Monday Torah Tweet (Bo)

Monday Torah Tweet (Bo): We can harden our own hearts, or work toward repentence.  Our actions have consequences. Which path shall we take?

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”” Exodus 10:1-2

This line opens our parasha this week. The language of G-d “hardening” Pharaoh’s “heart” (really his mind since the Ancients understood the heart to be the seat of intelligence and discernment) is difficult for us to understand. Surely, the seeming lack of free will on the part of Pharaoh is a problem. It is a problem if we believe in human free agency. It is also therefore a problem if we believe in the possibility of repentance. In other words, could Pharaoh have acted other than he did? Could he have allowed the people of Israel to leave after the first plague?

This is not a modern question. Rather, it has vexed Torah commentators through the ages.  A midrash, cited by Rashi, reads the situation very closely. This Midrash (Exodus Rabbah XIII:3) notes that for the first five plagues, the verb is “veyehezak”, in other words, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Only thereafter does the verb shift to “vayehazek” indicating that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The Midrash makes the following point: “G-d warns a person once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does G-d close his heart against repentance so that vengance should be exacted from him for his sins.”

This still seems a little unfair. Even if Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues, is it fair that G-d then hardened his heart after the next four? I think that the psychological insight here is important. As we go through life and make the mistakes that people make, we are offered the opportunity to turn from those ways and return to a life with fewer mistakes. However, if we become habituated to making those kind of mistakes, eventually it becomes very difficult for us to change our mind, repent of those mistakes and return.

In Pharaoh’s case, he become habituated to refuse the demand of Moses to let the Israelites go. Once he had become so habituated to his refusal to do G-d’s will, it took a major crisis, including the loss of his son, to shake him and cause him to change his mind and do what G-d demanded. However, his evil ways had become so ingrained that even this decision was only temporary as he swiftly unleashed the fury of the Egyptian army on the fleeing Israelites.

One message we can learn from the experience of Pharaoh in this parasha is the importance of not becoming habituated to bad practices. For if we do, we may put ourselves in a situation where we require a true crisis to cause us to turn back to G-d.

So, yes repentance and return is always possible. However, our actions have consequences. That is the message our parasha teaches us this week.

Mikael Swayze
CY&RS Faculty Member in the School of Professional Practice

Posted in Monday Torah Tweet | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayechi)

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayechi): What we do is more important than who we are.

“When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. “Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.” But his father objected, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.” So he blessed them that day, saving, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.” (Gen 48:17-20)This parashah is the last one in the book of Genesis. The scene above is just prior to Jacob blessing each of his children. So, why prior to blessing his children, does he first bless his grandchildren? Also, why does he here prefer the younger brother to the older?

Immediately prior to this passage Jacob adopted Ephraim and Manasseh as his own. He tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh would be counted as his own children. He tells Joseph that this is because Rachel, Jacob’s favourite wife, had died upon giving birth to Benjamin. By these two, his grandchildren (and adopted children), all of Israel would be blessed. We of course, know this blessing since it is customarily recited by parents on Friday evening.

Jacob had trouble with his own children. His kids fought. Joseph was nearly killed by his brothers. He was only saved by being sold into slavery. His sons lied to him about Joseph’s fate. The brothers had only redeemed themselves because Judah took responsibility for Benjamin’s fate. I think that Jacob is trying to establish a link past his own children to his grandchildren.

Why does he then prefer the younger (Ephraim) before the older (Manasseh)? This is a theme throughout Torah. The older is constantly and consistently surpassed by the younger: Esav by Jacob, Ishmael by Isaac, Aaron by Moses, Reuben by Judah and now Manasseh by Ephraim. This is radical and revolutionary in the ancient middle east, where the older son was always preferred. The Torah, by upending this social standard on the basis of merit (or at least divine favour), makes an important statement. Our birth order is not what determines our worth. Our worth is determined by what we do by strength of character or strength of deeds. In one of Israel’s last acts, he sends that message through his blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Mikael Swayze
CR&YS Faculty Member, School of Professional Practice
Posted in Monday Torah Tweet | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayigash)

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayigash):  From the courage to take responsibility, we find the path to repentance.

“Then Judah approached him…”

This is the first part of the first pasuk of this week’s parasha. I keep thinking of how much courage this must have taken. Joseph is the vizier of Egypt and is capable of holding the entire group of brothers as slaves. Joseph is already holding Benjamin as a slave. The Egyptians don’t like Jews and other Asiatics. Moreover, Judah is not even the eldest of the brothers. By rights, Reuben should be speaking for the group. Yet, he is strangely silent. In spite of all of this, Judah dares to approach Joseph. This takes courage. Moreover, he asks to have a private word with Joseph. At best this is impertinence.

What moves Judah to do this?

I think that there are many possible answers. One answer is that Judah actually recognized the vizier to be Joseph. After the incident with his daughter-in-law Tamar, as recounted in chapter 38 (when a disguise results in a forbidden relationship), it is possible that Judah is apt to pay more attention to the possibility of disguise. If so, he is emboldened by the reality of their sibling relationship and it attempting to force Joseph’s hand. Since Jacob will be coming to Egypt soon, perhaps Judah –  aware of Joseph’s identity – wants to ensure that his father does not have to bow down before Joseph, as one of Joseph’s dreams foretold. Thus, he attempts to force Joseph to reveal himself to ensure that this does not come to pass.

Another possible answer is that Judah is motivated by the fact that he took responsibility for Benjamin’s welfare. He told his father: “I will personally guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” (Gen 43:9) If he meant what he told his father, then he had to take any risk necessary in order to ensure that Benjamin is returned to his father. That is what responsibility means.

A third possible answer is that Judah has actually genuinely repented of his role in selling Joseph. The last time that one of Rachel’s son’s was in danger, Judah stood by and participated with his brothers in selling Joseph. Now, he is in a situation when the other of Rachel’s sons is in danger of becoming another man’s slave. This time he acts in order to ensure that this does not happen again. According to Maimonides, we know that we have truly repented when we are confronted with a similar situation and react differently. Perhaps it is this demonstration of repentance that moves Joseph to clear the room, cry and reveal himself to his brothers.

What is clear from the narrative is that Judah’s actions – whether motivated by a desire for his father to not be embarrassed by bowing to his son or by a sense of personal responsibility or by genuine repentance – move Joseph to reveal his identity. This revelation is core to the reunion of the family and the entire future of the people of Israel.

We can draw from this the cardinal importance of our own actions in the broader scheme of things. Judah learned from his own experiences – whether with Tamar or at the time of the sale of Joseph – and grew. He learned the importance of taking responsibility. He learned the importance of acting with conviction, even at great personal risk. He learned the power of repentance.

Mikael Swayze
CY&RS Faculty Member in the School of Professional Practice

Posted in Monday Torah Tweet | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Miketz)

Monday Torah Tweet (Miketz):  To truly thrive, we need to be part of the world, but not forget who we really are.

“The matter appeared good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants. And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can there be another person who has G-d’s spirit in him as this man does?” (Gen 41:37-38)

These two pasukim in the middle of this week’s parasha are really interesting. First, you have the king a Egypt – acknowledged by his own people as a living god – make reference to the Jewish G-d. Second, Pharaoh makes this statement to his servants prior to appointing Joseph as vizier. Why? It almost seems as if Pharaoh is asking some kind of permission prior to appointing Joseph.

These two curious things may be connected.

It is fair to say that Egyptians looked down on their Asiatic neighbours, including Jews. Later in this week’s parasha, the Torah gives ample testimony to this by indicating that Egyptians would not even break bread with Jews (Gen. 43:32).  Given this cultural frame of reference, Pharaoh would only turn to a Jew with great reluctance and would likely face considerable opposition in appointing a Jew to any high position, let alone second-in-command.  Ramban reads these pasukim in this fashion. The acknowledgement of the Jewish G-d in the first pasuk here is thus crucial. Only because Pharaoh discerned in the dream-interpretation the wisdom of G-d – wisdom his priests and magicians did not possess – could Pharaoh think about appointing Joseph to a high position. He also needed some support from his courtiers as well. So, he puts it to them that no Egyptian could be found with the wisdom possessed by Joseph. They apparently agreed and Pharaoh then appoints Joseph.

Immediately after his appointment, Joseph is attired in Egyptian clothing, given an Egyptian wife connected to the official cult, and given an Egyptian name. Thus, in spite of deep antisemitism on the part of Egyptians, Joseph is none the less recognized for his wisdom and given his due. This seems to represent a high point in the relationship between Jews and other nations.

Interestingly, we usually read Miketz at Chanukah as we do this year. Chanukah represents perhaps a low point. In the Chanukah story we have a non-Jewish king, Antiochus, who not only fails to recognize G-d, but actively attempts to eliminate Jewish practice. In the story we celebrate at Chanukah, we have Jews who have to fight many years of unequal warfare in order to establish the ability to worship as Jews again.

I think the juxtaposition of this week’s parasha and the holiday of Chanukah has something to teach us as contemporary Jews. On the one hand, we have to engage in the world in which we live, as Joseph does in the parasha, even if the surrounding culture holds values deeply at odds with our own. On the other hand, we have to retain our traditions and customs as Jews as the Maccabees ensured through their rebellion. Joseph haTzadik (the righteous), as our tradition has it, would not have been in a position to save his father, brothers and their families, had he not fully engaged in the Egyptian world. Yet, without the interventions of the Maccabees, Judaism would have been fatally imperilled. This then is our challenge – how to live fully committed Jewish lives yet be fully involved in the world around us.

Chanukah sameach

Mikael Swayze
CY&RS Faculty Member in the School of Professional Practice

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayeishev)

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayeishev): Abstract principles are not enough to keep us straight. 

Back-story: How often today do we hear the rationalization “I only started doing it because everybody was doing it”?

For me, it is all in the kippah. I was not born with a kippah on my head. I donned my kippah, never to remove it, in my early twenties. While my kippah has brought me a host of positive experiences I would never have had otherwise, that remains to be told at another time. Suffice it to say, to this day, I have not had a single negative experience.

I maintain that you cannot steal a car in a kippah! “Of course you can,” you say. But if you are wearing a kippah, it makes you aware that you are noticeable. Its wearing, therefore, serves as a reminder to avoid certain actions or language that would “embarrass” the kippah, for to embarrass the kippah is to embarrass Judaism and our fellow Jews and to bring discredit on the Jewish G-d.

When I decided to wear a kippah wherever I go, I made a corollary decision that if ever I felt I could not enter a specific place with my kippah on, that that was a sign that, rather than cover my kippah or remove it, I really should not be in that place. Awareness that one is wearing a kippah, therefore, is a sign of yirat shamayim, a reminder for Torah behaviour and Torah living.

In this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 39:1-12), Mrs. Potiphar has her eyes on the handsome Yosef. According to the Talmud (Sota 36b), Yosef, in the heat of his youth, is just about to give in when the image of his father flashes before his eyes. He realizes that he has a responsibility that should not be violated. A similar talmudic story (Menahot 44a) pictures a young yeshivah student already removing his shirt when he is hit in the face with his tzitzit—a reminder enough for him to resist temptation.

Contrast this with the account of Y’hudah, Yosef’s older brother, that immediately precedes the event with Yosef and Mrs. Potiphar (Genesis 38). Y’hudah had no reminder. To his later embarrassment and the embarrassment of his family, he is easily enticed to stop by the way.

Everyone needs principles, some moral compass that keeps us on the straight and narrow. But, in their careful study of Torah, the rabbinic sages add that having some vivid reminder is also needed. The kippah as I am using it here is just an example. It could be the image of one’s parent or teacher. It could be just the simple question: “Would I like to see this in the newspaper tomorrow morning?”

Abstract principle is not always enough. Classic Judaism is down to earth, teaching us that we also need to have a kippah, tzitzit, something else, that will remind us when we need it that there is always a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and that we have a legacy that calls us to integrity.

Click here for a complete list of Torah Psychology.

Posted in Monday Torah Tweet | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Chayei Sarah)

Monday Torah Tweet (Chayei Sarah): G-d’s plans require human agents.

“… there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” (Gen. 25:10-11)

This parasha is an intriguing parasha from many perspectives. From a literary perspective, the parasha is tightly woven. It begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. Between these two events, there are two complex sets of negotiations. Immediately following Sarah’s death, Abraham engages in robust bargaining with Ephron the Hittite to purchase his field and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in order to provide a burial place for Sarah. Later in the parasha, Abraham’s servant engages in a negotiation with Laban for Rebecca to be a wife for Issac.

Both sets of negotiation are given in great detail and, together, occupy the majority of the parasha. Why is this? What message is the parasha giving us?

The answer is very clear.

Abraham begins his negotiation with Ephron in the position of a stranger and sojourner (“ger v’toshav anochi” Gen. 23:4). He ends that set of negotiations as a landowner and permanent resident in Hebron. This is the first part of the land purchased and owned by Abraham. Owning a field with a cemetery indicates a view to long-term residence. Abraham had been promised the land by G-d. With the purchase of this land, he establishes for himself and for his family a legitimate permanent presence in the land.

Now that he is a landowner in Canaan, the story moves immediately to the next part of the promise – establishment of his family. Abraham sends his servant to his ancestral home in Padam-Aram to acquire a wife for Isaac. Why go to this extent? Why not take on the Hittite women as a wife? After all, Abraham has been accepted as a resident by the Hittites. Would not the most natural thing been to have taken a wife from the local population? The answer again is clear. Abraham knows that he has been called to take a path other than that of the surrounding idolatrous nations. He needs a wife for his son who will ensure that fidelity to G-d’s teachings will be passed down. Abraham recognizes the role that a mother will play in raising her children. If Abraham’s descendants, as Jews, are to flourish, he needs to ensure that the tradition gets passed on to at least the next generation. Thus, at the conclusion of the servant’s negotiation,a suitable wife for Isaac has been found.

Having taken possession of land in Canaan and having ensured the passing of the tradition on to the next generation, Abraham dies.

Abraham had been promised the land and had been promised offspring. At the beginning of this parasha he had no land and only one unmarried son. At the end, he has land and the promise of descendants.

This is clearly the message of the parasha. One final question remains, however. Immediately after the death and burial of Abraham, the parasha gives the descendants of Ishmael and then ends. That seems an odd way to end the passage if the parasha is about the establishment of Abraham and ensuring that the descedants of Isaac flourish in the land.

This curiosity is best answered by looking at how the very next parasha begins. It begins with the story of Isaac. I think that the editor who divided up the parshiot preferred to start the next parasha with Isaac’s story rather than Ishmael’s story. The point is that Ishmael is really a footnote to Jewish history. The main line of the story is Isaac. So, from there – from Isaac’s descendants – the story will pick up next week.

From this parasha, I think we can draw the following conclusions. G-d keeps promises made. Abraham was able to see in his lifetime the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises of land and progeny. In addition, we see that very human action is needed to bring these promises to fruition. Abraham bargained for the land and paid dearly. Abraham sought out a suitable bride for Isaac. G-d’s plans require human agents.

Mikael Swayze
CY&RS Faculty Member in the School of Professional Practice

Posted in Monday Torah Tweet | Leave a comment

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayeira)

Monday Torah Tweet (Vayeira): Household peace has priority over glorifying HaShem.

Back-story: What do you do when you invite that special guest for an intimate dinner? Everybody knows the answer. You prepare a beautiful meal, spread a white tablecloth, set out your best dishes, pour a little wine, dim the rheostat, and light candles—all to create a rich and peaceful glow.

And that is what Shabbat candles are all about, “shalom bayit, peace in the house.” On the other hand, Hanukah candles are to be lit in the window for “pirsumei d’nisa, the publication of for HaShem’s having miraculously made the cruise of oil last not one day but eight.

In the Talmud (B. Shabbat 23b), Rava asks an unusual question: if one only has sufficient resources for either Shabbat candles (in those days oil) or Hanukah candles, which should one purchase? Naturally, in a world of plenty, the answer is both. Scarcity, however, always tests our values.

Should the government allocate the limited funds available for another dialysis machine or for prenatal care? So Rava asks, if there are limited means, which should one choose, Shabbat candles that are for “shalom bayit, peace in the house” or Hanukah candles that are for “pirsumei d’nisa, the publication of G‒d’s miracle.” The first is to the honour of the human beings, while the second is for the glory of HaShem.

Rava is unequivocal, and in doing so, he teaches us not only about Shabbat and Hanukah, but also about Jewish moral values: properly honouring our fellows (peace in the house) takes precedence over glorifying G‒d (the publication of the miracle). A comparable lesson is learned from Par’shat Vayeira (Genesis 18:1-2), this week’s Torah reading, when Avraham appears to leave HaShem to attend to the needs of the approaching strangers.

From this example, Rav Y’hudah learns: “G’dolah hakhnasat orhin mihakbalat p’nei sh’khinah, according hospitality is more important than welcoming G‒d’s presence” (B. Shabbat 127a). On Abraham’s example, the great Chofetz Chayim is known to have postponed singing the customary Shalom Aleikhem (a greeting song to the angels who accompany Shabbat) in order to more quickly serve a hungry guest.

Household peace and glorifying G‒d are both important, and when all is well, we must carve out a place for both Shabbat and Hanukah candles. But when there are means for only one of the two, surprising as it may seem to many, classic Judaism teaches the prime importance of household peace by assigning it precedence even over giving glory to G‒d.

This teaches us that Judaism is a different kind of religion than what some might have expected. Jewish prayer and prayer ritual are to move us from an egocentric point of view to a divine point of view, but…in classic Judaism, one cannot serve G‒d (mitzvot bein adam laMakom) without a commitment to the well-being of G‒d’s creation (mitzvot bein adam lahaveiro).

Click here for a complete list of Torah Psychology.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment