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Parshat Shemot - What's In a Name?

 

January 19, 2017
21 Tevet 5777

Written by: Rabbi
Joseph Shaw (GHA ’84) (AJA Lower School)

 

The name of this week's Parshah is, well, "Names" -- "Shemot," which is also the name of the entire second book of the Chumash. The source for this name of the book appears in early sources (such as the Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 3).

 

The English (or rather Latin) name of the Book, "Exodus," seems to make a lot more sense that the Hebrew name, "Shemot," or "Names." What does "Names" have to do with the contents of this book, which describes the events of the Exodus, the sojourn of the Jewish people in the wilderness, the receiving of the Torah, the building of the Tabernacle, etc.

 

The name "Shemot" seems to be a reasonable title for the Parshah itself. After all, the Parshah begins with a list of thirteen names of the members of Yaakov's family: "And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt..." (1:1). The emphasis on people's names continues as the Parshah relates, "The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, the name of one of whom was Shifra, and the name of the second was Pu'ah" (1:15). (A topic for further discussion, however, is the Torah's abrupt cessation from this emphasis on names in chapter two, when it does not relate the names of the parents of Moshe (2:1-2), the name of his sister (2:4), the name of Pharaoh's daughter (2:5), and the name of Moshe himself (2:2-10), who is referred to merely as "the boy" until he gets a name (2:10).)

 

Still, though, in what way does the name "Names" represent the essence of the Parshah or the essence of the Book of Exodus?

 

The Book of Exodus is the story of the development, or perhaps more specifically -- the birth, of the Jewish people. Until now, the Torah spoke of individuals -- Adam and Chavah, Noach and the individual members of his family, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, and so on. Now that the Torah introduces us to the people, it is easy to forget that each member that makes up that people is important and significant in his or her own right. One may have a tendency to think: What does it matter what I do, when there are millions of others? I'm just one person in a huge group; I'm insubstantial, my significance is infinitesimally meager. I'm dispensable.

 

What is a name? A name is a way to designate an item (or person) as distinct from another. A name ("Shem") enables us to identify and locate ("Sham") an individual. It designates me as separate and apart from you. It gives me significance as a unique individual, apart from, and a part of, the group of which I am a member. It tells me that I am important, it tells you that you are important, and it tells me that you are important. It helps strike the balance between recognizing my individual strengths and my uniqueness, and recognizing that those strengths must be contributed to the group for the greater good of all of us.

 

This perspective has wide-reaching implications, from the way I view my own role in the world, to the way I raise my family, to the orientation of the school to which I entrust the education of my children. This is part of what the name "Shemot" teaches us and why it is the name of this Parshah and this Chumash.

 

Rabbi Joseph Shaw graduated from the Greenfield Hebrew Academy (AJA Lower School) in 1984. He, his wife, and their eleven children live in Israel, where he teaches at Machon Yaakov and works as an educational consultant for individuals and organizations.

 

 

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Parsha - Vayech

 

January 13, 2017
15 Tevet 5777

written by Helayna Minsk, Graduate of GHA (AJA Lower School) and Yeshiva Atlanta (AJA Upper School) 

This week’s parsha, Vayechi, is the last in the book of Bereshit, and tells of the blessings that Yaakov, coming to the end of his life, bestows on his 12 sons.  Yet, for the first half of the parsha, it’s his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, who are his focus.

“So he (Yaakov) blessed them (Ephraim and Menashe) on that day, saying:  ‘By you shall Israel bless, saying:  May Hashem make you like Ephraim and Menashe. . . .’ “  (Bereshit 48:20)

On Friday nights and Erev Yom Kippur, Jewish parents have the tradition of blessing their children.  But unlike girls, who are blessed to be like the Matriarchs, boys are blessed to be like Ephraim and Menashe, rather than the Patriarchs.  Why?

Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and his sons had all experienced the spiritual power of living in Israel, the most nurturing Jewish environment.  But after Yaakov and his sons moved to Egypt, Judaism would have to survive in an environment of decadence, where Jews would risk assimilation.  To be great among great people is an achievement, but maintaining a high level of spirituality in a society lacking morals and ethics is the real test.  Despite great odds, Ephraim and Menashe stayed true to Torah ideals and Jewish observance in Egypt.  Knowing that this would be the challenge faced by the generations following his sons, Yaakov models how parents will need to bless their sons, to follow in the footsteps of Ephraim and Menashe, to hold to their beliefs and morals, and withstand peer and societal pressure in a secular world.

This is further reinforced when Yaakov, despite Yosef’s attempts to intervene, makes a point of blessing Ephraim before his older brother, giving him the greater blessing.  Rather than blessing his grandsons according to their birth order, Yaakov blesses them according to their names, which reflect Yosef’s own journey:  

When Menashe was born, Yosef had overcome the hatred of his brothers, being sold into slavery, and years spent in servitude and prison.  He named Menashe (“forgetting”) because “Hashem has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.”  (Bereshit 41:51)  Yosef had become the viceroy of Egypt, arguably the second most powerful man in the world.  As difficult as it was for him to be away from his father, Hashem had given him the strength to do so, and replaced his memories and longing with other thoughts. 

But by the time his second son is born, Yosef realizes that despite having achieved great success, he is an alien in a country and culture that are not his.  He is still in exile; Egypt is not his spiritual home.  So he named him Ephraim, because “Hashem has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”  (Bereshit 41:52)  Yosef remembers that for all wealth and power, Egypt is not who he is, where he comes from, or where he belongs—all the things he sought to forget when Menashe was born.

Ephraim, even more than Menashe, represents the spiritual awareness that, despite living in the Diaspora and the challenge to acculturate to the country and society in which we live, our true belonging is elsewhere.  Day school education is an effective tool in helping children navigate life in the secular world while holding fast to Jewish ideals and traditions, and maintaining strong ties to our spiritual homeland in Israel.

 

Helayna Minsk is a graduate of Hebrew Academy of Atlanta (AJA Lower School) and Yeshiva Atlanta.  She holds a BA from Brandeis University and an MBA from Columbia University.  She is currently working as Group Vice President, Walgreens Retail Brands, in Chicago.

 

    

 

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Parashat Vayechi

Written by, Noam Glazer, 3rd Grade

פרשת ויחי

In this week’s parsaha, Parashat Vayechi, we learn why we say Ephraim and Menashe in the beracha (blessing) that we give our children on Friday night.

Last parasha we learned that Yaakov finds out that Yosef is alive. Yaakov had not seen Yosef for about seventeen years. Yaakov goes to Mitzraim, Egypt, before he dies.

This is where our story starts.

In Mitzraim, Yaakov is about to die. Yosef’s guards told him that his father was sick. Yosef comes and visited Yaakov. Along comes Ephraim and Menashe, Yosef’s sons. Before Yaakov died, he wanted to give Ephraim and Menashe a blessing. Yaakov put his right hand on Ephraim and his left hand on Menashe. Yaakov was supposed to put his right hand on Menashe, though, because his right was the strong hand and it was supposed to go on the oldest child. Yosef saw that his father made a mistake, and he told his father "you made a mistake—you put the right hand on the wrong son". Yaakov said, "I know. I purposely did this because I know that farther in life Ephraim will be greater than his older brother". Yosef tried to move his dad’s hands, but Yaakov refused to switch. And then he gave Ephraim and Menashe their blessings. Ephraim and Menashe heard the conversation between their father and grandfather, but they did not get upset. So this was the first time in the Torah that brothers didn’t fight. So, in the beginning of Breishit, Kayin and Hevel got into a fight and Kayin killed Hevel. Later on was the fight between Yaakov and Eisav and then a fight between Yosef and his brothers. Now this was the first time brothers did not fight. Their reward was that Yaakov blessed them. Now we bless our kids and say the same beracha—that our kids should be like Ephraim and Menashe.

 

Shabbat Shalom. 

 

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Lessons from Parsha Vayigash

written by: Shana Frankel, (YA '10)

            In this week’s Parsha, Vayigash, there are many core lessons to be learned. I have narrowed them down to two that I feel relevant to my life in the present: the power of letting go of judgement, and the importance of channeling passions.

             In the first Pasuk of Perek 45, Joseph makes the decision to reveal himself to his brothers after witnessing their loyalty to one another. This one action is so telling of Joseph’s character, and what immediately popped into my mind as so admirable is his ability to look past the unthinkable act of his brothers and be the one providing them with comfort. In this transitional time from 2016 to 2017, this message feels like a necessary reminder for myself and my community. Between a nonstop feed of social media, a society’s chronic obsession of wanting more, and the need to label everything, I have begun to feel like my everyday life has turned into a routine of judgement, as opposed to once of acceptance and appreciation for differences. Judgement is the easier route, and many of us succumb to the momentary, fleeting relief we feel from it; however, if we are able to look beyond the present moment and into the depths of the future, we can learn from Joseph that making the decision to look past judgements, or wrongdoings, can have a major positive impact.

             Fast forwarding a bit through the Parsha, we reach the point where Joseph and Jacob finally reunite. Pasuk 29 describes the reunion through the act of Joseph falling on his father’s neck and weeping. According to Rashi, Jacobs reaction to seeing his son did not seem emotionally charged in comparison; rather, he recited the Shema. Author Chaya Weisberg touches on this commentary by referring to the Chasidic masters: “Jacob knew that never in his life would his love be aroused as it was at that moment. So he chose to utilize this tremendous welling of emotion to serve His Creator, channeling it to fuel his love for Gd.” In the intensity of this moment, Jacob had the capability of recognizing how strong and deep his emotions were, and was able to make the decision to channel that towards what he was most passionate, prayer to Hashem. As a young adult in her mid-twenties, I find myself in a state of questioning different aspects religion, but one part that never wavers is my passion that I feel towards my Judaism and how I was raised. In that regard, I credit my family as well as GHA and YA for instilling a lifelong love of Israel and connection with the Jewish people.

Shana Frankel, (YA '10), graduated from the University of Maryland in 2015, is currently a preschool teacher in Washington, DC and will be pursuing her Masters in Social Work. 

 

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Parsha Vayigash

written by Dr. Paul Oberman

 

In this week's parsha, Vayigash, Pharaoh asks Yaakov "How many are the days of the years of your life," and Yaakov answers in kind "The days of the years of my sojourns..." But all years are made up of days, so why be so specific? R' Hirsch suggests that--though we live for many years--we may live very few meaningful, productive days during that lifetime. Indeed, Yaakov answers modestly that his days have not been as meaningful as those of his forefathers. 

In a school setting, it is easy for students to wish away time. Some students look forward to a test being complete, to a school vacation, to reaching driving age, or to graduation. Perhaps most symbolic of this intention is the question "will this be on the test?" Teachers may become frustrated by the implication that the present is only meaningful if it will serve some purpose in the future, because we all want to believe that what we are teaching each day has inherent value. The exchange concerning "the days of the years of your life" above seems to suggest to all of us to focus on a present-orientation, so that we may live each day of our lives meaningfully... regardless of whether it may appear in examination form later in our lives.

 

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