Parshat Vayechi1

Learning Group–Parshat Vayechi

(Genesis-47:28-50:26)

(Haftara: Kings I 2:1-12)

1. [48:14] Ya’akov got the rights of the first-born even though he was younger than Esav. Now he is giving the rights of the first-born to Ephraim even though he is younger than Menashe. Why is he doing this and what does this tell us about the Torah’s view of the rights of the first-born?

2. [49:3] “…Reuven…you are my strength…unstable as water”. How can Reuven be Ya’akov’s strength (and support) and also be unstable as water?

3. [48:15] “…God, whom my fathers walked in front of…” Ya’akov says that his forefathers walked in front of God. Noach, however, walked with God [6:9]. What is the difference between walking “in front of God”, and walking “with God”?

4. [49:18] “For your salvation I hope, God”. Ya’akov says this short prayer in the middle of his blessings for his sons. This prayer does not seem to relate to anything that he is saying. Why does Ya’akov say it?

5. [Haftara: Melachim I, 20:6] “Do not let his old head go down to the grave in peace.” Personal revenge is not allowed by the Torah, but apparently revenge for the sake of the community would be allowed. Isn’t this a dangerous distinction? Someone could justify his personal revenge by saying that it is for the good of the community. What are the positive and negative sides of this distinction?

Commentary

[48:16] “May the angel who redeemed me from all evil bless the youth…”

Why is the word “youth (ne’arim)” used here? The word is not usually used in this context. Ya’akov wants to bless Ephraim and Menashe with the blessing of never-ending youthfulness. Ya’akov is saying, “May you always have the enthusiasm of youth in serving God”.

–R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Gerrer rebbe, 1798-1866, Poland.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Vayigash1

[47:9]” When Yosef introduces Ya’akov, his father, to Pharoah, Pharoah asks Ya’akov how old he is. Ya’akov answers, and then continues to say that his life has been bad. This is unusual. Why did Ya’akov tell Pharoah that he has had a bad life, even though he had not been asked about his life?”

Learning Group–Parshat Vayigash

(Genesis-44:18-47:27)

(Haftara: Ezekiel 37:15-28)

1. [45:3] After Yehudah’s speech, Yosef suddenly tells his brothers that he is Yosef. What did Yehudah say that convinced Yosef to reveal his identity after all this time?

2. [45:14] “…and he cried and Binyamin cried on his neck.” Rashi says that they cried over the Temples that would be destroyed in the future—each in the other’s territory. Each of the brothers had a deep love and compassion for the other in relation to eternal matters. Other commentators say that they cried because they had been separated for so long. What might motivate Rashi to explain the brothers’ deep emotion in such an impersonal way?

3. [47:9] When Yosef introduces Ya’akov, his father, to Pharoah, Pharoah asks Ya’akov how old he is. Ya’akov answers, and then continues to say that his life has been bad. This is unusual. Why did Ya’akov tell Pharoah that he has had a bad life, even though he had not been asked about his life?

4. [48:16] In the next parsha Ya’akov blesses Yosef’s children. He begins by saying, “The angel who redeemed me from all evil…” In other words, my life was good. This contradicts what Ya’akov said previously. Was his life really bad or was it really good? How can this contradiction be explained?

5. [Haftara: Yechezkel 37:22] The prophet tells us how in the messianic era, there will be no divisions among the Jews. If that is the ideal, then why was the division into tribes encouraged and reinforced earlier in our history?

Commentary

[Yechezkel 37:24] “And my servant David will be king over them…”

In the messianic future, all the Jews will return to God, and will repent totally for all their sins of the past. However, there will be many who will be embarrassed because they have so many sins. For these people, King David will be their inspiring example. From David’s life they will understand that “tshuvah” helps for everything—even the most severe sins– and one’s relationship with God and with the world can always be repaired.

–Ahavat Yehonatan, Yonatan Eibeschitz, (1690-1764), Prague

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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Parshat Miketz

Learning Group–Parshat Miketz

(Genesis-41:1-44:17)

(Haftara: Zechariah 2:14-4:7)

(Chanukah)

1. [41:39] “…since God has informed you of all of this…” Pharoah believed that Yosef’s interpretations of his dreams and his servant’s dreams were true interpretations and come from God. On the basis of this, he even raised Yosef from being a prisoner to being Pharoah’s main officer. Nonetheless he remained an idol-worshipper. How could Pharoah justify to himself the fact that the God of Yosef is so all-knowing and powerful, and yet still not devote himself to Yosef’s God?

2. [42:21] “…we are guilty about our brother…” Yosef hears his brothers say that they did wrong in selling Yosef. Still he causes them a lot of trouble. Why doesn’t Yosef tell them who he is? What more does he expect of them?

3. [Chanukah] There is a difference of opinion whether after Shabbat, one should first light the havdalah candle which signifies the end of Shabbat or whether one should first light the Chanukah candles. What might be the reasons that underlie this difference of opinion?

4. [Chanukah] On Chanukah, we were victorious over the Greeks, and we rejected Greek culture totally. Later, however, many of our rabbis had great respect for Greek philosophy and other aspects of Greek culture. At the time of the Maccabees, why couldn’t we accept some aspects of Greek culture and reject their paganism?

5. [Chanukah] Chanukah is defined as “a candle for a person and his home”. If one doesn’t have some kind of home, it is difficult to do the commandment of Chanukah. What does “home” represent to us?

Commentary

41:36 “And the food shall be stored for the land for the 7 years of famine.”

The story of Yosef teaches us that when we have “good times”, we should not get lost in our comfort, but rather, we should keep our perspective on what is important in life. Sometimes, because we do not develop our spirituality and our relationships during our years of plenty, when the years of famine arrive, we don’t have the tools that we need.

–R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch, Europe and USA, 1902-1994.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

3. [39:1] "Yosef's entry into Egypt is the beginning of the exile. God had told Avraham that there would be an exile in Egypt. Why does it seem that the exile is a necessary condition in Jewish history?
3. [39:1] “Yosef’s entry into Egypt is the beginning of the exile. God had told Avraham that there would be an exile in Egypt. Why does it seem that the exile is a necessary condition in Jewish history?
Learning Group–Parshat Vayeshev

(Genesis-37:1-40:23)

(Haftara: Amos 2:6-3:8)

1. [38:1] King David is a descendant of Yehudah and Tamar and he is also a descendant of Lot and his daughter. King David is the ancestor of the Messiah. Why does the Messiah have so much sexual sin in his ancestry?

2. [38:26] “…’She is more righteous than me…'” Our commentaries tell us that Yehudah’s greatness is shown in the fact that he admitted his failure in the way that he had treated Tamar earlier. At this point, he was a powerful person and could have had Tamar executed, but instead, he chose to be very embarrassed. Was Yehudah’s admission of guilt really as praiseworthy as some say, or would any average person have done the same thing?

3. [39:1] Yosef’s entry into Egypt is the beginning of the exile. God had told Avraham that there would be an exile in Egypt. Why does it seem that the exile is a necessary condition in Jewish history?

4. [39:9] “…how could I do such a great evil and sin against God.” Yosef seems to say that he cannot betray Potiphar’s trust by having an affair with Potiphar’s wife.

Our tradition tells us that this story shows us that Yosef is a person with total self-control. Is Yosef really a person with total self-control or is he a person with deep conscience and morality?

5. [Haftara Amos 2:7] “…to profane My holy name.” The prophet Amos lists the sins of Israel that show man’s inhumanity to man. Why are these sins considered profaning God’s holy name?

Commentary

[37:14] “Go now and see about the peace (the wholeness) of your brothers.”

Ya’akov was telling Yosef to look at the complete aspects (shlaymut) of his brothers. He was telling him to look at the positive and Godly qualities in his brothers. In this way, they would avoid arguing.

–R. Simcha Bunim of Pszycha –1827

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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2. [32:7] "And Ya'akov was very frightened and terrified…" Ya'akov initiated this meeting with Esav. He didn't have to do it. Why is he willing to suffer this much fear in order to meet his brother?"
2. [32:7] “And Ya’akov was very frightened and terrified…” Ya’akov initiated this meeting with Esav. He didn’t have to do it. Why is he willing to suffer this much fear in order to meet his brother?”
Learning Group–Parshat Vayishlach

(Genesis-32:3-36:43)

(Haftara: Hoshea 11:7-12:13)

1. [32:4 ] “And he sent ‘malachim’ ahead of himself to Esav, his brother…” The word “malachim” can mean either messengers or angels. Rashi says that Ya’akov sent real angels to Esav, but the Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167) says that he sent human messengers. Why does Rashi prefer to make the story more supernatural? How does the story change according to each of the two different interpretations?

2. [32:7] “And Ya’akov was very frightened and terrified…” Ya’akov initiated this meeting with Esav. He didn’t have to do it. Why is he willing to suffer this much fear in order to meet his brother?

3. [32:32] “Therefore the people of Israel do not eat the “gid hanasheh” which is in the thigh until the present day…” Like matzah on Pesach, this is supposed to remind us of this historical event. What are we supposed to learn from the fact that Ya’akov wrestled with the angel and won?

4. [33:10] “…I have seen your face like seeing the face of God and you liked me.” After wrestling with God (or a strong entity) Ya’akov said, “I have seen God face to face [32:31].” What does it mean to him to see God? What does it mean to him to see Esav like seeing God?

5. [Hoshea 11:9] “…I will not return to destroy Ephraim because I am God and not man…” What does God mean when He says, “I will not destroy because I am God and not man”? In the Torah, there are many times when God destroys.

Commentary

[33:18] “And Ya’akov arrived at the city of Shchem shalem (whole or perfected)”.

After Ya’akov’s struggle with the angel, and with Esav and his other struggles, he achieved wholeness. A person with proper motivations is strengthened by his trials and struggles.  Overcoming his difficulties is what brings about his spiritual development.

–R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, the Sfas Emes, Poland, 1847-1905.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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2. [27:19] “And Ya’akov said to his father, “I am Esav, your first-born…” How could the history of the Jewish people start with a lie? Is there any way to justify Ya’akov’s trickery?"
2. [27:19] “And Ya’akov said to his father, “I am Esav, your first-born…” How could the history of the Jewish people start with a lie? Is there any way to justify Ya’akov’s trickery?”
Learning Group–Parshat Toldot

(Genesis-25:19-28:9)

(Haftara Shmuel I, 20:18-42)

1. [26:9] “…because I said, ‘Maybe I might die because of her'”. When Avimelech asked Yitzchak why Yitzchak had lied and said that Rivkah was his sister, Yitzchak answered, “Maybe I might die because of her”. When Avraham was in the same situation, he answered, “…because I thought, there is no fear of God in this place” [20:11]. Are the two answers really the same? Which is the better answer?

2. [27:19] “And Ya’akov said to his father, “I am Esav, your first-born…” How could the history of the Jewish people start with a lie? Is there any way to justify Ya’akov’s trickery?

3. [27:46] “Rivkah said to Yitzchak: I am disgusted with life because of those Hittite women.” Rivkah is again deceiving Yitzchak with this speech. She really wants to protect Ya’akov from Esav. This whole story is full of deception. However, the mission of this family in the world is to practise and teach the world “kindness and justice” [18:19]. How can such a pure mission come out of a beginning so full of deception?

4. [Haftara: 20:33] “…And Saul threw his spear at him…” Saul is the first king of the Israelites in the land of Israel, and it is obvious that his mind is unbalanced. Why does our tradition insist on telling us that our heroes are not always heroic and our leaders are sometimes far from perfect?

5. [Haftara: 20:42] “God will be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.” Our tradition considers the love between David and Yehonatan to be a pure love, as opposed to other types of love. What is a pure love?

Commentary

[27:28] “And God will give you…”

This pasuk can also be read in Hebrew as “And He will give you God…” That itself is the blessing—you will be worthy to serve God.

–R. Simchah Binem of Peshischa, 1765-1827, Poland.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

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"2. [23:4] “I am a stranger and a resident with you…” The Jews have often been both strangers to the culture in which they live, but also very entrenched within the country and culture where they live. How has this quality helped the Jewish people contribute to the advancement of the world?"
“2. [23:4] “I am a stranger and a resident with you…” The Jews have often been both strangers to the culture in which they live, but also very entrenched within the country and culture where they live. How has this quality helped the Jewish people contribute to the advancement of the world?”
Parshat Chaye Sara

(Genesis 23:1-25:18)

(Haftara: Kings I 1:1-31)

1. [23:1] “…100 years and 20 years and 7 years…” Rashi explains that the repetition of the word “years” comes to teach us that all of Sara’s life was a life of high quality–“all the years were equal in their goodness”. How does a Torah way of life show that we value a life of quality and goodness?

2. [23:4] “I am a stranger and a resident with you…” The Jews have often been both strangers to the culture in which they live, but also very entrenched within the country and culture where they live. How has this quality helped the Jewish people contribute to the advancement of the world?

3. [24:3] “I will make you swear by God, God of heaven and God of the earth…” [24:7] “God, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house…” Why does Avraham call God the “God of heaven and earth” in the first pasuk, and only “God of heaven” in the second pasuk?

4. [24:15] “…and behold, Rivkah came out…” There are many people who find the

story of Rivkah and Eliezer at the well to be an appealing and charming story.

What makes this story so charming?

5. [Kings1, 1:5] Then Adoniyya…exalted himself saying I will be king.” It seems that almost from the beginning of the Israelite Kings, there was intrigue and trouble. If so, why did God allow kings? What advantages are there to having a king and kingdom?

Commentary

[24:1] “And God blessed Avraham with everything (“bakol”)”

A real “tzaddik” doesn’t only pray for himself—he prays for everyone. And even if he is blessed by Heaven, he doesn’t see it as a blessing unless everyone is also blessed. This is the meaning of “And God blessed Avraham with everything”. God blessed Avraham with the fact that everyone got a blessing. Only after everyone was blessed did Avraham consider himself blessed.

–R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810)

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim

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"Every Thursday evening a group gathers in the Sephardic Synagogue on Mount Zion. It is a small."

Singing on Har Tzion

Every Thursday evening a group gathers in the Sephardic Synagogue on Mount Zion. It is a small gathering, not many know about it, and those who come are fewer. Nonetheless, for the last 50 years or so this group has come together once a week to sing and praise the Lord Almighty. They sing very particular songs. These songs come from a book called “Shira Hadasha” (a New Song), a collection of newer and older religious songs, some written to the tunes of arab pop songs of the last century, and some dating all the way back to medieval Spain. Among these songs, they specifically sing a collection known as “Baqashot” (Supplications), though this name is misleading, as they are mostly songs of praise and meditation on the greatness of God and his commandments. The Baqashot are a fixed series of songs, separated by texts used for improvisation, all based upon the Arabic maqam system of music. Many of the tunes of the Baqashot may have originated from Arabic or Turkish songs, but if so, most of those songs are forgotten and were lost over the years, their tunes preserved only as tunes for the Jewish texts. Traditionally, the Baqashot were sung before the morning service of Shabbat during the winter, when the nights are long, and can be spent praising God and praying for redemption. This tradition came into its current form during the last few hundred years, and was developed by the Jewish community of Aleppo, though its roots seem to go as far back as medieval Spain. It started as small groups of scholars and mystics who would arise early on the Shabbat winter nights, and sing for several hours until the time came to pray the morning services. This tradition continues today in the two main synagogues of the Aleppan community in Jerusalem, the Ades and Moussayoff synagogues, with a beautiful gathering of cantors and regular congregation members who sit and sing for four long hours before starting prayers at 7 o’clock. But the congregation of the Mount Zion synagogue decided to change this custom. Perhaps they felt it was too taxing, perhaps they tried, but couldn’t get people to come to the synagogue so early. The reason whatever it may, they instead get together on Thursdays and hold a shortened version of the Baqashot, usually finishing the entire text once every five or six weeks. They also like to add at the end of the gathering a song or two in the Maqam (arabic musical scale) that is designated for use for the morning prayers of the coming Shabbat. Everyone is welcome at these gatherings, even those who are not part of the community, and even those who cannot sing (though women, when they come, usually sit in an adjacent room to where the men are sitting). At first, the feeling is overwhelming, as the cantors sing long and complicated songs that you don’t know how to even start learning them, though everyone around seems to know exactly what’s going on. Yet slowly but surely, if you keep at it for long enough, the songs seep in, and you find yourself more and more exposed to a whole world of song and prayer that you had no knowledge of before, absorbing the spirit of the Baqashot and the Arabic maqam, until you find yourself even singing them in the shower. The people who come are mainly older, but one does see some younger people. Perhaps, God willing, with the same power and guidance that allowed these evenings to happen every week for the last fifty years, they will continue for fifty years to come, as well. In the link below I’m adding one of the songs from the Baqashot called “El Elyon” (Highest God).

“The following video is from an hour long recording of the congregation of Ades Synangogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot, made in the 70’s for the then sole Israeli television station. In this video you can see and hear the congregation of Ades singing the first two songs from their collection of Baqashot.”

Zeke Kornberg

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[18:3] “…please don’t pass by your servant.” The midrash tells us that welcoming guests into one’s home is a more important mitzvah than being with God. Why is welcoming guests such an important mitzvah?
[22:2] “And He said, “Take your son, your only son. Abraham was willing to this immediately. This is seen in the Parsha as a “trial.” Why is this the case?
Parshat Vayera

(Genesis 18:1-22:24)

(Haftara: II Kings 4:1-37)

1. [18:3] “…please don’t pass by your servant.” The midrash tells us that welcoming guests into one’s home is a more important mitzvah than being with God. Why is welcoming guests such an important mitzvah?

2. [18:19] “…to keep the way of God, to do kindness and justice…” God favours Avraham because his descendants will practice God’s way and spread kindness and justice. Are kindness and justice so important because we are aware that they are God’s way, or would they be just as important even without an awareness of God?

3. [19:8] “…I have two daughters…” When the people of Sdom wanted to rape Lot’s guests, Lot said that he would give them his young virgin daughters. Lot made a moral choice which may not have been the best choice. We often prefer situations where the correct moral choice is more obvious. What does the Torah want to teach us by putting people into difficult moral situations?

4. [22:2] “And He said, “Take your son, your only son…” Our tradition understands the commandment to sacrifice Yitzchak as Avraham’s last trial. It seems, however, that God commanded him and  [22:2] “And He said, “Take your son, your only sonis this a trial?

5. [Melachim II, 4:9] “…I know that this is a holy man of God…” This woman of Shunem did not really know Elisha. She fed him from time to time. What might be the reasons that she thought that he was a holy man?

Commentary

At the initial stage of this nation, the ambition to set up a large compassionate community which would “keep the way of God to practise kindness and justice” was revealed…The goal was to bring mankind to a free life full of splendour and

delight, in the light of the idea of God.

–R. A. Y. H. Kuk, 1865-1935, Lithuania and Israel.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

"And you will be a blessing…and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you." What does it mean to be a blessing?
“And you will be a blessing…and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” What does it mean to be a blessing?

Parshat Lech Lecha

(Genesis 12:1-17:26)

Haftara (Isaiah 40:27-41:16)

1. [12:2] “And you will be a blessing…and all the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” What does it mean to be a blessing? Why does the Torah say all the families of the earth? Why doesn’t it say all the nations?

2. [12:10] The first major story about our father, Avraham, is the story of him going down to Egypt because of a famine. As he and Sara enter Egypt, he tells Sara to say that she is his sister, and she agrees. Because of this, she is taken into the Pharoah’s house. The Ramban (Spain, 1194-1285) says that this was an unintentional sin by Avraham. Why does the story of the Jewish people start with such an uninspiring and negative story?

3. [13:2] Avraham accepted gifts from Pharoah, but later [14:23], he refuses to accept gifts from the king of Sodom. Why does he accept them from Pharoah, but not from the king of Sodom?

4. [Haftara: Yeshaya 40:31] “Those who hope in God will renew their strength…” Some would say that being realistic makes a person stronger than being optimistic. What do you think?

5. [Haftara: Yeshaya 41:8] “…Avraham, my friend.” How does one qualify to be God’s friend? In what way was Avraham God’s friend?

Commentary

[13:3] “And he went on his journeys from the south to Bet-El…:

Rashi: “Avraham paid back his debts.”

Which debts are these? Would Avraham have gone toward Egypt without money for the journey? It must be that he paid his spiritual debts. But Avraham was already a very moral person, so what spiritual debts did he have?

This is coming to teach us that life-experience and dealing with trials and difficulties makes many people more perceptive and sensitive. On the way down to Egypt, Avraham did things that seemed fine to him. But after his difficult experiences he understood on a deeper level. So on the way back, he corrected the more subtle mistakes that he had made on the way down—he paid his debts.

This study page is dedicated to the memory of Sarah Bella bat Yitzchak Kummer, Chaim Yosef Yechiel ben Eliyahu Kummer and Eliyahu and Margaret Kummer

 

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