Monthly Archives: October 2013

Machar Chodesh

When Shabbat is the day before Rosh Chodesh, there is a special Haftarah that is read instead of the regular Haftarah for that Parsha. The text of Machar Chodesh is from Shmuel I, describing a young David trying to figure out where he stands with King Shaul.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of Machar Chodesh

There is a long and complicated back story which I tried to summarize in the introduction. Here is a painting by Rembrandt that shows one of the scenes that preceded the story of the Haftarah itself.

Shaul and David

If tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, what is tonight? Darkest Hour

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Filed under Shabbat Machar Chodesh, Special Shabbatot


The Haftarah of Toldot is from the book of Malachi. It talks about the negative attitude of the people toward the newly rebuilt Temple, and G-d’s expectations of an ideal Cohen.

Haftarah of Toldot – Linear Annotated Translation

If you’re wondering what Cohanim have to do with Esav, read this: Why hate Esav?

For other connections, look for the theme of blessings and curses.

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Filed under Sefer Breishit, Toldot

Toldot: Why hate Esav?

The Haftorah of Toldot begins with the following:

הֲלוֹא אָח עֵשָׂו לְיַעֲקֹב נְאֻם ה’ וָאֹהַב אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת עֵשָׂו שָׂנֵאתִי.
… isn’t Esav a brother of Yaakov? says Hashem. I love Yaakov. But Esav I hate” (Malachi 1:2-3)

Everybody knows that Esav is evil, that he is a huge disappointment to G-d. But how do we know this? When did it happen? And what did he do that was so terrible?

The Parsha only hints at what Esav did wrong. Knowing how he’ll turn out, we tend to judge Esav in that light from the beginning, and view his choice of occupation as a hunter and a “man of the field” as a reflection of his violent nature. However, this is premature. Hunting is not inherently negative. Yitzchak Avinu, Esav’s father, appreciated the food that Esav brought in, and the protection that he provided for their fields. There is no reason for G-d – or us – to hate him just yet.

But then the Parsha tells us the story of the stew and the birthright:

וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב נָזִיד וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן הַשָּׂדֶה וְהוּא עָיֵף: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל יַעֲקֹב הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה כִּי עָיֵף אָנֹכִי עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ אֱדוֹם: וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת בְּכֹרָתְךָ לִי: וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה:וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי כַּיּוֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַע לוֹ וַיִּמְכֹּר אֶת בְּכֹרָתוֹ לְיַעֲקֹב: וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה:
Yaakov was simmering a stew. Esav came in, faint, from the field.
Esav said to Yaakov, “Give me a swallow of that red stuff! I’m faint!” — that is why he was called Edom.
Yaakov said, “Sell me your birthright right now.”
Esav said, “Here I am about to die, why do I need this birthright?”
Yaakov said, “Swear to me right now.” He swore to him, he sold his birthright to Yaakov.
Yaakov had given Esav bread, and bean stew.
He ate, he drank. He got up, and he left. Esav treated the birthright with contempt. (Bereishit 25:29-34)

Esav comes in from the field, and demands that Yaakov give him “that red stuff.” Now, anyone who has made any kind of stew, even a red lentil stew, knows that by the time it’s edible, it can no longer be described as red. If Esav, exhausted and dehydrated, was seeing red everywhere, that says more about him and his mindset than about the food that Yaakov was cooking. As Rashi puts it, his exhaustion was due to all the killing that he had done. The redness wasn’t in the lentils, it was in the blood that he had spilled that day. And it wasn’t just that day; it became the name by which he was known to all: Edom, the Red.

Seeing Esav’s reaction, Yaakov takes this opportunity to have a conversation with him about the Bechora, the birthright.

The Parsha never tells us what the meaning of the Bechora was, and what makes it important, but we can learn about it from the Haftorah. It starts by saying that Esav is hated, but then drops that subject and switches to berating the Cohanim for not respecting their role in serving Hashem. It appears to be a non-sequitur, unless we assume that the two subjects are in fact related. We can then deduce that whatever Esav did to make G-d hate him must be connected to the role of the Cohanim.

Originally, the role of bringing sacrifices was the privilege of the first-born. Indeed, the Gemara tells us: “Until the Tabernacle was established, private altars were permitted, and the service was done by the first-born.” (Talmud Bavli, Zevachim 112b). The birthright of the first-born in every family was to be its representative at the Altar. It is as if every single family could have their own “Cohen,” serving Hashem. We see this in practice at Matan Torah:

וַיִּשְׁלַח אֶת נַעֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים שְׁלָמִים לַה’ פָּרִים.
רש”י: את נערי- הבכורות.
Moshe sent the youths of the Children of Yisrael, they offered burnt offerings, and peace offerings to Hashem…
Rashi: Youths: the “Bechorot”
(Shemot 24:5)

Rashi explains that the “youths” that offered the sacrifices at the time of Matan Torah were indeed the first-born, the Bechorot.

Unfortunately, the Sin of the Golden Calf caused this system to be set aside for another one: the Bechorot were replaced by the Leviim, who had demonstrated their uncompromising commitment to Hashem during its aftermath. In some cases, this exchange involved the Bechorot redeeming themselves for money.
Yaakov and Esav handled it similarly. Esav, as the official first-born, would have been designated as the family “Cohen.” He would have been the one to bring sacrifices on their behalf. But Yaakov understood that this was not something that Esav wanted or needed. He was fully committed to his role as a hunter and killer, his entire life the color of freshly spilled blood. Serving G-d would not stay on his agenda. So Yaakov suggested making an exchange: Esav would sell the Bechora that he did not want and gain his freedom, just like the Leviim and Bechorot did after Matan Torah.

This is how the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 6) explains what happened:

לפי שמצינו שיעקב חמד את הבכורה לשם שמים כדי שיוכל להקריב, ולקחה מעשו בדמים, והסכים הקב”ה עמו, וקראו בני בכורי ונתן גדולה לבכורים שיקריבו לפניו.
“We find that Yaakov desired the birthright for the sake of Heaven, in order to be able to offer sacrifices, and he bought it from Esav for money. And Hashem agreed to this, and called him “my first-born son,” and gave honor to the first-born, that they should offer sacrifices before Him.”

Just to be clear, the exchange was of money, not food. Yaakov had already given him food. It was not hunger that motivated Esav to reject his birthright, it was something else:

וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת הַבְּכֹרָה.
“He ate, he drank. He got up, and he left. Esav treated the birthright with contempt.”

Esav was not interested in a service of G-d that may or may not materialize sometime in the future, which he may or may not live to see. He was interested in the here and now. He ate, he drank, he got what he wanted and he was done. He got up and walked away. He sold the birthright because it meant nothing to him: “Esav treated the birthright with contempt.”

This phrase, “treat with contempt” (ויבז), is repeated many times by the Haftorah, as it criticizes the attitude of the Cohanim in the Second Beit HaMikdash. Here is just one sample:

וְאַתֶּם מְחַלְּלִים אוֹתוֹ בֶּאֱמָרְכֶם שֻׁלְחַן אֲדֹנָי מְגֹאָל הוּא וְנִיבוֹ נִבְזֶה אָכְלוֹ. וַאֲמַרְתֶּם הִנֵּה מַתְּלָאָה וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ אָמַר ה’ צְבָאוֹת וַהֲבֵאתֶם גָּזוּל וְאֶת הַפִּסֵּחַ וְאֶת הַחוֹלֶה וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת הַמִּנְחָה הַאֶרְצֶה אוֹתָהּ מִיֶּדְכֶם אָמַר ה’.
But you desecrate it, by saying, “The Lord’s table is repugnant,” it’s an expression, “Eating from it is contemptible.” And you say, “What a burden!” and you have sniffed at it, says Hashem Tzvaot. And you bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick; you bring it as the offering. Should I accept it from you? says Hashem. (Malachi 1:12-13)

The Haftorah describes the Cohanim treating the service of Hashem with the same contempt that Esav showed for it when he sold it. They too treat it as a burden, and sniff at it, and do the least that they can get away with. It is almost as if they’re asking, in Esav’s voice: “Why do I need this birthright?”
The Haftorah tells us what the Parsha only implies: the disdain and contempt that Esav showed for the idea of serving G-d is hateful. It is a deal-breaker, something that cannot be worked with or worked around, and it is entirely unacceptable for those whose role it is to serve at the Altar of Hashem.

Esav is hated, and Yaakov is loved, but when the descendants of Yaakov treat the service of G-d as if it were the very last thing we need in our lives, then we might be as big a disappointment to Him as Esav was.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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Filed under Connections, Sefer Breishit, Toldot


There are prophets who are introduced with their name, their father’s name, and their exact date. There are prophets who are introduced with their name, but their time period is uncertain. And then there’s Malachi:

אמר רב נחמן: מלאכי זה מרדכי, ולמה נקרא שמו מלאכי שהיה משנה למלך. מיתיבי: ברוך בן נריה, ושריה בן מעשיה ודניאל, ומרדכי בלשן, וחגי, זכריה ומלאכי כולן נתנבאו בשנת שתים לדריוש! תיובתא. תניא, אמר רבי יהושע בן קרחה: מלאכי זה עזרא, וחכמים אומרים: מלאכי שמו.

R’ Nachman said: Malachi is Mordechai. Why was he called Malachi? Because he was second to the king. [But it cannot be Mordechai, because] we have a source that says: “Baruch ben Neriah, Sarya ben Maasya, and Daniel, and Mordechai the linguist, Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi, all prophesized in the second year of Daryavesh.”, [listing Mordechai and Malachi as separate people]. We learned: R’ Yehoshua ben Karcha said: Malachi is Ezra, and the sages said: Malachi is his name.” (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 15a)

In other words, the title Malachi, which literally means, “My Messenger”, might refer to :

  • Mordechai (only if “Mordechai the Linguist” is a different person from Mordechai HaYehudi)
  • Ezra
  • A person named Malachi

It is clear, though, that he did prophecy during the same time as Zechariah and Chagai, at the beginning of the Second Temple era, shortly after it was rebuilt (~450 BCE). We can see this ourselves from the Text itself: he refers to the Persian “Pacha”, governor, as an example of someone that one might want to please. He uses the question-and-answer method which became popular during that era. And he describes an attitude toward the Temple which is diametrically different from the attitude that the prophets decried during the First Temple.

Malachi’s book is 3 chapters long. The first chapter is used for the Haftarah of Toldot, and the last chapter is the Haftarah of Shabbat HaGadol.  This is quite a bit of exposure for a tiny book in Trei Asar (the Dozen “mini” books of Prophecy – many of whom are not used at all by the Haftarot).

His writing style is more straightforward and accessible to us than say, Yeshayahu or Hoshea. It is closer to Rabbinical Hebrew, the language of the Siddur and subsequently the Mishnah. Thus, it feels more familiar to us. Or, he’s just a really straightforward and clear writer.

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Filed under Neviim (prophets)


The Haftarah of Chayei-Sarah is the first chapter of the book of Melachim (Kings I).
Linear Translation of the Haftarah of Chayei-Sarah

Just as Chayei-Sarah describes Avraham’s challenges in ensuring the continuation of his legacy, the first chapter of Melachim describes King David’s challenges in ensuring the continuation of his legacy. Actually, the structure of the Parsha and the Haftarah is so symmetrical, it deserves an entire chart:

Chayei-Sarah Haftarah
Avraham’s purchase of a burial ground for Sarah, our very first acquisition in the Land of Israel —- [1]
Description of Avraham in his old age Description of King David in his old age.
The necessity of finding a wife for Yitzchak – to perpetuate Avraham’s legacy The struggle over succession – identifying which son will perpetuate David’s legacy
The story of Rivka’s betrothal is repeated in great detail,  several times from different perspectives. The story of the struggle is repeated several times from different perspectives.
Ultimately, she marries Yitzchak and the future of the family of Avraham is ensured Ultimately, Shlomo is chosen and the future of the dynasty of David is ensured


And in more depth:


[1] But see the previous chapter, the last one in Shmuel II, David’s acquisition of Har HaBayit in Jerusalem.

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Chayei-Sarah: Repetitions

The Haftarah tells the story of the succession to King David’s throne. He is old and ill, and his son Adoniah acts as if he will succeed to the throne, despite King David’s preference for Shlomo. Adoniah takes on some of the overt signs of monarchy and makes a feast, inviting the entire court – with the exception of Shlomo and his supporters.

The Haftarah repeats this story several times. First, we hear it from the point of view of the narrator, then Natan tells it to Batsheva, then Batsheva to David, and finally Natan to David. The repetitions do not add any detail, nor do the different perspectives add any new insight. What, then, is the purpose of that repetition?

Our Parsha exhibits similar characteristics. Chayei Sarah is famous for the repetition of the story of Eliezer and Rivka at the well. First, we are told of his plan: the girl he is looking for will be the one that offers to give water both to him and to the camels. Then, we hear it as it actually happens: Rivka comes, gives water to Eliezer and to the camels, and turns out to be Avraham’s niece. He then goes to Rivka’s house, and we hear all about it yet again, in detail, as he retells it to Rivka’s family.

Finally, as if to tease us, when Eliezer brings Rivka to Yitzchak, this is how the entire event is described:

(סו) וַיְסַפֵּר הָעֶבֶד לְיִצְחָק אֵת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה:
The servant told Yitzhak all the things that he had done. (Breishit 24:66)

Could this not have sufficed earlier, too?

Some suggest that the purpose of the first two repetitions is to learn about Eliezer’s faith, that he relied on G-d and He came through for him. This explains the first two parts, the story of Eliezer’s request for a sign, and the sign working out even better than he had hoped. But what could be the purpose of knowing exactly what he told Rivka’s family? Could it not have said, “The servant told them all the things that he had done”?

This prompts Chazal to make the following statement:

א”ר אחא יפה שיחתן של עבדי בתי אבות מתורתן של בנים פרשתו של אליעזר שנים וג’ דפים הוא אומרה ושונה ושרץ מגופי תורה ואין דמו מטמא כבשרו אלא מריבוי המקרא
R’ Acha said: The conversations of the servants from the Forefathers’ houses are more valuable than the Torah of their children. Eliezer’s story takes up 2-3 pages, and repeats itself, but we learn the Torah law that an insect’s blood does not cause impurity from a hint. (Breishit Rabba 60)

Important Halachot, practical laws, are not spelled out in the Torah; they need to be painstakingly derived from hints in the text. Our sources for important practical laws such as which text needs to be inside Tefillin, or whether or not we need to eat Matza for seven days or only one day, are derived from unusual phrasings or apparent contradictions. It is as writing the laws out explicitly were a waste of ink.

Yet for the story of Eliezer, there’s plenty of room. Pages and pages of it, most of the Parsha, when the entire thing could have been summed up in about three verses.

The Midrash draws the obvious conclusion: the Torah cares more about the conversations of the servants of our forefathers, than it does about making sure that important laws that you and I must keep are written clearly.

Why? What is the value of recording what Eliezer said to Betuel and Lavan? What is the lesson that could not have been conveyed in any other manner?

Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Breishit, Chayei Sarah), in her analysis of the differences between the version of the narrator and the version of Eliezer, points out that Eliezer’s story has a particular slant that makes it obvious that he had an agenda. In his speech, he keeps repeating that everything came from G-d: his master’s fabulous wealth, the mission itself, the choice of the woman for his master. He points out that as a servant, he has no will of his own, and likewise, his master Avraham, as a servant of G-d, has no will of his own. Eliezer keeps drilling in the point that G-d is the cause of everything that has happened.

It is nice to hear of the faith that Eliezer had in G-d. Yet to suggest that Eliezer was simply sharing his view of the world is inadequate. He is now at a critical juncture of his mission. Once he found the girl, the very worst thing that could happen is that she will not come – or that she will not be allowed to come. The Torah implies that Rivka does not require much convincing. She recognizes very quickly that unlike her home, her life with Avraham’s son will be full of truth and purpose. But Eliezer also needs to convince her family. While Betuel is Rivka’s father, in the ancient world, the brothers had a say in their sisters’ welfare. It appears that the real decision of whether or not Rivka marries Yitzchak is in Lavan’s hands. We get to know Lavan later on, as the father of Rachel and Leah, and we see that he has absolutely no scruples when it comes to getting his own way. We also see that he is very possessive about his family , and prefers to have them firmly under his thumb. Eliezer’s task is not easy: how to get Lavan to let Rivka go?

Betuel and Lavan were pagan; as we say in the Haggada, “originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers”. The pagan relationship with their gods is a manipulative tug-of-war: if you come up with the proper offerings, your god will give you what you want, but if he’s made up his mind, it’s fate, and you can’t do anything to change it . Eliezer thus phrases his entire narrative in a context that they could relate to: Hashem has given Avraham great wealth (point: this god is powerful). Avraham serves Hashem (point: the wealth is conditional on the service). Hashem has miraculously singled out Rivka to be the bride (point: Hashem has made up His mind, and it is impossible to try to get out of it). Indeed, he presents his case so well that he elicits the perfect response:

(נ) וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵה’ יָצָא הַדָּבָר ;לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ טוֹב:
Lavan and Betuel answered: This came from Hashem; it doesn’t matter what we say.

They might not be particularly happy about it, but they bow to what they perceive to be fated, and let Rivka go. Eliezer achieves his goal and his mission is a success.

In contrast, when he reports on his mission, he does not need to put on a show for his master, and the Torah can comfortably sum it up as: “The servant told Yitzhak all the things that he had done.”

Now we are suitably impressed with Eliezer’s skill as a negotiator, with his understanding of the mindset of his target audience, and the difficulty of his mission.

Still the question remains: why is this in the Torah? Why is Eliezer’s skill as a negotiator so important that it rates pages and pages of text?

Perhaps what we need to look at is the alternative, the other way it might have gone, if the servant were not a member of Avraham’s household.

Several chapters earlier, in Parshat Breishit, when the Torah talks about why the world needs to be destroyed, one of the reasons it gives is that great men would “take themselves wives, whoever they chose” (Breishit 6:2). If it sounds romantic, that they married for love, that is not the intention. The Midrash says: “took wives: women who were already married to someone else” (Breishit Rabba 26:5). If a wealthy and powerful man would see someone he liked, he would take her. He would not ask permission – not from her family, not from her husband if she had one, certainly not from her. He would just take.

Avraham is wealthy. He is respected, even powerful. He needs a girl from a specific family for his son. If he sends his servant, and the servant finds a suitable girl, but she doesn’t want to go, what should happen? Would his servant make her family “an offer they can’t refuse”?

Avraham? Never.

Is that because after the Flood, taking women by force was no longer acceptable by the newly rebuilt society, and wasn’t an option for anyone? Hardly. When the strikingly beautiful Sarah appears in the court of Pharaoh, there are two alternatives: if she’s married, her husband can be killed so she can be taken. Or, if she is under the protection of a brother, the brother can be paid, and she can be taken. The brother doesn’t need to agree; it’s not up to him at all.

But for Avraham, about whom Hashem himself said, “For I know him; that he will command his children, and his household after him; they will keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice “, this is not how things are done. Eliezer, a member of Avraham’s household and his representative, who keeps the way of Hashem, would not dream of using force, or guile, or bribery, to take Rivka from Lavan.

How, then, does one get what one desperately needs, if one can’t take it?

That is where diplomacy comes in. It is possible to get people to cooperate. It is possible to convince them of your need, of the rightness of your way, to create a narrative that they can identify with, to cause them to do the right thing.

To show us how this is done – that this is done – the Torah is prepared to invest a little bit of ink and a few pages of parchment. It is not something that one can derive through logic, from a hint in the text. It needs to be explicit.

Using his wits and his faith, Eliezer convinced Lavan, the most selfish man in all of Tanach, to let his sister out of his clutches. If this is possible, then other things are possible, too. Justice and righteousness, “the way of Hashem”, can succeed in this world.

In the Haftarah, the story has the same structure as the Parsha. Like Eliezer, we hear Natan and Batsheva making a plan to ensure that Shlomo is crowned, and we see them carrying it out. Unlike Eliezer, they did not ask for Divine Intervention. Nor did they need to manipulate David into doing the right thing. Why then, is their plan recorded in the Tanach? What were the alternatives there, what did not happen that might have?

In the ancient world, a contested royal succession meant inevitable bloodshed. Whichever of the princes wound up taking the throne would immediately murder the remaining contenders and their supporters. In a lesser kingdom than David’s, one that was not founded on “justice and righteousness”, Natan and Batsheva would have arranged for the warriors that sided with Shlomo to attack Adoniah’s supporters.

But that is not what happened. Natan and Batsheva needed something very desperately – it was a matter of life and death – and yet they did not take it by force. They achieved their goals through polite, well-considered discourse, maintaining respect and dignity – their own, and that of the aging King David.

The lesson of Eliezer’s diplomatic success is the lesson of Natan and Batsheva’s diplomatic success. In a society based on justice and righteousness, there is power in words.

And that is a lesson worth repeating.


PDF for printing 4 pages A4

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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Filed under Chayei Sarah, Sefer Breishit

Chayei-Sarah: Lifetime Achievement

The textual parallel that dictated the choice of the Haftarah for Parshat Chayei Sarah is found in the first verse of the Haftarah:

וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ

King David was old, getting on in years. He was covered in clothes, but couldn’t get warm.

The phrase, “old, getting on in years”, is not a common expression, appearing only four times in all of Tanach. One them is here in the Haftarah, another is in Chayei Sarah (Breishit 24:1) [1]:

(א) וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל:

Avraham was old, getting on years. Hashem blessed Avraham in every way.

Chazal see this as an opportunity to compare the lives of Avraham and David:

והמלך דוד זקן בא בימים. זהו שאמר הכתוב עטרת תפארת שיבה .היכן היא מצויה? בדרך צדקה תמצא. ממי את למד? מאברהם על ידי שכתוב בו ושמרו דרך ה’ לעשות צדקה ומשפט זכה לשיבה שנאמר בו בשיבה טובה וזכה לזקנה שנאמר ואברהם זקן בא בימים וכן אתה מוצא בדוד על ידי שכתוב בו ודוד עושה משפט וצדקה לכל עמו זכה לזקנה שנאמר והמלך דוד זקן בא בימים.

“King David was old, getting on in years”: It says “The crown of glory is gray hair.” How do you get it? Through righteousness. From whom do we learn this? From Avraham. Because it says about him “[his children] will follow the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice”, he earned gray hair, and earned old age (as it says “Avraham was old, getting on in years”). So you find with David: because it says about him “David did justice and righteousness to the whole nation”, he earned old age, as it says “King David was old, getting on in years”. (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim I 247)

According to this Midrash, gray hair is a crown, a reward of a lifetime of achievement. The Text recognizes two people with the accolade of old age: David and Avraham. Avraham’s greatest accomplishment was righteousness and justice; the hallmark of David’s reign was also righteousness and justice. Therefore, being “old, getting on in years” is the reward that one gets for bringing justice into the world.

In order to understand the Midrash’s logic, let’s look at the two verses it quoted:

(יט) כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט…

Breishit 18: 19) For I know him; that he will command his children, and his family after him; they will keep the way of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice

Hashem Himself tells us why Avraham was chosen and why Hashem expects him to change the world: Avraham will leave an enduring legacy of “keeping the way of Hashem”. And what is the way of Hashem, according to this verse? “To do righteousness and justice”.

Let’s take a minute to define these terms, so we can fully appreciate the value of Avraham’s legacy. Justice (“mishpat”), is the rule of law. People do what they’re supposed to do, and get what they’re supposed to get, for better or for worse. Laws apply evenly to everyone, rich or poor, powerful or friendless.

“Tzedaka”, in Biblical Hebrew, is not “charity”. It is not the help that you give to someone in need. Tanach uses “tzedaka” and “tzedek” interchangeably, and “tzedek” refers to the type of justice when the rule of law is applied with both fairness and kindness.

Sometimes, if laws are followed precisely, exactly according to the rules, what ends up happening is neither right nor good. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Laws applied precisely, unthinkingly, can wind up hurting the very people they are meant to protect. Whereas flexibility, taking context and circumstances into account, giving someone a second chance, might turn out to be the truly right thing to do – “righteousness” (“tzedaka”).

This was what Avraham brought into the world in G-d’s name: the idea that laws must apply to everyone equally, but that laws alone are not enough for a just, good society. G-d chose Avraham for his ability to transmit these values to the next generation, to make it the cultural norm.

So when King David, several centuries later, begins to rule as the king of all of Israel, with a capital in Jerusalem, he continues Avraham’s mission:

(טו) וַיִּמְלֹךְ דָּוִד עַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי דָוִד עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה לְכָל עַמּוֹ:

15) David ruled over all Israel. David acted with justice and righteousness to the entire nation. (Shmuel II, 8)

What Avraham was able to do at the level of family, David was then able to do for the whole nation.  Justice became the defining characteristic of David’s government, and justice became the criterion that all future kings of his dynasty were measured against.

Avraham and David did not have much in common; their biographies and personality traits could not be more different. But the Text, in summarizing each of their lives, picked the one thing that mattered most to each of them, the one trait that symbolizes “the way of Hashem” – righteousness and justice.


[1] The other two times describe Yehoshua. While it would be interesting to compare all three men, Chazal chose David, not Yehoshua, to be the Haftarah for Chayei-Sarah.

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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The Haftarah of VaYeira, from Melachim II, relates some of the most exciting and touching stories in all of Tanach – and one of the few with a truly happy ending. There are so many connections to the Parsha, I hope I’m able to write about all of them eventually.

Linear annotated translation of the Haftarah of VaYeira

To start with, see the other post on VaYeira, “This Time Next Year”.

Look out for parallels to the Akeida, to Lot and the Angels, to Hagar and Yishmael.

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VaYeira – This time next year

In the Haftarah of VaYeira Elisha wishes to show his appreciation to the Lady of Shunam for her outstanding hospitality. When he finds out that she is childless, he promises her a son.

וַיֹּאמֶר וּמֶה לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהּ? וַיֹּאמֶר גֵּיחֲזִי אֲבָל בֵּן אֵין לָהּ וְאִישָׁהּ זָקֵן:
וַיֹּאמֶר קְרָא לָהּ – וַיִּקְרָא לָהּ וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּפָּתַח:
וַיֹּאמֶר לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה כָּעֵת חַיָּה אַתְּ חֹבֶקֶת בֵּן !
וַתֹּאמֶר אַל אֲדֹנִי אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים , אַל תְּכַזֵּב בְּשִׁפְחָתֶךָ:
וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה כָּעֵת חַיָּה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיהָ אֱלִישָׁע וַיֹּאמֶר שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וְהִנֵּה בֵן לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ . וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו:
14) He said, “But what should be done for her?” Gehazi said, “But she doesn’t have a son, and her husband is old.”
15) He said, “Call her”. He called her, and she stood by the entrance.
16) He said, “At this season at the time of births, you will be hugging a son.” She said, “Don’t, my lord, Man of G-d! Don’t disillusion your servant.”
17) The woman became pregnant, and gave birth to a son, at this season at the time of births, about which Elisha had spoken to her. (Melachim II 4 14-17)

In the Parsha, the angels come to Avraham and Sarah and promise her a son:

וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים:
וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵה’ דָּבָר לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן
…וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן לִזְקֻנָיו לַמּוֹעֵד אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים
10) He said, “I will come back to you at the time of births and your wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah was listening through the entrance of the tent, which was behind him.
11) Avraham and Sarah were old, getting on in years; the way of women had stopped for Sarah.
12) Sarah laughed inside, saying, “After all this time that I didn’t have joy, and my lord is old.”
13) Hashem said to Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, how could I give birth, when I have gotten old?”
14) Can anything be too difficult for Hashem? I will come back at this season at the time of births, and Sarah will have a son.
21:2) She became pregnant; Sarah gave birth to Avraham’s son, in his old age, at the season about which G-d had spoken. (Breishit 18 10-14, 21:2)

The two stories share so many phrases, it looks almost like the prophet writing the Haftarah copied them verbatim from the Parsha. The parallels are numerous: an act of hospitality resulting in the blessing of childbirth, the husband accused of being too old, the scepticism of the mother, and the happy event coming about as foretold. So that we don’t miss the thematic similarities, the Haftarah re-uses the memorable phrase, “at this season at the time of births”, which is not found anywhere else in all of Tanach. It is clear that the prophet is trying to draw our attention to the parallels between the two stories. Once we focus on the similarities, the information flows both ways: not only can we apply what we know of the Parsha to the Haftarah, but we can also apply what we are told in the Haftarah to the Parsha.

To begin with, the way that the Lady of Shunam phrases her reaction to the happy news can help us understand Sarah’s reaction as well. When told that she will have a child “this time next year” – not sometime in the future, but this very year – Sarah laughs, prompting us to ask, along with the angel, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Did she doubt G-d’s abilities? Did she lose faith in the promise given to Avraham decades earlier?

The Lady of Shunam is more explicit. Her reply is, “Do not disillusion me.” She voices her fear of being toyed with, of raising her hopes in vain. It is not that she doesn’t believe the prophet or doesn’t believe that G-d can accomplish what he promised. She simply cannot afford to be disappointed yet again.

If we assume that the two women share similar feelings, then Sarah’s laughter is not derisive, it is defensive. How many years has she waited to see the prophecy to Avraham fulfilled? The Torah gives us the numbers: Avraham was 75 when G-d told them they would have children; he is now 99. 24 years, 12 months a year, 288 months of disappointment, until finally, as the Torah tells us, there are no more months. Now some random stranger comes and says, “this time next year.” To hope again is unbearable. Sarah does not laugh at G-d or at G-d’s promise. Sarah laughs to protect herself.

But this time, the blessing is not for “some day,” this time, it comes with a timestamp: “in this season at the time of births.” This time, it does come to pass, right on time, just as promised. What has changed for Sarah? What was it that made it possible for this very concrete promise to be made? The same promise is made to the Lady of Shunam, and that too, comes to pass. What made it possible for Elisha to make her that promise?

The two identical promises of childbirth are preceded by similar acts of outstanding hospitality.

As the Parsha begins, Avraham sits and waits for passersby. For Avraham and Sarah, hospitality is not a response to circumstance, but rather something to be pursued proactively. It is an opportunity for kindness that they do not allow to pass them by.

Avraham says modestly, “Let me bring you some water, and a bit of bread while you rest up”. Then he, together with Sarah, make them a gourmet meal.

The Lady of Shunam is truly a child of Avraham and Sarah. It is obvious to her that when the prophet comes to town and needs a place to stay, she will not allow the opportunity to pass her by. And just like Avraham, when she takes her hospitality to the next level, she does not advertise her intention. She just does it, quietly and simply, making sure that all of the prophet’s needs are met, providing a bed, a table, and a lamp. The Haftarah describes how touched and impressed Elisha was at her thoughtfulness.

We see also in both stories that hospitality is a joint effort. Both the Parsha and the Torah go out of their way to point out how both spouses were involved in the preparations. Avraham is seen calling out to Sarah to bake bread, and the Lady of Shunam is heard telling her husband of her plans for their attic.

In both cases, the reward is a child “at this season, at the time of births.”

If this story only happened once, in the case of Avraham and Sarah, we might not draw the connection between hospitality and childbirth. Avraham and Sarah have many other achievements to their credit. Moreover, G-d had already promised them a child. There would be no reason to assume that it was their act of hospitality that tipped the scales and made it possible for this promise to come to pass now. But when it happens again in the Haftarah, that a promise to have a child is fulfilled in the context of hospitality, then we need to look at it as not just a correlation but a cause.

We know that G-d judges “middah k’negged middah” (measure for measure). The reward that He chooses is not independent of the action; rather, the deed and the reward are two sides of the same coin. If the reward for hospitality is a raising a child, then they are also two sides of the same coin.

Is not raising a child a form of hospitality itself? A helpless stranger, he is a guest first in his mother’s own body. All his needs anticipated and provided for, with the cooperation of both parents. until he ultimately goes his own way. Are not children passersby who stop over in our house for a limited time?

So when the Lady of Shunam prepared a room in her home for the prophet’s use, anticipating his needs and providing for them, Elisha felt that the best way to repay her is with a child whose needs she would have to anticipate and provide for.

When Sarah made food for three complete strangers on a moment’s notice, the best way to repay her was with a child for her to nurse.

Thus it is specifically an act of hospitality that can transform a promise of “some day” to one of “this time next year.”

PDF for Printing, 3 pages A4

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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Lech Lecha

The Haftarah of Lech-Lecha, like Breishit, Noach and many others throughout the year, is taken from the Chapters of Comfort of Yeshayahu.

One of Yeshayahu’s objectives as a prophet is to deal with the philosophical and existential issues that Israel experiences in Exile. The Haftarah chosen for Lech Lecha presents the challenge of G-d’s role in history – is He involved or not, and if so, how? Where do we, the Jewish People, fit into his plan? Avraham Avinu, the subject of Lech Lecha is mentioned, both explicitly and obliquely. How does Avraham represent G-d’s role in history?

Text of the Haftarah of Lech Lecha

Connections to the Parsha:

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