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Blog - Torah Insights

The Meaning of Kindness - חיי שרה

 

The Meaning of Kindness 


When it came time for Isaac to marry, Abraham called his servant Eliezer and appointed him to go to Abraham's birthplace to find a wife for Isaac. 


And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, "Please place your hand under my thigh.

And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell.

But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac." (Genesis 24:2-4)


The commentators explain that the Canaanite girls were unkind. Abraham understood that the most important criteria in  marriage and the foundational quality for the matriarch of the Jewish people is kindness. Indeed, when Eliezer arrived in Charan, he created a test to determine which girl possesses the attribute of kindness. 


Analyzing Eliezer's test gives us insight into the true meaning of kindness. The Torah relates:


And the servant ran toward her, and he said, "Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher." 

And she said, "Drink, my lord." And she hastened and lowered her pitcher to her hand, and she gave him to drink.

And she finished giving him to drink, and she said, "I will also draw for your camels, until they will have finished drinking."

And she hastened, and she emptied her pitcher into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24:17-20)


Eliezer asked for a sip of water. Yet Rebekah understood that the full extent of kindness is not merely responding to a request. Rebekah understood that beneath the articulated need lie a deeper need.


This story is relevant to each of us. In our relationships, we sometimes wait for a child, spouse, colleague or friend, to articulate what they need, and when they do, we try to provide support. Rebekah, on the other hand, teaches us to look for the deeper need that is not articulated. Rebekah teaches us to be present and in tune with the people around us. Rebekah teaches us that true kindness begins with a deep awareness of another person, which allows us to give without waiting to be asked.  




The Disagreement Between Abraham and Sarah - וירא

The Disagreement Between Abraham and Sarah 

Abraham and Sarah, the Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish people, were loving partners in marriage and partners in their spiritual path of monotheism. They dedicated their lives to serving G-d and spreading awareness of G-d throughout the land. There was, however, one major disagreement between Abraham and Sarah. They disagreed about how to relate to Ishmael, Abraham's oldest son, born to his maidservant Hagar. As the Torah describes: 

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry.

And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." (Genesis 21:9-11)

The divergent perspective of Abraham and Sarah was a result of their specific spiritual purpose. Abraham's mission was to spread monotheism to the entire world. G-d added the Hebrew letter Hey (which is the dominant letter in the Hebrew word Hamon which means many) to Abraham's name (changing the name from Abram to Abraham), because, as the verse states, "I have made you the father of a multitude of nations." In contrast, Sarah's primary spiritual mission was to cultivate and nurture the Jewish people. Therefore, when Ishamel was a threat to Isaac's spiritual development, Sarah demanded that Ishmael be sent away because the Jewish people were destined to emerge from Issac. To Abraham, however, the notion of sending away Ishamel was painful, not only because he was his son, but also because Abraham had a responsibility as the spiritual father and mentor of many nations, including the ones who would emerge from Ishamel. 

G-d intervened and sided with Sarah: 

And G-d said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. (Genesis 21:12)

G-d told Abraham to send away Ishmael in order to protect Issac; in that sense, G-d agreed with Sarah. Yet, G-d also reiterated to Abraham that Ishamel was his child and that Abraham's influence and blessings would extend beyond the Jewish people: 

But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed." (Genesis 21:13)

We are descendants and heirs to the legacy of both Abraham and Sarah. Like Sarah, we have a responsibility to maintain and defend the distinct Jewish spiritual path and way of life. Yet, like Abraham, we have the responsibility to positively influence all of humanity. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that in order to influence Ishmael, we must first cultivate and protect Isaac. In order to contribute our unique contribution to humanity, we must first cultivate our Jewish Identity.  

 

What is the Reason for the Exile? - לך לך

What is the Reason for the Exile?

One of the greatest mysteries in all of the Torah appears in this week's portion, at the "covenant of the parts", when G-d informed Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land before they would return to the land of Israel. The Torah describes:  

And He said to Abram, "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.

And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterward they will go forth with great possessions. (Genesis 15:13-14)

The big question that the verse does not explicitly address is, why? Why was it decreed that the Jewish people would be slaves in Egypt? What was the purpose or benefit of the terrible slavery? 

The sages and commentators do not reach a consensus. The Midrash offers no less than three possible reasons, yet many of the classic commentators of the bible are not satisfied with those explanations and offer their own. Nachmanides explains that slavery was a punishment for Abram's traveling to Egypt because of the famine, after G-d told him to go to the land of Israel. Abarbanel rejects that interpretation, saying that Abram's decision to travel to Egypt was the correct one. Abarbanel offers his own explanation and says that the slavery of the children of Jacob and their descendants was the punishment, measure for measure, for the sale of Joseph as a slave to Egypt. Others explain that it was necessary in order to prepare the Jewish people for receiving the Torah. 

Chassidic teachings explain that the slavery did not come about as a result of any  negative act on the part of the Jewish people. When the verse states, "your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs," it alludes to the idea that the reason for the exile is "not theirs." It was not a result of anything that the children of Israel had done. The purpose is alluded to in the words: "And afterward they will go forth with great possessions." The "great possessions" were not merely compensation for the pain of slavery, but rather it was the purpose of slavery. The purpose of the descent into Egypt was in order for the Jewish people to extract and elevate the Divine sparks of holiness within Egypt.

In the book of Exodus, G-d tells Moses:   

Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put [them] on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall empty out Egypt."

The mystical interpretation of the verse is that the "woman," referring to the soul, who naturally has no interest in material possessions, should request the "silver" and "gold," the sparks of holiness found within the material possessions which she interacts with either occasionally (alluded to by "neighbor") or regularly (alluded to by "the dweller in her house"). We don't have the luxury to ignore the world. We must engage in and elevate the sparks within our possessions. 

What was true in Egypt applies to us as well. The purpose of the exile is so that the Jewish people should spread out to every corner of the earth, elevating their material possessions by using them in the service of G-d.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayigash vol, 3 and Biurei Hachumash)



 

Did Noah Lack Faith? - נח

 

Did Noah Lack Faith?

 

"A righteous man perfect in his generations" is the resounding endorsement the Torah gives Noah. Yet, when we examine Rabbinic literature, we find that Noah was less than perfect. 

 

The Zohar contrasts Noah, who did not seek to pray for, nor influence, the people of his generation, with Abraham, who pleaded with G-d to forgive the wicked people of Sedom, and with Moses, who prayed on behalf of the people who worshipped the golden calf. Noah’s significant fault was that he did not influence the people around him. 

 

When describing how Noah entered the ark, the verse states "and Noah went in and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him into the ark because of the flood waters." Rashi quotes the Midrash, which states: 

 

because of the flood waters: Noah, too, was of those who had little faith, believing and not believing that the Flood would come, and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to do so.

 

How could it be that the person who the Torah classified as entirely righteous, the person who G-d chose to be the one to repopulate the earth after the Flood, lacked faith? 

 

Noah did not believe in himself, he did not believe that he was worthy of being saved, and therefore he did not think that G-d would bring a flood, wipe out every living thing except for him. 

 

"Noah had little faith", explain the Chassidic masters, means not that Noah lacked faith in G-d, but rather that Noah did not believe in himself. He did not think that a human being could have the power to pray and influence G-d, nor did he believe in his ability to influence the people around him.

 

The lesson we must derive from Noah's shortcoming is that belief in G-d requires belief in the incredible potential G-d invested within the people he created. Our choices matter. Our prayers can influence G-d, we can shape our environment and have a profound impact on the people around us. 

 

Adapted from the Kedushas Levi 

 

 

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