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Rabbis' Blog

Make Family Dinners Great Again

Dinner conversations are a big deal. Even with delicious food and the perfect ambiance, awful table chatter will ruin the evening. Often one can choose whom to have dinner with, but certain occasions bring people together with relatives with whom they share nothing aside from genetics. Hence, Passover Seder and Thanksgiving dinner jokes abound, poking fun at generation gaps or political and cultural divides.

Unfortunately this is no laughing matter since many family once-a-year reunions devolve into chaos that could have been avoided. Eating in silence is not a solution either and it would be a shame for families to stop seeing each other, so what can be done to make family dinners more enjoyable and pleasant?

Here is a quote from Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers (3:3): Rabbi Shimon would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices… But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G‑d's table.

At first blush it seems counterintuitive to discuss Torah during meal time. How can the mind focus on deep theological and spiritual concepts while enjoying brisket, turkey and fine wine? However, Torah is not limited to the abstract. It's the blueprint of creation and a guide to every aspect of life.

Dining with friends and family loosens us up and the dinner table can become the source of conflict or friendship. When we choose to share words of Torah at such a pivotal moment, we include G-d in the conversation, and the dinner table becomes a catalyst for unity and peace. No need for lengthy lectures. Even a short message can do the trick.

So here is something you can share at Thanksgiving dinner. When our patriarch Yaakov returned to the Land of Israel, his brother Eisav marched towards him with 400 mercenaries to destroy him. The frightened Yaakov prefaced his prayer to G-d like this. “I have become small and inadequate from the tremendous kindness You have done for me. I fled from this land as a destitute refugee with only a wooden staff to call mine, and now I am returning with a large family and tremendous wealth.”

Although G-d promised Yaakov he would survive any trouble he encountered, his tremendous success made him feel unworthy of G-d’s protection and blessing. Instead of taking credit for making it in life, he acknowledged that everything he had was a blessing from G-d and felt that he should have been more dedicated to G-d’s service than he already was.

Yaakov teaches us the Jewish ethic of giving thanks. It’s not just the polite thing to do; it’s the realization that I ought to grow in my sensitivity to others and intensify my dedication to fulfilling my true purpose in life. To channel all my success to make this world a better place by increasing Torah study, mitzvah observance and giving charity and inspiring others to do the same.

Enjoy dinner!



Have Another One

Naming children can be intense. Some parents peruse through hundreds of names in search for the perfect sound while others agonize over which ancestor to honor. The rules can differ based on communities. Ashkenazim traditionally never name after a living ancestor while Sefardim consider it the greatest honor. Baby naming can be the source of much speculation and drama but it's a small price to pay for the joy of welcoming new life into the world. 

Rest assured whichever name the parents settle on is certainly meant to be. The Kabbalistic masters explain that an individual's name is their conduit to divine life, energy and inspiration, and naming a child is a mini prophecy gifted to each child's parents.

In this week's parsha we learn how Yaakov built the first Jewish family. He ended up having twelve boys and one girl and each time the respective mother gave the name based on her unique experience with that child's birth. Our matriarchs were prophetesses and the names they gave their children came to define their lineage in so many ways.

Leah was the first to have children, and she named her first son to reflect her relief at being able to have children despite her anguish (Reuven) and the fourth to simply give thanks for the gift (Yehuda).

Rachel experienced much drama in having children. While her sister Leah gave birth immediately after marriage, she was infertile for many years.Rachel cried and prayed for seven years until she finally conceived and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named him Yosef which means "addition" and simply said "Oh G-d, please give me another one!"

Rachel's prayer was not simply the desperate wish of a mother to have at least one more child. She articulated a profound rallying cry that would come to define how Jews would forever ensure a Jewish future.

The words of her prayer can be read like this: “May G-d grant that I transform a stranger into a son.” Judaism is a family and at times some children can feel estranged from their heritage and home. They have no access to the language and the specifics of our glorious traditions seem foreign and archaic to them.

The mitzvah of “Having Another One” obviously means bringing more children to the world, but this mitzvah is relevant even to those who are not yet or no longer at the age and stage of growing their families. Seek out a Jew who feels like a “stranger” to Judaism and transform them into a “child” of Judaism. When we ensure that every Jew feels at home in the synagogue, at the seder table and at a Torah class, we are doing our part to grow the Jewish family. And like Rachel, when you succeed with one, pray to G-d that you can do the same for another.


Outsmarting the Enemy

Reality is stranger than fiction. In a fictitious world the stronger side always wins. History proves this is not necessarily the case. The American Colonies stood no chance against the mighty British Empire and the American Revolution was doomed for failure. But through ingenious sabotage, misinformation and other shady tactics employed by the “honest” George Washington, our country survived and we reap the benefits today.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the most important trajectory of the Jewish nation. Yitzchok and Rivkah gave birth to two twin boys who had nothing in common. Eisav was a corrupt and wild man guilty of murder, rape and theft, while Yaakov was the polite, soft scholar we’d rather keep company.

Fearing his days were numbered, Yitzchok, who was already blind, wished to bequeath the tremendous blessings of destiny to his progeny and chose Eisav as the candidate. He reasoned the tremendous blessings would somehow anchor Eisav’s unlimited energy and channel it to conquer civilization with the truth of monotheism.

Rivkah understood this was a colossal error and disguised Yaakov as Eisav to receive the blessings instead. She covered his smooth skinned arms with the sheep skin so he would feel like the hairy Eisav. Upon entering the room and calling for his father to partake from the delicacies he prepared, Yitzchok realized that his tone of voice and language was quite different from Eisav.

“Come closer, my son,” he requested. “Let me feel you, to be certain you are Eisav.

Feeling the hairy sheep skin on his arm he commented, “The voice belongs to Yaakov, but the hands belong to Eisav.”

The ruse worked and Yaakov received the coveted blessings for his eternal progeny.

Yitzchok’s comment about the voice and hands were not said in confusion. They contain the secret to Jewish continuity. When the “hands of Eisav” - the violent and murderous attacks of our enemies - seek to destroy us, the “voice of Yaakov” - our Torah study and prayer - neutralizes them.

The Talmud relates that in ancient times Jewish school children studied Torah from scrolls and the very small ones used “pointers” to follow along inside. When war threatened to destroy Israel the children declared, “We will fight our enemies with our pointers!”

They knew the tiny pointers were no physical match for the spears of their enemies, but they were confident that the Torah they learned was the greatest strategy to outwit and outsmart their enemies every time. The convoluted and twisted story of Yitzchok’s blessings teaches us the power of Jewish education and how crucial it is to Jewish survival.


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