Do we know who Joseph was?

December 22nd, 2010

We were discussing the idea that the descendants of Yaakov became “pulled in” to the Egyptian world and became fairly comfortable in Egypt. This was the process that made the eventual slavery almost inevitable. Over 120 years, from the time they entered until the slavery began, they tried to assimilate (the Egyptians weren’t interested) and become at ease and welcomed in Egypt. One needs to remember that Egypt was the great Empire of its time, with all of the scientific progress in the world coming from Egypt.

Aaron Parker was at the class and made an interesting point. He pointed out that when the Torah begins the story of the enslavement it discusses Pharaoh “no longer knowing Joseph”. He wondered if that is a fully accurate description. Or can one truly say that “The Jews no longer knew who Joseph was”.

Once we forgot who we came from and what he stood for, it was quite easy for Pharaoh to do the same.

“Knowing Joseph” doesn’t mean knowing that he was a great Egyptian leader who helped during the famine. It also isn’t about knowing about his “coat of many colors”, those are biographical details. Knowing Joseph means understanding who he was spiritually and what he taught us.  

There are four main points every Jew needs to know about Joseph.

·        He had incredible faith in G-d, even as he went through the most terrible times in his life.

·        He wore his faith on his shirtsleeves; he let everyone know that it was G-d who gave him his abilities, not his own talents.

·        He resisted the incredible temptation of Potifar’s wife.

·        He had every opportunity to take full revenge on his brothers and didn’t.

We need to make sure we know who Joseph is. And for that matter who our forefathers are. If we don’t know who we are and who we came from, it is hard to expect the rest of the world to appreciate our accomplishments and importance.

Yosef’s development

December 14th, 2010

The story of Yosef and his brothers is a very difficult one to understand. We have to start with looking at each side, recognizing that they were all spiritually great people  and trying to pinpoint a deeper view of the weaknesses and mistakes. 

Let’s look at Yosef right now in the beginning of Vayeshev. The Torah calls him a youth repeatedly in the story. He was 17 at this point. The other 10 older brothers were between 17 and 23 years old. So he was not the “kid brother” 10 years younger than everyone else. 

Rabbi Schwab says that the Torah calls him a youth to illustrate for us his weakness. That is the great weakness of youth – impatience.  Yosef struggles with balancing his future and potential (which were real and great) and waiting for them to develop in the “right time and place”. He seems to be getting ahead of himself quite often. 

This starts with him at home, telling on his brothers to his father, as though he is the older on e in authority. Continues with him telling them his dreams about becoming a leader / king, making his brothers uneasy and jealous. While he is clueless that his “looking ahead” is stoking the flames of hatred of his brothers, they are busy coming up with a way to get him out of the family. 

Even in Egypt, Rashi tells us when he starts to succeed as Potifar’s slave, he begins to think that his time to “rise the ranks” is here, he needs to fix his hair and so on. Once again jumping ahead. 

However, when tested with Potifar’s wife and her “vision of connection to Yosef (mistaken, because it’s her daughter he marries later, not her), Yosef realizes that even though something’s here, he needs to wait for the proper opportunity. 

In jail, he gets a bit too excited about the Butler and his opportunity to get out of jail, and on a microscopic level jumps the gun and thinks that now he’s going to leave via the butler, he is punished with 2 more years in prison. 

As we go full circle, by the time he is pulled out of jail, Yosef has totally matured and gained control of every situation. Personified by two events. 

·        When they rushed to take him to Pharaoh from prison, he refused to hurry to see the king, he insists on washing up, changing clothes and taking a haircut. Realizing this was his opportunity to make a deep impression, he slows everyone down and makes sure to do things right 

·        The whole story of Yosef pretending to accuse the brothers (for reasons that need to be explained) is an exercise of patience and self control on Yosef’s part. He is dying to reveal himself, embrace his family and see his father, yet he knows he needs to wait for the right moment. 



Jacob vs. Lavan – the Integrity of a Jew

November 25th, 2010

In the Parsha of Vayeitzei we have the 20 year ordeal that Jacob faces in living with Lavan (Laban) as an employer and a father in law (always a bad combo). One of the most important lessons off the Parsha can be seen by stepping back and looking at the Parsha as a whole picture.



Jacob ends up in the house of Lavan. He agrees to work 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan tricks him and gives him Leah to marry. He allows him to marry Rachel, but only for another 7 years of free labor. After 14 years of working just to finally be married to the women that he wants, Yaakov tries to come to an agreement with Lavan on wages so he can earn some money. Over the next 6 years Lavan changes Yaakov’s wages 100 times! Every time Yaakov has success Lavan comes and says that the deal is a mistake! If they agree on spotted sheep being for Yaakov, as soon as spotted sheep start being born, Lavan comes and says he meant striped not spotted. And so on.



Lavan is one of those people who cannot stand to see others do well on his watch. He truly believes everything should go to him, always.



Now, let’s peak at Yaakov and see his greatness in the story. For 20 years Lavan has taken advantage of Yaakov. He has ripped him off, embarrassed him and taken advantage of him in every way possible. (In today’s world Lavan’s workers would have certainly unionized). Yet, when they finally have a confrontation at the end of the Parsha and Yaakov finally puts Lavan in his place; Yaakov is able to look Lavan in the eye and say the following (paraphrased):



Twenty years I worked for you and never gave less than 100% of my effort! Unpaid overtime, terrible weather conditions, day and night – I did it all! Damages and theft that I was not legally responsible for, I paid you back for those anyway. Yaakov gave the effort of someone working for his own business or at least the greatest and most generous boss. He never allows the way Lavan treats him affect the way he conducts himself. Yaakov teaches the Jewish people a critical lesson for all time:



A person’s integrity is based on who he is, not the circumstances he finds himself in! 


Yaakov shows us that at all times, I need to be the most honest and loyal worker / partner I can be. That my attitude needs to be to do what is right even when being wronged.



This does not mean that a person is required to take a job with an abusive situation. However, if you take the job and don’t leave, you need to put in your “honest days work” no matter what.



Israel’s Oldest and Greatest Museum

October 26th, 2010

What is the purpose of having a Holocaust Museum? Why do we build a place like Yad Vashem? Mostly, it is to remind people of the evil that was committed so that humanity learns a lesson from the history and never let it happen again.

There is a museum (figuratively) in Israel that speaks to us from almost 4000 years ago. No, it’s not the Kotel, that is only 2200 years old! I’m talking about the Dead Sea.

Hashem destroyed the Dead sea in such a way that it remains a lesson and monument that speaks to us until today.The Torah tells us that the Dead Sea area was inhabited by Sodom and Gomorrah. The area was the most fertile land in Israel “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the Garden of the Lord (Genesis 13:10).” Sodom was the most luxurious, wealthy and naturally irrigated area in Israel. It had Beverly Hills’ prosperity with the best natural conditions one could ask for.

Unfortunately, the people of Sodom took all that wealth and success and created the most selfish, immoral society possible with it. They created a constitution that forbade helping any stranger in need with penalty of death! The motto of Sodom was (according to our Rabbis) “What’s mine is mine and yours is yours”. Life was about how much you collected, not what you did with it. In other words, they became incredibly spoiled and self centered from being on “easy street”.

Hashem created destruction so powerful that four thousand years later, nature hasn’t recovered. It is still the Dead Sea (contrast that to the speed that the Gulf of Mexico has been cleaning itself of the oil spill) totally barren and dead! That was and is a monument to speak to the Jewish people in Israel “Look where unbridled materialism ends up. Look what happens when you take the blessings of Hashem and think that they for you only!

Unfortunately, the danger of Sodom life still exists. It is easy for a person to think that their luxuries in life are more important than helping others and sharing. “Charity begins at home” is a very easy phrase to abuse. It is probably not referring to one’s winter home in Vail.

It is Ok to enjoy the blessing Hashem gives us as long as we remain aware of the lessons on Sodom and make sure we don’t become spoiled and selfish in the process. 

How easy is it to be simple?

October 22nd, 2010

How easy is it to be simple?

Sometimes the simplest route is really the most profound. It just requires us seeing the depth of the simplicity.

My father in law, Yossi Berkowitz A”H, passed away suddenly on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. He seemed to live a very Poshut (simple) life. Yet the more I look and hear, the more I realize there is a lot to take notice of. Perhaps it is a lesson, seems it isn’t so simple being simple.

Dozens of people came to the bais avel, saying the same basic message, with different variations “We loved Yossi; he drove us to the airport three or four times a year when we went to Israel”. Really? A guy drove you to the airport (not as a favor, rather for pay) a few times a year and he was a close friend because of that?! He did some deliveries for you and you’re now in tears from his passing?

How did a man living in the sea of Jews in Brooklyn, seem to touch so many people? He didn’t have money, didn’t have community clout, yet so many felt close to him. For the past decade he drove a car service, a seeming mundane job, yet he became friends with people all over the world, used his job to do constant chessed and connected to Hashem with the way he did it.

As Chazal say about certain individuals that they were mechayiv others (like Hillel took away any excuse from poor people not to learn). One could perhaps say that my father in law was mechayiv all of us to find a way to maximize our avodas Hashem, no matter what the job we have is!

Nate Segal, the national Askan for Torah Umesorah, was standing outside the funeral chapel when I pulled up. He gave me a hug and said “He was a nice guy, he was a nice guy”. Perhaps this is the first part of the answer to our question. Simply put, my father in law was a nice guy, a mentch. It can be easy to underestimate the power of just being a nice person.

The second part of the answer is the chessed that he did. Constantly taking advantage of his knowledge of people making trips to Israel, he would send along medications and other needed items to families in Israel and have his customers be a part of the chessed he was doing. If someone didn’t have money to pay for the ride, he’d let them send money later, or if they were going to Israel, drop it off at his daughter’s apartment in Israel.

Olam Chessed Yiboneh.

Most importantly, in the answer is based on a famous piece from R Dessler that I said at the funeral. Chazal tell us that Chanoch connected to Hashem on the deepest mystical levels while he made shoes as a shoemaker. R’ Yisroel Salanter explains how one connects to Hashem on the DEEPEST level while being a shoemaker. He says that Chanoch put every effort in the shoes he made that they should be the best for the customer. He concerned himself that they should fit, be comfortable and last a long time for his customers. Not so that he could sell more shoes, rather because he cared that he was always giving 100%+ effort and quality. In that way he connected to Hashem, the ultimate giver who gives without his concern for what he will receive.

I believe this summed up my father in law perfectly. He cared for those he worked for. He didn’t just take you to the airport, he made sure your luggage wasn’t overweight and he did all he could to make your experience better. Although he needed to be paid to make a living, it wasn’t ABOUT being paid. It was about doing the best for the person he was helping.  His engine ran on giving not taking. That is the ultimate way to be like Hashem and it is the greatest way to create love between others.


That is how a “simple” car service driver and community member touched so many.


It was this same middah that made him such a special Sabba to his grandchildren. He always gave all his unconditional love to them and they understood that. When my wife told my six year old. Shabsie, that his Sabba had loved him (in an effort to console him) he said honestly, “I know”. As far as my children knew he was the wealthy, because he always got them something special that they didn’t need and he always sent a special treat to them when he could.


Hashem judges us, not on the circumstances he puts us into, rather on what we accomplish with what we have.  My father in law squeezed every opportunity to be all he could be with the cards he was given. In retrospect, that’s far from simple.

Lessons of Succos part 2

September 29th, 2010

Here are the questions on the table:

1.     Why do we sit in a Succah?

a.     The Torah says it is to commemorate the way we lived in the desert after we left Egypt.                                                         

    i.      Then why isn’t it celebrated in the spring, after Pesach?                                                         

  ii.      If it’s not in the spring, why do we pick now, in the month of Tishrei?

2.     What relevance is there to how they traveled in the desert?

Why in the 21st century is that important?

I can understand the Exodus being a seminal moment in Judaism, but the caravans and huts they left in? Those are footnotes in history!?

3.     How does “Zman Simchasainu” – the holiday of happiness fit in with sitting in a Succah and being exposed to the elements? Wouldn’t the holiday of happiness be a “Ritz Carlton” type of stay, instead? In my mind, heat, A/C, no bugs and squirrels, ESPN and a closed roof are much more conducive to happiness.

4.     What does the harvest month being now have to do with succos?

One of the concepts everyone ties into their answers is: The “roof” of the Succah – the Schach – has to be made of flimsy un-protective material (also unfinished by humans). That symbolizes our “unprotected-ness and our reliance from Hashem to protect us. The expression “roof over your head” is considered a very basic requirement for some semblance of protection and security.The following ideas will help answer some of these questions and will give us what to think about in developing them further.

Not ancient history- A direction that the “Sifsei Chaim” takes:

The whole lesson of Succos is to remember the time that the Jews were in the desert. Totally vulnerable, totally exposed and unable to protect themselves in the “huts” they were able to build. Had Hashem not miraculously protected them with his clouds, fed them with Manna and water, they could not have survived.We need to sit in a Succah for us to be “exposed to the elements” (especially here in Minnesota) to realize that we, in the 21st century, are just as needy of Hashem’s protection as the nation was in the desert.

We are just as vulnerable, just as exposed as they were. We just don’t realize it day in and day out. We think our homes, our money, our political power are all assets that make us self sufficient. Succos is intended for us to realize how much we really don’t have control over (perhaps the economic downturn coupled with Iran’s increased threat these past two years have made this lesson more believable).

We are just as in need of G-d’s help and protection every day, as we always have been for 3300+ years.

To top it off, Succos takes place during the harvest season. While we are gathering in the harvest, thinking that our bumper crop is our success and financial security, the Torah tells us otherwise. We make our schach / roof in the Succah not out of the crops, but out of the husks and “garbage” from the harvest. To show that our protection comes from where we least expect it to. 

R’ Hirsch on Succos

Points out a few concepts:

·        The walls can be made of anything, the roof is where the restrictions are. That shows us that the separations between man and man (personal property) is perfectly OK and encouraged in our society. There is no obligation to make a communal Succah for all. Every household is supposed to make their own. However, the roof is where the limitations are. That is to show that our personal success (walls) and our actual security in life (roof) have nothing to do with each other.

·        Why in this month?

o   Succos can ONLY be in the month of Tishrei, because “precisely when the condition of the nation is opposite of its condition in the wilderness (harvest compared to barren desert), the people are to remind themselves of their life in the wilderness”.

o   Not only do we live in a Succah, but we were expected to leave our home and celebrate in Jerusalem with the nation. “on this Chag (national communal holiday), one is asked to renounce his separate existence and to join the nation which has gathered together with G-d, and he is asked to do so precisely at the time he is most inclined to cultivate his separate existence.”

o   Only after getting a new start through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can we have the strength and ability to attempt to develop true joy in our life on Succos. 

JB’s Succah thought – unrefined and undeveloped:

September 29th, 2010

 The skeptic can ask, why spend all this time on building a Succah the way we do? It’s only for a week; 2 days will be rained out, and we spend 2 weeks building it, decorating it, putting in lights and heaters and all sorts of stuff. Just do it on the cheap, survive the few days bare bones and that’s it!

A very legitimate question.

Perhaps one of the lessons of Succos is drawing that question out of someone. Because it gives the opportunity to reflect the question back as one of the Succos lessons:

How much time do we invest in our temporary materialism? How much time, planning and energy do we put into a house that we’ll live in for 5, 10, 20 years – compared to the eternity of our souls? How much time do we spend researching, selecting and negotiating our car that we drive for just three years? Perhaps we look just as silly as the “Succah builder”.

Food for thought.

Other Lulav and Esrog – thoughts, lessons

September 29th, 2010

  ·        Much symbolism in the 4 species and what they represent:

  R’ Hirsch: We each are given certain abilities. The 4 species represent the 4 levels of plant life and conversely, 4 levels of ability of people

  • o   Willow – has no taste no smell, very dependent on water. Has very little use, doesn’t offer us much (good for making baskets to carry other things in it, that’ it). Some people have minimal beauty and no fruit of labor. Just schleppers.
  • o   Myrtle –  has a nice smell but no taste – has beauty, not a lot of fruit from the labor
  • o   Lulav – date palm – bears fruit, has no smell – has fruit, but the palm itself has no beauty to it
  • o   Esrog – has smell and taste through the tree itself. Has beauty and fruit.

o   Everyone is given a different level of ability in this life. We all have to come before Hashem having used it properly. If we have developed it honestly and purely and it is ours (a Lulav can’t be borrowed or stolen). We all have a place before Hashem!

·        From R’ Mutty Eisenbach’s speech in Shul

o   Each Esrog grows for 2-3 years on the tree. Survives winter and summer a couple of times before being ripe. The Rabbis say that the Esrog is comparable to the Jewish people. It survives a cold winter, a hot summer and keep on growing, remains a developing Esrog. We too, have to live our lives, survive our tests “hot, cold” ups and downs and remain a Jew through it all, keep growing and not fall of our “tree”.

Why do we eat in the Succah?

September 21st, 2010

The Torah tells us to eat in a Succah to remember that when we left Egypt we lived in “Succos” in the desert under G-d’s direction and protection.  (There is a dispute in the Talmud if this is referring to Succahs like we sit in (huts) or the miraculous clouds that Hashem gave us in the desert for protection, but that’s for a different discussion). This means that Succos is really a continuation of Pesach – the Exodus – raising a different question of why we celebrate it now and not in the spring! Let’s leave that alone for time being, too. Drifting back to our point, why is it important for us to commemorate that Hashem had us in huts in the desert when we left Egypt and remember it every year? Rabbi Dessler explains; what was it like to have left Egypt, to have been slaves and now become free? What are we free to become? What was the purpose of our freedom? Was it to be like every other nation of the world and use that freedom for materialistic prosperity? Was it to settle in the land and have a thriving Jewish country in Israel? The Jews leaving Egypt would’ve had in their heads the definition of freedom and success as being like the upper classes in Egypt who lived in big estates and has slaves and had luxurious setting. That would be the immediate natural goal.Instead Hashem had them live for months, and then years in huts in the desert. This allowed them to develop into a free people without any opportunity to get caught up in building a house, obtaining property, building an estate and the like. Here, in the desert they were to “develop themselves” as a people and as individuals without the illusion that they are to be defined by their material goods. Here they could become a people who would grow as a community without all the material distractions of a home and property.Tell me, were our Jewish values stronger and our community mindset stronger when we all lived together in one neighborhood, (with limited options) on the North side or now that were are spread all over and can live anywhere? Has that strengthened us as a people? Has it given us a better perspective on what is important in life? Or has it made it easier to forget those around us? To make sure we are insulated from even seeing those who have less than us? Hasn’t it distracted us with the never ending search for the “perfect house”? It seems like it has given us a never ending series of worries about improvements and design in our houses, new furniture and landscaping and all that comes with it. None of these things are inherently bad, but they do distract us from realizing who we are and what is really important.
Sitting in the Succah, away from all of those distractions can be a great opportunity to reassess our priorities and focus in life.

Much more to say on this topic, I’ll let you all think about this and respond with some ideas.

Tim Brewster, TK, Gardy, Dan Monson and Succos (AKA Jewish Unity).

September 21st, 2010

Continuing with my obsession of sports analogies and life; we have the Mitzvah on Succos of taking a Lulav and an Esrog and waving them together every day. There are numerous reasons and symbolism behind this Mitzvah, but let’s start with the most famous and simple one.There are 4 species taken together with the Lulav and Esrog, they are as follows:

1.       Esrog (Etrog) (Citron) – Has a nice smell and has a taste

2.       Lulav (palm branch) – the Talmud says it has a taste (fruit bearing tree) but no smell

3.       Hadasim (myrtle branch) – has a nice smell and no taste

4.       Aravah (willow branch) – has no smell or taste

Each one of these represents a different type of Jew.

1.       Esrog – with taste and smell – is a Jew who learns Torah and has good actions (I’m thinking here of Ron Gardenhire, good personality and success on the field)

2.       Lulav – taste but no smell – is a Jew who learns Torah but doesn’t translate those into good actions (I’m thinking of Tim Brewster, great at “Rah Rah”, but no actual “fruit to show for it” – no successful actions)

3.       Hadasim – smell but no taste – is a Jew with good actions, but doesn’t put the time into studying Torah (I’m thinking Tom Kelly – good success, no personality at all)

4.       Aravah – no smell no taste – is a Jew who neither learns nor has good actions (I’m thinking Dan Monson, no personality and a failure on the court).

On Succos we have the ultimate display of Jewish Unity! We take all four together and make a blessing on them (in Temple times, we brought them to the Temple) and do the mitzvah together with ALL of them. This shows that ALL Jews have a place in Judaism, and we are only a complete people when we have all of us together, from the most righteous to the least righteous.  Everyone has a place at the table. In addition, the Rabbis teach us, we do this in order that each person can help supplement the others weaknesses!

This is especially pertinent post Yom Kippur as we look for a way to “have the rising tide raise all ships” and look for ways to better the Jewish people. So, on Succos, like no other time, we need to make every opportunity to make sure that our doors are open for all Jews to grow and participate in Torah and Mitzvah observance!