Atlanta Jewish Academy

Atlanta Jewish Academy Blogs

Parshat Vayeshev


written by: Sylvia Miller, Class of 1979
In memory of my father, Donald Miller - 4th Yarhrzeit 25 Kislev


Parshat Vayeshev, is one of those parshiyot that thrill a master storyteller! It speaks of parental favoritism, and a coat of many colors, a plot to kill, a journey to a land far away, self-control, undying faith, a butcher, a baker and the rise to dream interpreter fame…

This parsha also falls on the night before we light the first Chanukah candle in celebration of our festival of lights, Chag Ha Orim.

Is there a connection between the story of Joseph (Yosef) and his brothers and the festival of Chanukah?

Is it possible to look deep into the story of Yosef and the laws of candle lighting and glean an eternal message for parents and teachers?

“Now, Israel (Yaakov) loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors." (Bereshit 37:3)

Back in the day, shepherds wore coats.  Plain and “robe- like” coats.  These robes were used to stay warm and keep cool. Robes were used to carry belongings and sometimes served as collateral. They were utilitarian.

The Torah describes Yaacov’s gift  to his son, Yosef, as a “coat of many colors”.  A very unique and special coat. That “coat” created a feeling of jealousy among Yosef’s brothers. “And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully.” (Bereshit 37:4)

In a 2013 Time Magazine article on parenting and favoritism, it was noted, “In some families, certain siblings need more attention or support than others, and parents should discuss with their kids why they are approaching siblings differently to avoid any misunderstanding. Children 'don’t mind that parents treat them differently,’ They only mind when they see that differential treatment as unfair.”

Similar parenting advice can be found in our tradition. The Midrash criticizes Yaacov for showing favor to one son over the others. Resh Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: "A man must not make a distinction among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our ancestor Jacob made for Joseph they hated him (Midrash Rabbah - Bereshit)

Regardless of one’s particular parenting style, parenting experts and educators know that when raising or teaching children, it is healthy approach to differentiate; making sure that each child is nurtured for their unique gifts and supported when necessary.  As King Solomon reminds us, "Chanoch l'naar al pi darcho “(Educate a child according to the child’s way).

And yet, it is human nature. Some parents might have a tendency to shower one child with more attention. A teacher, without intent, might call on one students more often than on the others.

So, how does the story of Yosef and his brothers connect to Chanukah, the festival of lights?

There are laws that must be followed when lighting the menorah and there are customs that color the eight days that are grounded in the law.

Maimonides in Hilchot Chanukah (3:4) states that each individual has a requirement to light Chanukah lights, or to have an agent kindle the lights for him.

Customs differ among households. In some homes, it is a minhag (custom) that the entire household light only one menorah. The person who lights is a representative for the rest of the family.

In other homes, it is a custom that every member of the family, every child and even every guest, lights his or her own menorah. No favorites!

Regardless of how one might  perform the mitzvah; the custom of every child having his or her own menorah to light could represent a powerful lesson for parents and teachers.

The Talmud blames Yaacov for showing favoritism and warns parents: “One should never favor one child over his other children, for it was the mere two shekels worth of silk, which Jacob gave to Joseph over and above that which he gave to his other children, that caused the brothers to be envious of him, leading eventually to our forefathers’ descent into Egypt.” (Shabbat 10b)

It is NOT accidental that Parshat Vayeshev’s unfolding story which begins, with Yaacov showing a special love for Yosef over his brothers, connects with Chanukah.

It is a timely teaching for parents and teachers to be mindful of how showing preferential treatment to one child over others can cause a ripple effect lasting beyond a lifetime. Let us all work on supporting our individual children’s special light and watch them shine because of that!


Sylvia Miller graduated from the Greenfield Hebrew Academy (AJA Lower School) in 1979. She is the School Counselor for AJA Lower School and Middle School.




Continue reading

An Ultimate Mitzvah

Written by Rabbi Yogi Robkin, (GHA ‘94, YA ‘98)


Just last week my father, Shai Robkin (YA '65) donated a kidney.  There was no one in our family in need of a kidney (except their own!) and there was no one he was aware of who could use his spare, and so he decided to become what's known as an altruistic living kidney donor.  

His kidney would go to a stranger, someone he could meet only if the recipient agreed to meet with him, and the rules being the way they are, he would have no control over who would receive his life saving gift.  That being said, my father had no interest in earmarking his kidney to a person fitting any particular set of specifications (age, ethnicity, religion, favorite baseball team etc.) even had he been able to.  His sole motivation: get his "extra" kidney to another human being who needed it.  

The lucky recipient ended up being a seventy year old African-American mother of three named Glorious from Carrollton, GA.  Glorious had been on dialysis for five years leading up to her recent transplant and is, thank G-d, doing great now and fully off of dialysis!  Glorious's daughter, Latausha, who was willing to give her mother a kidney but was unfortunately not a match, signed up to become a living donor herself, thereby pushing her mother up the transplant list and increasing her odds of eventually receiving her life saving transplant.  In the very same Atlanta area hospital, on the very same day, two kidneys were removed, one from my father and one from Glorious's daughter Latausha, and two kidneys were interred into two individuals whom the two donors had never met before in their lives!  


My father got to meet Glorious and Latausha the day after the surgeries and together with my mother and sister in the hospital room proceeded to have the mother of all cry-fests. The nurses cried with them.  It was the ultimate Kodak moment, a moment to remember for a lifetime.  Through her tears, my mother explained to Glorious and Latausha that we were Jewish and that as Jews we saw this deed as a mitzvah, an obligation to help our fellow man.  It may seem to an outsider that this moment was short in coming, but the tears in my father and mother's eyes were two years in the making. Two years prior my father had begun the process of researching the possibility of his becoming a kidney donor.  He spoke to his doctor, read medical literature and subjected himself to the many tests one was required to pass in order to become a donor.  On his final test he failed.  He was told that he had high blood pressure and would not be a candidate for the surgery.  My father argued that he had never had a high blood pressure result in his life and asked if he could retake the test and they eventually acquiesced to his request.  He would not fail this test twice!  When a match was found for his kidney he called us all to let us know that there was a date on the calendar set for his surgery.  The rest, as they say, is history.


This feel-good storyline is certainly worthy of public dissemination on its own merits (all the more so in an endless "if it bleeds it leads" media cycle) and yet I feel that I would be remiss if I did not share what is, perhaps, a more profound lesson for us all that lies not so much in the public details of this story (as it's easy and enjoyable to read a moving real-life account of heroism and return to our regularly scheduled lives) but rather in the private and perhaps difficult decision to donate one's kidney in the first place.  After the operation was finished, and the nerves that pulse through the heart of a child whose father is on the operating table settled down, I found myself trying to pinpoint the roots of my dad's decision to donate a kidney.  Why had he done what so few people had done?  What gave him the courage, the vision, the desire?  It would be easy to turn to the life and pattern of giving that has been the hallmark of my parent's lives as the explanation for his desire to give the ultimate gift, and, although certainly true and central to his decision, I knew that there was something else inside of him, some missing link that was helping inform his decision making process that was unaccounted for.


Just a day before the operation was scheduled to take place I received an email in my inbox from my father with a link to a story in Vanity Fair about a pair of Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, pioneers in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics.  Next to the article's link were a few words from my dad.  "If you took the time to read my behavioral economic analysis of Trump's election, then perhaps you'll have the patience to read a fascinating piece (fascinating for me, at least) about my heroes, without whom I probably wouldn't be donating my kidney next week."  In the excitement and nervousness of this time in our family's lives, I hadn't been fully cognizant of the import in my father's message.  Something in this article unlocked the key to his decision to donate.  But what?


More than anything else, the study of Behavioral Economics attempts to understand the determining factors in the human decision making process.  How much weight does logic have in our decision making process.  Do we rely upon probability or statistics to help us resolve our queries?  What role does heuretics play, the reliance upon our gut, rules of thumb or other classical decision making tools in the final analysis?  And what of the role of our subconscious biases?  Daniel Kahneman had an early formed proposition that would be vindicated time and time again through the course of his many years of study: People don't depend upon hard data like probability and statistics to form a final decision.  As Daniel stated later in life, "No one ever made a decision because of a number - They need a story."  This, and the compound effect that "gut feelings have a mysterious power to steer us wrong,"  led Kahneman and Tversky on a two-man crusade to re-educate the world and its decision making leaders to reconsider the way they solved problems and made both small and large determinations.  


The pair of Middle Eastern psychologists also noticed a fascinating phenomena in the human psyche.  Human beings have a much more acute response to the possibility of impending loss than we do with the possibility of a consummate gain that might come our way.  In other words, we are programmed to run from danger more than we are programmed to run towards opportunity.  This mental default position may help us escape from impending threats but it also compromises our decision making.  In the world of finance our fear of loss leads us to sell our shares when stock prices fall dramatically even as we know that a statistical study of the stock market over the last century would lead the discerning investor to buy at this juncture in time instead.  Our collective aversion to loss leads us to take risks when we shouldn't and stand still when strict logic and analysis advises us to move.


The decision making process surrounding kidney donation ("to give or not to give, that is the question") starts the way any decision making process might begin, weighing the pros and cons, the potential gains versus the potential losses.  The thing is, a sensitivity to the findings of Kahneman and Tversky in "decision analysis," as they called it, would naturally inform us that most of us, when made aware of the possibility of our becoming someone's kidney donor, would run far away from the procedure for fear of what we would perceive as severe impending loss (the loss of the kidney itself, the concern over future health problems that the loss of a kidney could cause (real or imagined), the possibility of one's own future renal failure and the danger of suffering that fate with only one kidney etc. etc.).  Unlike what we currently know about the real risks of kidney donation there is no end to the scope and limitations of the human imagination.  This is not to say that the decision to give a kidney is without any  serious cause for concern.  Any surgery has its dangers as does the loss of any organ.  The point is that my father understood as a student of Behavioral Economics that we tend to overestimate loss and underestimate potential.  Knowing what he does, my father was able to push aside his natural fear of loss and focus instead on the facts, statistics and advice of medical professionals.  Were the dangers great enough to impede my father's desire to save another's life?  In my father's final analysis they were not.


After years of prodding people in high places to reconsider the way they make decisions, Kahneman and Tversky grew pessimistic about the role they could play in decision analysis.  "We have attempted to teach people to be aware of the pitfalls and fallacies of their own reasoning.  We have attempted to teach people at various levels in government, army etc. but achieved only limited success."  The way Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and author of an upcoming book on the academic duo, describes the pair's feelings about their lifelong work, is that "they'd found decision analysis promising but ultimately futile."  Perhaps if they would have had (Tversky died in 1996) or will have (Kahneman is alive and ticking and still educating in the U.S.) the privilege to meet my father they would think differently about the impact that their work had on this Earth.  


It's hard to know whether we have made all the right decisions in our lives, but my dad is convinced that he got this one right.  He put it to me this way just the other day: "Imagine you were given one million dollars that could either be thrown in to the grave along with you, or could be given away to your favorite charity during your lifetime.  Which would you choose?" To my father it is as simple as that.  G-d gave us a gift at birth - one kidney for ourselves and one kidney to share with someone else in need.   


Last week my father gave his kidney to a woman who is no longer a stranger and we are all the more proud of him for it.


Rabbi Yogi Robkin (graduated AJA 1994 and Yeshiva High School 1998) is the Director of Outreach at DATA of Plano in Plano, TX.  He is married to Shifra Robkin and they have 5 children, Shira (14), Dina (12), Rachel (10), Shimon (8) and Hillel (7).  They live in Plano, TX.


My father, Shai Robkin, in the center, flanked by the recipient in bed and her daughter, Latausha, herself a kidney donor, standing.




My father, Shai Robkin, in the back center. I'm to his right. My mother, Judy Birnbrey Robkin (YA '65) is the center of the photo.



Continue reading

What It Means To Be Holy

written by: Rabbi Ayal Robkin (GHA '00)


On the Thursday after Thanksgiving my father anonymously donated a kidney. On Friday he met his recipient. I entered this week with an image of my father and his recipient in my inbox. Pride is immeasurable when it comes from a place of truth.


I've been grappling for years with what it means to be holy, to become holy. Is it years of asceticism, a great burden on which you bear the weight of the world? Is it a born-in quality reserved for the select, privileged few?


This afternoon I learned about a Rabbi named Avraham Chen, a mid-Twentieth century mystic from Jerusalem. Interwoven into the story of his life were brief but beautiful descriptions of his teachings along with glimpses into his character, a picture of what clicked for me as the essence of holiness. The book's author found himself waiting for the Rabbi at the Rabbi's table with Shabbat coming to an end, but there were only three other men at the table. When the Rabbi walked in he showed no signs of disappointment.


Holiness, in his path, was the luckiness to have acquired wisdom and the diligence with which you work to embody that wisdom. I may know that every human is divine but I may not see it when I greet him on the street. I may know that the opportunity to encounter and help one, singular life is worth the entire world - but I may still be disappointed when only five people show up to a class. So, to come across wisdom is easy; to put in the years of work to walk in the ways of that wisdom is exponentially difficult. "Her ways are the ways of pleasantness and her path the path of peace."


My father, I know, has been incredibly lucky to come across his wisdom. It seems as though one fortuitous moment led to another and one fortuitous book led to another. It is amazing how one incredibly generous act can mythologize a character. Reading the posts on Facebook, one would think I grew up with a saint for a father. I'm not sure about Sainthood, for my father or for anyone else. But if he were to achieve that title it would be for one thing, his diligence. If nothing else, he is a diligent man.


When I saw the picture of the woman his kidney saved, I was disappointed to find an older woman lying next to my standing father. I had expected the recipient to be young and hadn't noticed the expectation. Holiness sees a life and knows that that life is divine - no matter whose. Holiness knows that actions speak much louder than words. For a brief moment this week, my father became holy, elevated, separated and sanctified. Times of uncertainty call for wisdom and wisdom calls for action. Pride is immeasurable when it comes from a place of truth.


Rabbi Ayal Robkin graduated from the Greenfield Hebrew Academy (AJA Lower School) in 2000. He currently teaches Tanach, Talmud, Mussar, Jewish Spiritual Practices and Mindfulness Meditation at The Heschel School in Manhattan.


Continue reading

Parsha Vayishlach

written by: Talia Sarnat, AJA 4th Grader

This week’s parsha is Vayishlach, where the Torah continues to tell us the story of Yaakov’s life. A well-known story in this parsha is when Yaakov gets into a fight with an angel, who is a messenger of Hashem. After a difficult struggle, he defeats the angel who then changes Yaakov’s name to ‘Yisrael’ – which according to some, means ‘Fights with Hashem’.  

I realized that the Jewish People are also called bnei yisrael, the Children of Yisrael. I think this name was given to us on purpose and tells us that we should never be afraid to take time to understand what we are supposed to do as Jews, even if it means struggling with or questioning Hashem.

We can also learn from this story the importance of never giving up, even during difficult times and struggles.

Shabbat shalom.


Continue reading

Parsha Vayetzei

written by Ayla Cohen, who becomes a Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat, 10 Kislev 5777


This week's Parsha is Vayetzei. The parsha says והנה  מלאכי אלקים עולים ויורדים בו (and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.) The commentators notice that the verse specifically says עולים ויורדים instead of יורדים ועולים. But, don’t the angels start in heaven and then go down to earth? Shouldn’t the text say going down and then up? The answer depends on your view of language.  


For most of the medieval commentators, the Torah has a reason for putting the words in a specific order. They think that it is written like that in a precise way in order to convey additional meaning.  Most of them put some sort of meaning on each and every word and on the order of עולים ויורדים בו. They all have the same idea of the angels starting on the ground and then coming up, but have very different perspectives on why that would be.


First I would like to talk about Rashi. He believes that angels accompany every traveler wherever they go. The angel varies depending on where you are. Different angels accompany people in Israel than outside of Israel.  So as Yaakov enters into the land of Israel, the foreign angels must go up the ladder to heaven and new ones come down to Israel. Like guards going on and off duty.


אברהם בן עזרא better known as the Ibn Ezra, also thinks that the word order matters, but thinks less about the angels and more about the symbolism of the סלם (ladder) and what’s going on in Yaakov’s head. He thinks that the angels symbolize our Tefillot. First we say the prayer and it goes up to heaven, which corresponds to the angels going up, and then, like the angels coming down, our prayers get answered so that ישועה (salvation) comes down the ladder.


Radak also thinks that the ladder is symbolic but he focuses on what the dream is showing Yaakov about the future of his descendants. He thinks that Hashem is giving Yaakov a hint for what is to come. For Radak the angels going up the ladder are Moshe and Aharon receiving the Torah and that the angels going down are the ones giving the Torah.

I started out with Rashi, Rashbam’s grandfather, and lots of times the grandson does not exactly agree with his elder. Only Rashbam thinks that the order of עולים ויורדים doesn’t matter at all. He thinks that it is written that way because that’s just how you say it in common speech. As you would say "I’ve been going up and down the stairs all day long", not "down and up the stairs" - even if you started on the upper floor.

In my opinion Rashbam’s explanation is the one I agree most with, but I still see the value in the others’ explanations.
Another thing I found interesting is that the parsha begins with a מזבח (altar) and ends with a מזבח (altar). The first time a מזבח is spoken about is after Yaakov has his dream. He picks up the rock he was sleeping on and pours oil over it and marks it as a מזבח, this one marking a place where Hashem lives.
The מזבח at the end is when Lavan follows Yaakov and his large family to somewhere in the mountains. Lavan and Yaakov basically make a peace treaty. Lavan will not cross over to Yaakov’s side to harm Yaakov and Yaakov will not cross over to Lavan’s  side to harm Lavan. The מזבח is to mark whose side is whose and where the boundaries are. I think the מזבח also has some sort of connection to the סלם. I think that the סולם and the מזבח are alike because they both mark where two domains meet.

Shabbat Shalom.
Continue reading