice “And his daughter Rachel is coming with the sheep,” though it can also be read that the narrative is informing us that Rachel is on her way (compare it to 24:15 when Rivkah emerges), not the shepherds giving Yaakov new information.

Only when Yaakov asks them about why they’re hanging around the well, do they open up and answer in a complete sentence, “We can’t [water the animals] until all the flocks gather, and we all roll the stone off the top of the well, then we water the sheep.”

That they are more talkative when Yaakov asks them about themselves than about Lavan could just speak to their personalities. But why do they not even answer the question about the “Shalom” in Lavan’s home with a complete answer? (As in "He has Shalom in his home")

And if the introduction to Rachel was something they said, why did they offer that information when they weren’t even asked?

Let’s look at the second question first. A number of Midrashim and many commentaries suggest that these guys were not so talkative and weren’t particularly interested in talking to this stranger who was trying to play Haran-Geography. When they saw Rachel coming they saw an opportunity to get this nudnik off their case – she could tell him all about Lavan! Of course, as Yaakov was an experienced shepherd (his being described as a Yoshev Ohalim in 25:27 is reminiscent of Yaval, the Yoshev Ohel U’mikneh (shepherd) from Bereshit 4:20), talking shop with them opened them up to a conversation. By the time Rachel arrived at the well they were still chatting (29:9).

Some suggest their telling him Rachel was shepherding alone indicated that things were good for Lavan, because he (her father) didn’t have to worry about her, and she didn’t have to worry about herself being attacked or assaulted. (R Chaim Paltiel)

The Baal HaTurim notes that they did not respond to his last question about Shalom with a full response as there is a principle "There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked." (Yeshayahu 57:21 – from the haftarah of Yom Kippur).

Or HaChaim argues that their incomplete answer to his question stemmed from the conception they had that Yaakov was asking two things: 1. Is Lavan “Shalem” (whole) in body and financially?, 2. Are they (the shepherds) at peace with Lavan? Their simple response, “Shalom” was vague enough that we’re not in a fight with him, and that he’s doing OK. In fact, his daughter is coming – she’s safe. We have no intentions of harming her.

On the other hand, Or HaChaim continues, the Shalom becomes increasingly vague when we realize that it doesn’t inform whether Lavan is doing well financially. It doesn’t say “Everything is great.” But if it leads into information that Rachel is coming, alone, with all her father’s sheep, that shows Lavan’s assets are nothing to write home about. Or that he is very cheap, and doesn’t care about his younger daughter, who has been raised to be the shepherd.

Alternatively, as the Torat Moshe puts it, there is peace with him because no one wants to associate with him. Since no one wants have anything to do with him, he can’t hire a shepherd other than his daughter. He does his own thing! He doesn’t bother anyone and no one bothers with him.

It’s the simplest ingredient for peace. Leave each other alone. Even if it is a cold peace because we have nothing to do with each other, at least we’re not fighting. And if every now and then we need to cross a border to go into town or to take care of our sheep, we can send an emissary who is not scary, dangerous, etc, who has no appeal to anyone else to bother with for any particular reason.

When fighting and rockets come flaring out of Gaza (as seems to happen on a mass scale every couple of years) this is all I can think of. Except for knowing that some elements of Hamas society and culture will never rest until all the Jews are dead and gone, I can not understand the mentality that refuses to say, “Why can’t we just make the best of our situation here and create a Singapore like nation? We don’t need military! We need creativity! To create, to export, to make jobs, to bring out the best of our people! We need education for our children, hope for our people – that we have the power to create!”

I thought a 100-years war was a thing of the past. And while I don’t want to be pessimistic, when I am blessed with grandchildren one day, they too will watch with sadness as the war continues.

The prophet Yeshayahu says in the two verses prior to the one quoted by the Baal Haturim: “‘[I] create the speech of the lips; peace, peace to the far and to the near,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will heal him.’ But the wicked are like the turbulent sea, for it cannot rest, and its waters cast up mud and dirt.”

Sad and true. And as we learn about Lavan through the parsha, we see why he had no friends. Same reason.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Veterans Day Sermon 2018

"Thank You For Your Service" 
Kristallnacht, Veterans Day, Parshat Toldot

Eighty years ago today, Jews in Europe woke up to a reality that few could ever fathom. The following day, the NY times had a very large headline which read


All Vienna’s Synagogues Attacked; Fires and Bombs Wreck 18 of 21

Jews are Beaten, Furniture and Goods Flung From Homes and Shops – 15,000 Are Jailed During Day – 20 are Suicides

And in another article on that page BANDS ROVE CITIES

Thousands Arrested for ‘Protection’ as Gangs Avenge Paris Death

It’s an incredible thing to observe what real fascism is. Gangs “Avenge” Paris death. One person murdered – let’s assume Hershel Grynspan was in the wrong. His act caused the outpouring of rage? That was just an excuse for a raging mob, who had been fed lie after lie after lie, to be unleashed, with police protection and even police participation, to wreak the havoc that, violence-wise, indicated what was in store for the Jews of Europe. All this was to AVENGE PARIS DEATH. Really? Less than a year later, Germany invaded Poland, and the rest is our very sad and tragic recent history.

Tragedies surround us. Some at the hands of man – as we saw in Pittsburgh to Shabboses ago, and in the recent night club shooting in California (where, in addition to 11 customers, 1 guard/officer was killed), some also at the hands of man but in car accidents (I mentioned one last week, there was another in Israel in the days following, and a 33 year old was killed by a car on Thursday in Far Rockaway) and the like. And some are in God’s hands. (California fires...)

Rabbi Jonathan Kroll recently shared with the Katz Yeshiva High School that he went to NY/NJ for the funeral of Dannie G____, the wife of Rabbi Josh G____, who spoke here this summer. She was in her 30s and had a brain tumor – a battle which tragically ended the same Shabbos as the Pittsburgh shooting. When he was in the airport on the way back, people saw his kippah and wished him condolences for his loss. He wondered how they knew about Mrs. G_____ and realized they were talking about Pittsburgh.

Near a shul vandalized in Brooklyn this week – the police have caught some of the suspects – a playground’s sidewalk was chalked up with messages of love. “Tree of Life – Never Forgotten” “Shalom to Jerusalem” “You are LOVED” in a heart. Love graffiti was shared in a synagogue in Western Massachusetts – the Forward had an article about it. 

Which goes to show that there are terrible people, very very very troubled people, and good people. Which – as we know – is the story of humanity.

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:

The First story is divided into two parts. Tension of pregnancy is resolved with assurance that two nations will emerge.

Tension between twins – if any – resolved through financial arrangement agreed to by both sides.

Second story. Also has two components.

The tension between sides is resolved when there is an understanding of who the parties are – Yitzchak and Rivkah being husband and wife.

Second part: Tension is resolved when Avimelekh – some time after having realized that Yitzchak’s being in his city was a blessing, and that his kicking Yitzchak out was not good for business – Avimelekh comes with his general and a group of ambassadors and tells Yitzchak that because they see God is with him, they want to be on his side. This is rather strange, of course, because when Avraham had his own encounters with the Gerarites some time ago, he noted to them that the reason he was not on the up and up about his relationship with Sarah, claiming to be her brother and not mentioning that she is also his wife – was because they were not God-fearing! One would think they’d have learned their lesson!

Nonetheless they do come around in our story, and the tension ends with a new treaty.

Third story. 

Tension between brothers does not come to resolution, because the only thing that will heal the raw hurt is time. But who is to blame? Who cheated whom? Where is the address for Eisav’s grievance? Against Yaakov? Against their mother? Against their father? Is Eisav’s grievance even warranted – after all, shouldn’t he have told his father, “I know what you want me to do, and why, but the fact is that while I am the older brother, I sold all merits of the bechora to my brother some time ago – so if this is about a blessing to a first born… you have the wrong guy.”

Eisav did not do that. That conversation might have given us a clearer picture into Yitzchak’s intentions – meaning if he had only called to EISAV, and not “בנו הגדול” we would know for sure. But once we see he’s dealing with a descriptive, then the question is who really owns that descriptive?

So is Eisav’s rage warranted in the end? He wants to kill his brother. Is that a proper response? Maybe a fair response is “let’s come to the table and come to an equitable solution or a resolution of this misunderstanding.”

Maybe I don’t know a whole lot about how brachas work – but surely this kind of discussion could be had at a negotiating table. Maybe Eisav could have even said “Thank you for keeping me honest!”

But there is a hatred that goes beyond reason. And this is why Eisav is described as Eisav Harasha. You don’t like what happened – your immediate response is rage and murder? To Eisav’s credit, he cared about his father too much so he didn’t do it right away.

But he did also believe his father was at death’s door. After all, Yitzchak was now 123, and he was within 5 years of the age his mother Sarah had been when she died.

How can we categorize these characters? Using the descriptives I outlined a littler earlier – terrible, very very troubled, or good people?

It’s complicated. I don’t know if Eisav was terrible – he certainly felt he was cheated and that his perspective was justified. But Yaakov felt his perspective was justified. And while Yitzchak may have felt, on the one hand, that he was deceived (he does say בא אחיך במרמה ויקח ברכתיך), on the other hand, the fact is that he does not undo the bracha and even supports it saying גם ברוך יהיה – the person who received the blessing should be blessed.

RAGE. What a powerful emotion. It is the kind we sometimes feel when we see terrible injustice. Every time there is a terrorist attack deliberately against a random Jew in Israel, I feel rage. Outrage. How does someone – whatever political and ideological differences may exist – take a knife, a gun, a car, a bomb, and use it to kill people against whom one has no specific difference. But even with that RAGE, you don’t see me or anyone who feels that rage going out and killing innocents! Insane!

I don’t justify the killing of someone not engaged in an act of violence. But one of my favorite examples of rage killing – completely justified – comes from the novel A Time to Kill by John Grisham, in which a black man in the south kills the two arrogant bigot white men who savagely ravaged his 10 year old daughter. When they were in custody. And his lawyer gets him acquitted.

That’s what we might call in Torah language – a גואל הדם. Justice to the criminals only. Rage against the perpetrators. They ruined his daughter’s life… he ruined their lives in the only way that was appropriate.

Which is why people with blood on their hands don’t deserve – in my opinion – the free medical treatment they sometimes get when they are injured. Or to have a Jewish doctor and nurse save your life, as the Pittsburgh killer did. Do they even express gratitude? Do they appreciate what people who do not know them, but who believe in the nobility of their profession, did for them?

Did Yaakov deserve that? Did he ruin Eisav’s life? On the contrary, he took a burden of the bechora – which Eisav did not value and did not want – and took it off his hands in an agreed upon transaction. And, in all honesty, owing to our knowing what Rivkah knows, he also followed through with what was rightly coming to him due to their prior agreements.

Eisav – you can’t have it both ways. Make an agreement, don’t hold yourself to it, then get angry when you don’t get what you might think is yours, but really isn’t.

And to think murder is the answer?


There has to be a recognition that when someone does you a good turn – as Yaakov did in feeding you when you were hungry and exhausted, as Yaakov did in taking a spiritual burden off your hands, as Yaakov did in purchasing from you something you did not want –– the pasuk says וימכר and he SOLD his birthright to Yaakov. ויעקב נתן לעשו – he GAVE to Eisav the soup and bread and something to drink… That was not the PRICE of the birthright. That was a meal to celebrate the transaction ---- you owe, at the very least, a debt of gratitude, and an awareness that there are no takebacks. Your mother Rivkah, and in turn, your brother Yaakov kept you honest in taking the blessing that was Yaakov’s to receive. You should say THANK YOU!

Because otherwise, Eisav, you ARE a horrible person.

 I don’t need to explain why all those who participated in Kristallnacht were horrible people. There is NO justification for that night. No justification for the war which followed. And the War Against the Jews. No justification for blaming one nation’s problems on the Jewish people.

HATE and RAGE is not a justification for killing innocents. It is just an emotion that separates good people from bad people. Good people can feel rage and hate, but what do they do with it? Bad people turn to violence as their outlet.

And I think it can be said that some people don’t know the right way to express what should be their feelings of gratitude.

I read an article this week by a woman named Sara Carter, entitled “The Five Simple Words that SNL and Pete Davidson Should Learn to Say.”

There was a time in my life when I watched Saturday Night Live. I don’t know why. It was over 20 years ago… Since then I’ve seen clips. Most of them are not funny.

Recently, they mocked retired Navy SEAL and congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw, using a very crude joke about him based on the fact that he wears an eye-patch, which he lost while serving in Afghanistan.

Carter writes: Can you imagine what it’s like to lose your sight?

Imagine fighting overseas, far away from your loved ones, only to find yourself blinded in a momentary hail of gunfire and a grenade being lobbed over your head.

Imagine the last thing you see in your life was the pin of the grenade falling at your feet and your weapon falling from your hands.

Imagine asking the doctors at a makeshift hospital in Afghanistan if you can call your family before they wheel you into a surgery that they tell you, you may never survive.

That’s what happened to my husband, Marty, on Easter Sunday, 2011.

“Baby, I got dinged up a bit. I love you.”

That was all Marty said before the doctors came on the line and told me he might not make it through the surgery. He would endure three craniotomies and rehabilitation before he recovered.

Her husband made it through the surgery, but he is now completely blind.

Crenshaw was asked about the joke at his expense, and he said, “We have thick skin, but as veterans, it’s hard for us to understand why war wounds would elicit such raucous laughter from an audience.”

Carter went on to write that she believes most American’s didn’t find Davidson’s joke humorous, but can agree that this great nation is worth fighting for and dying for.

And she concluded with an important reminder. Every stranger that has thanked my husband and my family for our service has touched our hearts in more ways than they can imagine.”

Just to say to those who served “Thank you for your service.” Five simple words.

(Follow up from after Shabbos: Apology Accepted)

In honor of Veterans Day, a friend of mine shared with me a story he saw on Facebook. A story about Ann Margaret, the actress, and a man who served in Vietnam, and was shot by a sniper.


The man - named Richard - had a photo of her when she came to visit his unit with Bob Hope, and when he found out she was going to be doing a book signing in his neighborhood – sometime in the 2000s – he went to hopefully meet her and get her to sign the photo.

The people at the bookstore announced she’d only be signing the book and nothing else. He showed her the photo anyway – against the protests of the employees – saying “I just wanted her to see it."

She took one look at the photo, tears welled up in her eyes and she said, "This is one of my gentlemen from Viet Nam and I most certainly will sign his photo. I know what these men did for their country and I always have time for 'my gentlemen.'' With that, she pulled Richard across the table and planted a big kiss on him. She then made quite a to-do about the bravery of the young men she met over the years, how much she admired them, and how much she appreciated them. Took photos. Made it like he was the only person there.

That moment changed him, his wife writes. He walked a little straighter. A little prouder. And when she asked him at dinner if he wanted to talk about what had happened that day he broke down in tears.. ''That's the first time anyone ever thanked me for my time in the Army,'' he said.


I honestly don’t know enough about how the country takes care of the veterans. I hear mixed stories about VA hospitals – some good, some bad. The shooter in California this week was a vet – he is dead so we don’t know his motivation – was it PTSD? Was he a disturbed person who never had the chance to do this before? Or was he just evil? I don’t know. Would this have happened if the warning signs had been tended to? We’ll never know. We only have tragedy and sadness in the wake of it.

But I do know this. While there are few and rare people who do those kinds of things, there are many people who are gems, who served honorably and were discharged honorably, were never filled with hate or rage against their country or its citizens, and served for God and country. And only asked for a “thank you” in return. 

We can’t make sense of tragedy. Mayor of North Ogden, Utah, Brent Taylor, father of 7, was killed this week in Afghanistan. The Veterans continue to put their lives on the line, and sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice.

If you are a Veteran of the US military in this room, please raise your hand or stand. On behalf of all of us, we Thank You For Your Service. 

If you have a relative who served, please raise your hand now. We thank your relative for his or her service. 

The two most difficult tensions in the parsha were resolved with Avimelekh saying “We see God is with you,” and through Yaakov and Eisav having a separation of time – over 36 years – during which time, it seems, feelings relaxed and things could normalize. Though, it should be noted that when Yaakov and Eisav reunite in Vayishlach, Yitzchak IS still alive.

God, and time. 

If Eisav had been God-fearing, he would have been honest about the blessing. If he had let the time since the sale – which had taken place almost 50 years earlier – sink in to his new reality (even if he regretted it later!) he should have been honest about it. Instead he let his emotion, and ultimately RAGE rule his day.

He COULDN’T express gratitude, because he couldn’t be honest with himself about what the people around him were doing – freeing him from responsibility, and giving him a chance at the life he needed to live. A life of being a free spirit not bound to time and place.

When we are God-fearing, we don’t let our emotion overtake how we respond to others. When we realize that our raw feelings are overtaking us, we need to give time a chance to heal us, to set things aright, to help us see the bigger picture.

Time doesn’t heal everything, but it helps us move on. 

That is what those who lived through Kristallnacht and the Holocaust certainly know and knew.
That is what those who have been victims of terror in Israel know and knew.
That is what the people in Pittsburgh will come to see.

And to this crowd I will add that being God-fearing is an essential ingredient as well. Because otherwise, our task of trying to make sense of it all is fool-hardy. We will get nowhere.

Being God-fearing, and letting time help us gather the pieces. And of course of course, expressing gratitude to those who help us live in relative safety and peace from invading enemies: that is what we learn from Avimelekh, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Eisav. May these ingredients help all who served, and may they help all of us find peace in the right time.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Jealousy? Of What? ... the Age-Old Question

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

All I’ve been hearing and seeing in the last two weeks has been a mix of reactions to the tragic event in Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh two Saturdays ago. While I don’t know how many people are living on the edge, worried about where or when the next attack will be (may all the worry be just worry and never come to anything!), it is a mix of feelings of sadness and “that’s refreshing” to see the kind of security upticks many communities are taking.

At the same time, the spike in vandalism in Manhattan, Brooklyn, California, and other places, in the last week alone, is most disturbing. What is wrong with people?

Finger pointing at left or right is silly. This is a deeper problem than political ideology – this is individuals who think that Jews are a problem in society. And why? Because we exist.

There’s no other rhyme or reason for Jew-hatred. Some people who have never met a Jew hate Jews. Why? Ignorance? Jealousy? Brainwashing? Fear? Israel?

The truth is, it’s an old story. A very old story.

Around the time of the Har Nof Massacre (4 years ago) I addressed the question of how Yitzchak reacted to the peace offer of Avimelekh and Phichol. (26:26) His reaction to them is, “Why have you come to me? You hate me! You sent me away from your land!”

That Yitzchak was sent away was on account of a dispute over wells, economics, control, etc. While he had originally been embraced in Gerar, it soon became clear that his success was extremely troubling to Avimelekh and co. And how did they treat Yitzchak before kicking him out? Instead of asking him to teach them his secrets, instead of honoring his success, they sought to vandalize his property. “And all of the wells that Avraham’s servants had dug in Avraham’s days were stuffed up with dirt and closed by the Phillistines.” (26:15)

Seriously? How immature! See how jealousy can spite your own face. You’re in a land where freshwater seems hard to come by. Wells are good! Yet because you don’t own them yourselves, you stuff them?

And this behavior – of the Phillistines! – is what leads Avimelekh to tell Yitzchak to leave town. 'Go away from us. You have become much more powerful than we are.'(26:16)

Is that, in fact, the problem? That when Jews are successful, that when Jews are influential, that when Jews play a significant role in a society, they hate us? Not all of society, for sure, but there is always an element. And it’s not just those who demonstrate lower intelligence (meaning, who have no really good reason for why they think “all Jews are a problem”). It is also an element of elitists who forget how this country was founded – “that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” also means that all citizens who share the same pursuits of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are not to be discriminated against for different beliefs.

The Jews who are loved and admired in society are most often not outwardly religious Jews. The religious – those who go to synagogue in whatever format – they are the ones undeserving of basic American rights. Right? (Let us make no mention of the fact that not all Jews are "successful" in the financial sense. Many struggle with jobs, livelihood, making ends meet... like, um, normal people)

So why was Yitzchak so upset? Didn’t he know this was his lot in life? Actually, their treatment of him was a total shock. Because while his father Avraham had some run-ins in the past, the thought was that when Avraham explained to the people of Gerar several decades earlier that the reason he had not told them Sarah was his wife was because they had not demonstrated a “fear of God,” the message seemed to strike home! They seemed to understand and appreciate that fear of God was an essential quality for living in peace with persons who are different.

One must see that the other person is created in the Image of God. One must recognize that the other person deserves basic human dignity, and should be treated with decency. One must realize that sharing in the human condition means that while we have differences of opinion, those differences are not meant to be settled through the lifting of a weapon. (While war between nations is tragic, sadly it is sometimes necessary. But it is extremely rare – if not unheard of – for democracies to war against each other.)

And so Yitzchak was in shock over their hate toward him. Because while he had been financially successful, he hadn’t done anything to them to warrant their hatred. Which simply meant their hatred came from a jealousy that was only countered after much introspection from Avimelekh and Phichol, who came to the conclusion that making peace with Yitzchak was necessary because “'We have indeed seen that God is with you,' they replied. 'We propose that there now be a dread oath between you and us. Let us make a treaty with you, that just as we did not touch you, you will do no harm to us. We did only good to you and let you leave in peace. Now you are the one who is blessed by God.' (26:28-29)

Hmmm. That’s not exactly how things went down.

But what does it mean? It means that the descendants of Yitzchak still encounter Avimelekhs: These are people who are all smiles, who will deny that they ever hated Jews, and they will also say things like, “Some of my best friends are Jews.” They’ll shift all blame off themselves, especially when they realize that being friendly is to their benefit.

But in Avimelekh’s case, there was one more reason. Targum Yonatan explains the following: “They said, ‘We saw that God’s word was helping you. In your merit we had good in our land. And since you left, the wells have dried up and the trees haven’t produced fruit. This is why we need you to come back and that the treaty between us be an investment in our future.’”

I do not believe in any silly notion that Jews are the key to all success in the world. But I do believe that Jews contribute in a significant way wherever they find themselves. It took Avimelekh to wonder WHAT HAPPENED TO MY LAND? to realize that the blessing he had for a number of years ceased around the time Yitzchak left. Which reminded him of what drew his nation to like Avraham in the first place. They had agreed to be God-fearing.

When that happens in truth and for real, we will all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And Jews will not have to live in any kind of fear of where or when a next attack will come.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Ephron's Attitude in Giving Land to Jews

Parshat Chayei Sarah

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Sarah dies. Avraham approaches the local Hittites and asks to speak to Ephron ben Tzochar.
23:9 – that he should give to me the Machpela cave at the edge of his field, for its full price, [to be used as] a burial plot.

Ephron responds.
23:11 – I’ll give it you for free! In front of everyone! It’s yours! Bury your dead!

Avraham is appreciative. However
23:13 – I’m giving you the money. Take it from me. Then I will bury my dead.

Ephron thinks it over:
23:15 – Alright. A land of 400 silver shekels – between us friends, not such a big deal, right? – and then you can bury your dead.

The following verse should say that Avraham paid the money and buried his dead. After all, those two points were raised in every verse up until now: Payment and burial.

But the Torah takes 3 verses to describe the giving over of the money and the fact that the land, the field, the cave have all been transferred to Avraham’s ownership. The Torah goes into much detail about how to identify this space, presumably to make clear that this was a big purchase, made by Avraham for his family to have an eternal burial spot. This was a purchase and transfer of property for all time.

After the purchase is made and the property transferred, in a manner that is clear and that everyone understands, then, and only then, does Avraham bury his wife. And, when he buries her, the Torah again gives geographical markers to let us know where this is taking place, “Near Mamre, which is Hevron, in the land of Canaan.”

There are many attitudes ascribed to Ephron, mostly negative, in his turning from “free” to an exorbitant sum, in his wheeler dealer negotiations, in his offering much but giving little, in his greediness, or in his faux friendship.

But I think there’s a much simpler lesson that comes out in light of the tragic events that emerged last Shabbos in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

The Ephrons of the world are very happy to give away free land to dead Jews. It’s a very small price to pay for a particularly heinous and dastardly goal. Ephron’s hesitation at selling land to Avraham meant that he’d be giving Avraham a place to call his own, one that he and his descendants could point to and see, “We own it because we paid for it. It is ours.”

And that is why the Torah doesn’t just describe a small burial cave as the purchase, but a field and a cave and all the trees around it, around the complete border of the property – all of it now belonged to Avraham.

A friend of mine, who is involved in education in NYC, shared this story from his Monday morning commute. “Just took the crosstown bus and a ‘nice older white gentleman’ sits next to me and is reading the paper. I tell him that I am getting off at the next stop and he nods. As I get up to pass him, he says, ‘That synagogue deserved to get shot up... have a wonderful day.’”

I know and recognize that an individual bigot and racist is not necessarily endemic or exemplar of an entire society. Most people who saw what happened were horrified and condemned the act of violence. Some used it to score political points, some used it to talk about gun-control.

But the fact is that the shooter wasn’t just a crazed loon who wanted to kill people. He shouted “All Jews must die!” And he walked into a synagogue to perpetrate his evil actions. There is nothing more anti-Semitic than that, especially when attached to an active firearm.

And the fact that some random gross person will cowardly articulate that to my friend as he’s getting off the bus and has no chance to respond, goes to show how evil-in-the-mind some seemingly normal people might be.

And as much as we enjoy life in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the fact is that Jew-hatred is all around us. The ADL’s count of incidents of anti-Semitic attacks rises every year. The anti-Israel movement in academia and on college-campuses and beyond would make no sense and would not happen if Israel were not a Jewish country. Owing to the reality of the state being Jewish it still makes no sense, but it happens because many people have an unexplainable Jew-button in their mind that makes them become completely irrational when it comes to Jewish people, Jewish institutions, Jewish activities, and a Jewish state.

Last week a well-known media personality, Mika Brzezinski, reacted to Ivanka Trump’s celebrating her 9th anniversary on Twitter, which included pictures with her husband Jared wearing a kippah, writing “We don’t want to see that today. Or any day… this is icky.” Most normal people responded to her saying something to the effect of even if you don’t like Trump & Kushner, their celebration of their marriage is acceptable and admirable! She eventually deleted her “tweet,” but screenshots last forever.

A friend of mine noted, from personal experience, that Mika has a strange reaction to kippahs. Considering the house in which she was raised, I wonder why.

But that’s just a small snapshot of a much larger issue. If this country is tolerant – and I believe institutionally it is, and that most people don’t care enough to hate Jews – then the Ephrons of the world need to be outshouted and overpowered by those who believe Jews are allowed to live and thrive.

 It would be naïve to suggest all ideological differences between Jews will disappear. Some will never go away. But the blame-game for evil acts goes squarely on those who commit evil acts, or when it comes to Jews, who dehumanize Jews. Which is why even some Jews in the media who throw the blame for this particular evil act on a mainstream American political party or the President are absolutely in the wrong. (Honestly, one side embraces more anti-Semites, but I’m not allotting space for that much larger discussion.)

Ephron’s attitude is like that of the anti-Semites who followed him in history, that “the only good Jew is a dead Jew.”

Anyone who rejects that statement, as all good people should, must take a strong stand that anti-Semitism has no place in the modern world.

May God eradicate evil from the face of the earth. And may the Pittsburgh Jewish community feel the love being sent to them from around the world, and with God’s help, may they eventually find healing.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Akedah Redux

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the most enduring challenges in the Binding of Isaac story (hereafter “the Akedah”) is that as much as we explore it, the more we see we don’t understand it.

Which is why the challenge to understand the narrative, the episode, the exchange, the commitment, the relationships become ever more glaring the more we try to unravel what is taking place.

A number of years ago I had a discussion with a fellow educator about this. He was thoroughly convinced that his “approach” to understanding the Akedah was “correct,” while he evaded every question I sent his way, unsatisfactorily resolving the ones he took on, while sidestepping the questions that didn’t jibe with his personal narrative of what the Akedah “means.”

One thing that is very clear to me is that God never intended for Yitzchak to die on the mountain. (as stated in the Talmud Taanit 4a)

I am also pretty confident that Avraham was meant to take Yitzchak to this particular place to give Yitzchak his own “Lekh Lekha experience” (compare 12:1 to 22:2), so Yitzchak could have a similar kind of training to that of his father, especially since Yitzchak had no reason to abandon his father’s household in order to find God, as did his father before him.

I am also mostly convinced that when Avraham is told “Ha’alayhu sham l’olah” (22:2) (“raise him up there to an olah”), that Yitzchak is meant to go up a mountain to experience an olah (burnt offering), and not to himself “be” the olah. In fact, when we compare the way the Torah describes Yitzchak being placed on the altar (22:9) to the way the ram is ultimately placed on the altar (22:13), the Torah’s language makes it clear that when the ram is placed, Avraham fulfills the commandment given to him: “Va’yalayhu l’olah.”

There are many words utilized in the Torah’s narrative which are unclear, confusing, strange. None of them can be ignored, and each one must have a good answer for why it is used. Two of these words are “Ma’achelet” – a very strange word for what seems to be the knife-for-slaughter; and “achar” – the position where Avraham notices the ram. (I don’t have the space to address these here).

I am also not convinced that the word “Nissah” (22:1) – which many translate to mean “tested” – indicates a test at all. In other places in the Torah the word “Nes” can be more accurately defined as a banner. Ibn Ezra essentially argues that “Nissah” means Avraham was being raised above all. God was “showing his [Avraham’s] righteousness to other humans.”

Radak even notes that this is the strangest of “tests” because no one was on the mountain with them to see it! And so, he argues, the whole episode is meant to show Avraham’s love for the Almighty. God tells him to jump, he jumps.

But what of the view that the grammar is wrong? The format of “Nissah” isn’t about how God is about to do anything to Avraham (whether “test” or “raised him up”)! It is a confirmation of what has already been proven! (see Malbim and Ha’Ktav v’Hakabbalah)

Rabbenu Bachaye notes that the purpose of the Akedah was to publicize to the nations Avraham’s greatness in Awe/Reverence/Fear of God (Yirah), and in his love (Ahavah) of God. Love, Rabbenu Bachaye explains, is demonstrated in 3 ways:
1. A person loves his king and goes about demonstrating this through singing the praises of his king. But he will not spend any money to demonstrate this love.
2. A person who loves the king even more, will give everything he has for his king, except that he is not willing to give up his life for his king.
3. A person who sings in praise of his king, is willing to give everything he has for his king, and is willing to give up his life for his king. 
Rabbenu Bachaye argues that Avraham had already achieved this highest level. But now, in his being asked to kill Yitzchak, he was asked to prove his love even more. That approach might work if Avraham had been asked to kill Yitzchak. But Rashi is the first to note that God only told Avraham “Ha’alayhu” – lift him up, and God never said “v’shach’tayhu” – to slaughter him.

So what is the purpose? I think what Rabbenu Bachaye leaves out of his explanation opens the door for the approach employed by the Sfas Emes (Gerrer Rebbe) in trying to uncover what the purpose of Avraham’s mission was.

In his Drasha of 5641 (1880), he makes the following observation. At what point is the mission deemed to be a success? The second time Avraham declares “Hineni” – I am here ready to do your bidding. (He also said it to Yitzchak as well when he said “I am here, my son,” but he only says the single word “Hineni” to God and to the angel.)

The angel which stops him first calls “Avraham Avraham,” he responds with “Hineni” and then he is told, “Don’t send your hand to the young man, don’t do a thing to him, for now I know/ now I have known/ now I have come to know that you are God-fearing…”

This, the Sfas Emes explains, was the test. We all know Avraham loved God. Avraham is the only person in the Bible described as “My beloved” by God (Yeshayahu 41:8). When God tells him to do anything, he jumps to do it without questioning.

But everything that Avraham has done until now entailed demonstrating love for God. In contrast, this episode was meant to demonstrate Avraham’s reverence of God. On the one hand, as the Sfas Emes explains, to demonstrate that Avraham was prepared to slaughter his son – recognizing that this kind of request could only come from the highest place of serving God, simply because it challenges his love of God! How could you ask me to kill my son when you told me my whole future is in my son? Sfas Emes says Avraham proves his reverence of God through not doing anything to Yitzchak, because he was ready to do what he had been asked.

There is another view, however that it was more difficult for Avraham to take Yitzchak down from the altar, when the passion of his fulfilling God’s will had almost overtaken him.

And I think that in staying his hand, Avraham demonstrated the highest level of both love of God and reverence, all at the same time.

If there is any take home message we can emerge with, it is that our charge is to love God and to fear/revere/be in awe of God at all times. And if we can only serve Him through those lenses, we would also be worthy of being called the children of Avraham.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Avraham in Canaan and Egypt, and LOTs of Questions

Parshat Lekh Lekha

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the early tales of the story of our forefather Avraham is that after his arrival in Canaan, when faced with famine, he decided to descend to Egypt to find food.

That this set the stage for another descent that would take place 210-215 years later (they went to Egypt 215 years after Avraham was 75) when his grandson Yaakov would bring his entire family to Egypt on account of a famine in Canaan, beginning what would be become a 210 year period of exile, should be clear, based on the principle of “maaseh avot siman labanim” (“what happened to the fathers is a sign for the children”) of what will happen to them.

Avraham’s descent to Egypt is marred by a few questions:
1. Should he have gone? Where is his faith that the famine will not cause his death?
2. If he should not have gone, was he punished by God for going?
3. Should he have brought Sarai? Perhaps bringing his wife to this situation is a poor choice!
4. What did he mean when he said “now [that] I know [because/since] you are a beautiful woman” – and what gave him the right to lie to the Egyptians?
5. Where is his nephew Lot while he and his wife are contending with Pharaoh’s court?

Ramban is of the opinion that Avraham’s going to Egypt is what led to the “punishment” of his children being “strangers in a strange land” in Egypt, because he demonstrated a lack of faith that Canaan would sustain him.

 Of course, Abravanel and others are of the view that the descent to Egypt in Yaakov’s time was for other reasons. Haktav V’hakabbalah thoroughly rejects the idea that Avraham did anything wrong in this story. He was supposed to go to Egypt, for a number of reasons. But even moreso, his treatment of Sarai, and his declaration to her about her beauty was more “because you are beautiful, when we get to Egypt they’re going to take you” than “how can I hide you and protect myself?” He knew that as her “brother” he could work to get her out of Pharaoh’s clutches, while as her “husband” he’d be dead on arrival.

Haktav V’hakabbalah suggests that Avraham and Sarai, as descendants of Noach, opted to behave as Noachides in their descent to Egypt, making their marriage ipso facto over should it come to pass that an Egyptian would take her. Therefore there was no lying.

As to why he brought her in the first place – we could question Avraham’s motivation. Our Sages teach us that Avraham’s descent to Egypt was one of his ten tests from the Almighty, during which his wife was in peril. Rabbi Yaakov Medan (Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion) argues that had she stayed in Canaan she’d have been no better off, as we see from the Avimelekh story later on. It doesn’t mean Avraham’s actions here were perfect, but it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is. Avraham’s strategy certainly put Sarai in danger, but her beauty was her strike against herself anyway!

Which brings us to nephew Lot. According to Haktav V’hakabbalah, Lot was present the entire time, he knew Avraham and Sarai’s plot to deceive the Egyptians in order to spare Avraham’s life, and yet he said nothing - essentially protecting their secrets. This helped Lot merit to get wealth – indeed, upon their return to Canaan, both Lot and Avraham were quite wealthy.

Rav Medan argues that the descent to Egypt had a few purposes. One purpose was to bring Hagar into the picture – she was an Egyptian maid who was presumably picked up when they were there. Hagar’s role in the story of Avraham and Sarai is not to be ignored. At the very least, she was destined to birth Avraham's son Yishmael, who was to become a great nation.

More than that, Rav Medan suggests that Lot came down to Egypt to learn what a fertile land looks like. As a matter of fact, when it became clear that he and Avraham needed to part ways, he turned to Sodom because Sodom was “like Egypt.” (13:10)

Which suggests that the famine leading Avraham to Egypt actually served a different purpose. Not as much to test Avraham’s mettle and his belief in God, but to set the stage for a parting-of-ways with Lot. Avraham had a filial responsibility to his nephew, which was only broken either when the famine did not allow him to sustain his nephew, or their expanded wealth necessitated a natural parting of ways.

Lot may have been Avraham’s nephew, and Avraham may have loved him. But the fact is that while Lot was present, Avraham did not have the kind of prophesy he only experienced after Lot had moved on (see 13:14 and Rashi there). Lot was holding Avraham back from achieving his potential.

It’s hard to envy Avraham’s ordeals, the trials, the tests. But a relook at what we’ve studied for years or decades can always bring new ideas, and give us a better understanding of the human side of the forefathers, even as we notice their spiritual struggle.

The main takeaway lessons I have from this story is that life’s journeys may take us to all kinds of places. If we don’t see God’s providence in having brought us there, we’re simply missing the most important connections to the divine that we might experience in our lives.

More importantly, however, we must be cognizant of the company we keep. We can’t choose our neighbors. But we can choose which people we want to hang around. Those who are an inspiration to us, because they are honest, mentschlich, they pray with sincerity, they study Torah, they model the life of a committed Jew (while humbly knowing they are far from perfect) are the people we should want to be around.

Those who don’t carry themselves this way are the Lots we must deal with. And the best way to deal with Lot is communicate – “It’s up to you. You can stay here and I’ll go away, or you go and I’ll stay here. Because our occupying the same space is only bringing me down. And my purpose in life is to climb and reach ever higher. Every single day.”