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Parashat Vayera:  The Mitzvah of Hospitality

written by Odeya Lerer - 2nd grade (class of 2027)

This week's Parasha is Parashat Vayera.  The Parasha starts with story of Avraham sitting in the entrance of his tent waiting for guests.

Hashem sees how much Avraham wants to do a good deed, an important מצווה (mitzvah). Hashem then sends three angels to be the guests in Avraham’s tent. The three angels weren’t in white as we usually picture angels, but were dressed up as real people that had been walking for a long time.

Avraham calls them to come over to rest by the tent and have something to drink and to eat. Avraham welcomes them with water to wash from the way and some delicious food. Avraham asks Sarah, his wife to bake cake and bread and he himself prepares meat for the three men who seem to be regular guests. The Torah doesn’t tell us about feelings. The Torah doesn’t share with us how Avraham felt when he was doing this מצווה of הכנסת אורחים (mitzvah of hospitality). We learn about how Avraham was excited and happy with being able to do this מצווה by seeing the many actions he does - he greets them, gives water, sends the servant, shares the excitement with his wife and chooses the best part of the meat for them.  

While talking about the Parasha, I thought of an important question.

Avraham was 99 years old and just had his own ברית מילה (circumcision). How could it be that Avraham had the strength to welcome guests?

Rashi tells us that each מלאך (angel) had a specific mission. The first angel's mission was to heal and ease the pain from Avraham, so that Avraham will be able to do the mitzvah of הכנסת אורחים (hospitality).

This special story of Avraham and the מצווה of הכנסת אורחים teaches us two things, first, how to welcome guests and how to treat our guests. The second thing is the importance of this מצווה that Hashem brings upon us different opportunities to fulfil this special מצווה. Teaching us that each of our guests should be treated as the most important one.  



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The Original "Pledge"

November 11, 2016
10 Cheshvan 5777

In the fall of 1992, I arrived in New York City as a freshman at NYU, excited for all that the school had to offer.  My first experience in secular education (other than a summer stint in public school to learn how to type) was full of amazing experiences both academic and social.  Of the latter, my introduction into the Greek system was one of the most impactful.  While I didn’t join a fraternity during my first semester due to soccer (& academic) responsibilities, in the spring semester a few of my friends and I decided to take the plunge and pledge of the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi).  Over the next few months, my mind and body were tested by the upper classmen “brothers” through many tests which were intended to test my faith and assure them that I was “brother” material. 

While the spring of 1993 was my “pledging”, Parshat Lech Lecha was Avraham (Abraham) Avinu’s “pledging”.  Hashem (G-d) puts Avraham through a series of ten tests which according to the Rambam (Avos 5:3), include:

1.       Hashem’s instruction to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.

2.       A famine Avraham encounters Immediately upon his arrival in Canaan

3.       The capture of Sarah (Avraham’s wife) by the Mitzrim (Egyptians).

4.       Avraham’s battle of the four and five kings.

5.       Sarah’s barrenness.

6.       Avraham’s bris (self-circumcision) at an advanced age.

7.       Sarah’s capture by the king of Gerar

8.       Hashem’s instruction to Avraham to send Hagar away after having a child with her.

9.       The estrangement of Avraham’s son, Ishmael

10.   Hashem’s instruction to Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak on an altar (the akaydah).

Not all of these tests are found in the Torah (bible) and in fact different commentators consider different tests to be counted amongst the ten (such as Avraham being thrown into the fiery furnace).  Regardless of which are the specific ten tests, one test is clearly mentioned in the Torah and that is the test of the akaydah, where Avraham is instructed by Hashem to take his beloved son, Yitzchak, to a remote mountain top and sacrifice him. 

Like many of the tests designed by my soon-to-be fraternity brothers in 1993, the test of the akaydah seemed to be without any true purpose other than to test Avraham’s will and faith, yet the test of the akaydah was different than the first nine tests.  While in the previous tests, Avraham was challenged through physical and emotional trials and tribulations, none of these tests were in direct conflict with what he had been taught by Hashem and that he had heretofore taught onto others.  On the contrary, the akaydah was a diametrically opposed message compared to all that Hashem had previously taught Avraham.  Recall that Hashem had promised Avraham a son (named Yitchak) who would carry on his lineage (hard to do if sacrificed).  Yet still despite all of that, Avraham was prepared to carry through with Hashem’s instructions.

The Ramban notes that the goal of Hashem’s “hazing” was to allow Avraham to realize his own potential. In fact all ‘tests’ found throughout the Torah, we are taught, are actually for the benefit of the ‘pledge.’ Other commentaries suggest that the tests publicize one’s piety and closeness to Hashem.  Ramban suggests the concluding words of the akaydah not as “now I know that you fear Hashem” (Bereshit 22:12), but rather as “now I have made it known that you fear Hashem.” Ramban homiletically changes the word yadati (I know) to hoda’ati (announced).

It is no coincidence as well that the akaydah was the tenth test as the #10, the Maharal points out, represents both kedusha (holiness) and completion. As to kedusha, there are 10 commandments, Yom Kippur is on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei, and the list goes on.  As to completion (wholeness rather than holiness), 10 is the first number which sees all the unit digits (0, 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.) used, 10 men comprise a minyan, and the world was created with 10 sayings (Avos 5:1) Given all of this, the tenth in a series of ten is special, unique and final.

Speaking of final, finally, it is not a coincidence that the Hebrew words for miracle “nes” is similar to the Hebrew word for test “nisayon”.  A miracle occurs when Hashem breaks out of His modus operendi of natural law and demonstrates His omnipotence. A test is when Hashem asks us to do the same.

May this, and all Shabbatot be one of peace and tranquility, quality time away from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives for us to focus on our families, our friends and that which Hashem has provided us.  Shabbat Shalom.

Josh Hartman graduated the Hebrew Academy of Atlanta (AJA Lower School) in 1986 and Yeshiva High School of Atlanta (AJA Upper School) in 1991.  He holds a BA in History and a BS in Chemistry from New York University and a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University.  Josh is the Executive Director at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, an affiliate of Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.  He lives with his wife, Robyn, and their three children Bailey (15), Addison (15) and Carly (11) in Englewood, NJ.



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Parashat - Lech Lecha

written by Evyatar Asulin, AJA 7th Grader, who will become a Bar Mitzvah on November 12

November 12, 2016

11 Cheshvan 5777


In this week’s Parsha, Avraham is leaving his homeland and beginning a journey to an unknown land. This is one of the 10 tests Avraham was put through by Hashem. When you stop to think about it, it’s not really clear why this is considered one of the tests. After all, if Hashem personally asked you to move to Israel, would you not do it in a heartbeat? Well, I think I can answer this question from my personal experience.


In kind of the same way, just a little over a year ago, I left my home land and began my journey to another country. The only difference between me and Avraham, is that Avraham did not have to leave his favorite soccer team behind…


But seriously, how is sending Avraham to a new and exciting country, with the help of the Hashem be considered a challenge? Wouldn’t you like to be the chosen one and to follow Hashem to the promised land?


Let’s imagine for a brief moment, that you got an email from Hashem, inviting you to be one of the very first human beings to settle on Mars. It might go something like this:


“Dear Evyatar,

I have been watching you very closely and I’m excited to let you know that you have got what it takes! In the new place I am taking, you there will be no Kosher food (‘cause you’ll be the first cook!), no friends, no family, no soccer team (you do get to be the best individual soccer player in the country though…). Oh, and no internet (now you know your mom is gonna love it!)”


As exciting as it may sound  (it means no school, right?) I might rather stick with my friends and favorite soccer team.


I was actually told by my parents that I had to go with them to the US. Since I have such nice parents (as many of you know…) they asked me what I thought and said that I was not forced to go. I can tell you that it was the first time in my life that I really felt I was leaving something behind, a part of me that was not quite “moveable”. Now Avraham’s case is different and much more complicated. Imagine yourself going to a place with no Kosher food, not even a Starbucks! A place where you have to begin your life from scratch. This is where Avraham was going! But there is more, and Avraham’s job was not really clear until later on in the Parsha. Avraham is first introduced as a person that Hashem spoke with, with no particular reason for choosing him and that is strange. With Noach, for instance, the Torah states that he was exclusively righteous and that his job was to build the Ark, but what was Avraham’s job? Well, if we read through the Parsha, we can see that when Avraham actually fulfills Hashem’s command, he is taking along with him את הנפש אשר עשו בחרן. Onkelus translates that to “The souls that they have connected to Torah in Charan”.  Wasn’t the Torah given by Moshe Rabenu much later? What Torah was Avraham connecting people to? There are many answers out there for this question, but one resonated with me the most.  Avraham was a true Shaliach, messenger from Hashem, wherever he went. His inner essence was to take the good from everything and simply share it. That was his unique quality and that is what Hashem expected from him.


Avraham was able to identify the good in each person and situation and pass it on. But more so, not just telling somebody about it, but connecting the person to that awesomeness he had just learned about.


In this way Avraham found out about the awesomeness of Hashem, and connected people to it. That is exactly what Torah is about, and what Israel is about. I have been here for over a year now. I feel that I have been able to connect people around to the amazing things I had back home in Israel. I hope to do the same when I get back home and share some of the great stuff I learned here in Atlanta.


Shabbat Shalom!


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Parsha Noach - Margalit Lytton

written by: Margalit Lytton - AJA 7th grader 


There is a famous Rashi in this week’s parsha. The Torah says that Noach was an איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו  Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation.

What does this mean? What does it mean to say he was righteous in his generation? Rashi gives two explanations of what it means to be righteous specifically in his generation. He says it can be interpreted as שבח or גנאי, as praise of Noach or as criticism of him. According to Rashi it could be criticism because he was only considered a tzadik compared to the bad people of his generation. But compared to Avraham, Noach would not be considered such a great person. If you interpret in his generation as criticism, then the Torah is trying to tell us that he was only good compared to the people in his generation.

Rashi’s other interpretation is that the Torah is praising Noach by saying in his generation. According to this interpretation, if Noach was good in a bad generation then he would be even better if people around him were good.

I’d like to suggest that Noach was considered righteous in his generation because he resisted the peer pressure from the people around him. What was so good about him was that he did not do what everybody else did, but instead did what’s right. That is a really hard thing to do, to have all this negative peer pressure and still be good.

An example of Noach resisting peer pressure is when he is building the ark. Rashi says that God made it take a long time to build the ark, 120 years, in order to make the people around Noach ask him about what he was doing. He would then explain that Hashem is making a flood to kill them because they are so bad. Then the people would have a chance to do teshuvah – to repent. But maybe it wasn’t just for the sake of the other people, to make them do teshuva, but also for Noach himself, as a test to see if Noach could withstand the peer pressure.

Can you imagine the situation – all his neighbors coming to laugh at the ridiculous sight of Noach building an ark for some supposed future storm that nobody else believed in? And for so many years? It must have been very hard to withstand the pressure not to believe what God had told him. But he did it. He just kept building despite their skepticism.

Another place in this week’s parsha that we see the theme of peer pressure is in an entirely different story, the story of Migdal Bavel, The Tower of Babel. When the people were building Migdal Bavel the Torah describes them as safah echad udevarim achadim, one language and the same words.

Later it says that Hashem didn’t like Migdal Bavel. It doesn’t say exactly why other than the fact that they were all one and the same. I think that what God didn’t like was that everyone was being pressured to be the same and to do the same thing when actually each person is a separate person with different talents and ideas. So Hashem separated the people because they were all being pressured to do the same thing and He didn’t like that. He created us each special and He wants us not to get rid of this specialness by pretending we are all the same.

Hashem likes people who can stand up to peer pressure and not do what everyone else is doing. This is one reason Hashem saved Noach. Because Noach could withstand peer pressure and not do the same thing as everyone else. So, to return to Noach, how exactly did Noach withstand the pressure from his peers? What did he do that he could withstand peer pressure?

When the Torah is describing Noach it says את האלהים התהלך נח Noach walked with God. Maybe the reason Noach could withstand peer pressure was because he walked with God. He was very strong in himself and in his own idea of right and wrong because God was with him all the time. He knew what to do and what was right. God helped him know and so he did not listen to the people around him.

Peer pressure is a big issue for teenagers. Becoming a Bat mitzvah means taking responsibility for one’s relationship with God, and observing the halacha which literally means the way. Observing the halacha helps you withstand peer pressure because you walk in the way of God. Becoming a bat mitzvah will help me withstand peer pressure and strive to be a righteous person like Noach was.




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Parsha Noach - Elena Weissman (AJA '09)

Parshat Noach is a story of destruction, and one of redemption. We first read that Hashem brings about the flood to destroy the entire world because “the imagination of man’s heart is evil” (Breishit  6:5). Later on, after the flood, Hashem vows never to destroy the earth again for the exact same reason: “for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Breishit 8:21).

Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar asks: How can the same quality generate such polar reactions as wrath and compassion? What are the different lenses through which these qualities can be observed with such drastically different responses? 

In 6:5, the pasuk says that God “sees” the evil of mankind, and goes on to say that the evil goes on “Kol Hayom,” “throughout the day.” The reference to daytime is a common one in Judaism: it denotes a time in which the goodness and trueness of the world are clearly visible, when the metaphorical sun is shining. Evil ideations in this context are seen as intentional; mankind was seen as choosing negativity over clear goodness. 

The context of the 8:21 reference is quite different. God does not “see” the evil, but instead draws this conclusion after He “smells the sweet savour” of a sacrifice.” Judaism assigns special significance to the sense of smell, often as a bridge between the earthly and the divine – in Breishit, God created Adam by “breathing into his nostrils the soul of life;” we nourish our souls at Havdalah by smelling a fragrant spice; and Temple sacrifices are commonly described as generating a “reich nichoach” (a pleasant scent). 

After the flood, when the divine order of the world was in flux, the smell is what heralded the new promised life and soul for mankind. Whereas the antediluvian “seeing” of evil provides a face-value cause for wrath, the more spiritual sensing of the true nature of perceived evil is ultimately what saved mankind. The verse here goes on to say that mankind’s heart is evil “from his youth,” not just during the day as it says in the earlier verse. This reference to the innate nature of humanity’s evil is not Judaism’s version of original sin, but rather an opportunity to think about the lenses we use to make judgements about others. Whereas in 6:5 mankind’s evil ideations were defiant in the face of the whole, good truth, in 8:21 Hashem swaps the lens for a more forgiving context: it’s just how they’ve been acclimated. 

The same qualities which spark judgment of others and of ourselves can also lead us to compassion if we look at them through a different lens. Is this person in front of us choosing something we perceive as evil, or are they constrained by unjust institutions, mental illness, or some form of oppression? We’re told here to see the truth in the latter. 

The flood’s sidekick plotline in Parshat Noach is the Tower of Babel. The Babel story starts out with this context: “And the whole earth was of one language and one speech.” Rather than a show of unity, this is the Torah’s pretext for Hashem’s destruction of the people of Babel. R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv) says that the builders envisioned the Tower of Babel as the center of a society which spanned the entire planet, which Hashem knew would decidedly lead to totalitarianism, and whose uniformity would spawn anonymity. In a religion in which words carry the weight of the world and in which speech is generative, a single language is a metaphor for a singular way of thinking and perceiving.

The lesson of God’s war with Babel is that an attack on diversity is an attack on the Jewish tenet that all people -- in their diverse, broken, and whole forms -- are created in God’s image. The story’s juxtaposition (Hi Rabbi Travis!) with humanity’s post-flood redemption demonstrates our imperative to not only replace judgment with mercy, but to acknowledge and value the vastly different narratives driving others’ behavior. While it’s true that we are communal, relational beings, we are also individuals who think and act for ourselves. The challenge is in creating a community that celebrates and fosters both the communal and the individual, rather than pegging them against each other. 

By using lenses of forgiveness and compassion with one another, we can see others in their best light, and uphold the promise that the earth never be destroyed again. I’m thankful to AJA for equipping and empowering me to see the wholeness of those around me, and to join and build communities with the same goal.

Elena Weissmann is a graduate of AJA Lower School (2005) and Upper School (2009). She holds a BA/MPP from the University of Virginia and currently works as a legal advocate in New York City



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