Jews with Views – Chanukah Edition 5783
Which one of our forefathers or foremothers do you turn to most for inspiration?
BY RUTH DINER
Avraham Avinu was the first to ask: Who created the world? A seeker from a young age, he searched for a transcendent creator. He went through this journey alone, rejecting Mesopotamian culture, all while dealing with childlessness, relocation and Akeidat Yitzchak, among other challenges.
The one constant was Avraham’s deep faith in Hashem. He continuously rediscovered Hashem’s kindnesses even within his struggles, seeing each challenge as a message from G-d to come closer to Him.
The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:11) sheds light on Avraham’s uniqueness. A king commanded two servants to fill reed baskets with water, but since the baskets had holes, all the water spilled out. While one servant was deeply frustrated, considering the task a complete waste of time, the other was content to fulfill his master’s command. The Vilna Gaon explains that the king’s intention was to clean the baskets, and so it was irrelevant whether the water could be contained. The goal was the process itself; the end did not matter.
Though he did not understand G-d’s plan, and the Akeidah seemed to contradict Hashem’s promises, Avraham was content to fulfill his Master’s command. He remained focused on the process of serving Him, trusting G-d, completely – teaching all of us, his descendants, the power of simple faith.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote: “The man promised as many children as the stars of the sky has one child to continue the covenant. The man promised the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates” has acquired one field and a tomb. But that is enough.”
Ruth Diner is the deputy principal of Yeshiva College Girls High School in Johannesburg, South Africa.
BY GIL HOFFMAN
When I was born, my grandmothers on both sides wanted me to be named Ya’akov, in memory of one’s father and another’s grandfather. But my parents had already decided to name me Gil, which is one of several Hebrew words that mean happiness.
Just as the many words for snow in the Eskimo language each have different nuances, so do the Hebrew words for happiness. We later found out that Gil is joy from receiving good news – a perfect fit for my career as a journalist.
Out of respect for my grandmothers, my name is Gil Ya’akov, which can translate into “he will monitor with happiness”, which fits my new job leading the monitoring of international media coverage of Israel.
Ya’akov Avinu had a very eventful life that would have kept the media busy. He was born into a power struggle with his brother that intensified. He used brilliant political maneuvers to purchase and then receive his father’s blessing.
He dealt with challenges from his corrupt father-in-law and internal family strife among his wives and sons. Only when the first female journalist – Serah Bat Asher – informed him that his son Joseph was still alive and he reunited with him did he obtain the happiness he deserved.
Whenever there have been challenges in my life, I have turned to Ya’akov for inspiration and pondered how much he overcame. Our forefathers bequeathed their descendents – the Jewish people – their ability to prevail over every obstacle. May we continue to do that – with joy.
Gil Hoffman is the executive director of HonestReporting, the former chief political correspondent of The Jerusalem Post and the only speaker known to have lectured about Israel in all 50 US states.
BY RABBANIT MARGOT BOTWINICK
My 4-year-old son loves asking about Hashem. “Who are Hashem’s mommy and daddy?” “Is Hashem married?” “Is He stronger than Spiderman?” His questions are sharp and penetrating… for a four-year-old. Sometimes I wonder, is my relationship with G-d as thoughtful as his?
There are many Midrashim about how Avraham discovered G-d. Notably, in each story, he’s a different age! Which was it – was Avraham 3, 10, 48, 70 or 75 when he discovered Hashem? The explanation that speaks to my personal experience is that all of these seemingly conflicting accounts and ages are true. Avraham re-discovered G-d at each new stage of his life.
When Avraham looked up at the sun and moon as a small child, when he was asked to sacrifice his son, when his wife passed away, and as he went through all of life’s ups and downs – at each of these stages he understood G-d differently, each time with more depth than before.
As we go through our own lives, whether it’s becoming a parent, dealing with sickness, navigating complex relationships, moving to a new country or community, switching jobs or whatever opportunities or difficulties come along, Avraham challenges us to rediscover G-d over and over again. Our relationship with G-d can and should be as vibrant and layered as life itself.
Rabbanit Margot Botwinick is the Rabbanit of Yeshiva University in Israel’s new Torat Tziyon program. She also teaches in Midreshet Torah V’Avodah and other seminaries and institutions around Israel.
BY RABBI DANIEL KRAUS
So much has been written about these larger-than-life personalities, and more is yet to be written, taught, and debated around various aspects of their character and life. Despite the greatness of each of our forefathers and foremothers, it is Avraham who stands out for me as an icon of inspiration. Though Avraham earned and developed his greatness by actively seeking out G-d and subsequently committing himself to serve Him, his faith and commitment became a part of the Jewish people’s DNA.
At the core of Avraham’s moral code was his commitment to hospitality. I remember when I first read Manhattan restaurateur Danny Meyer’s signature book, Setting the Table, where he shares amazing stories and anecdotes that underscore the importance of great hospitality. Yet I couldn’t help but compare each and every example he shared to what amounts to the world’s first hospitality conference – the story of Avraham and his three guests.
In this story, Avraham demonstrated the foundational principles of true hachnassat orchim. Avraham waited outside of his home, seeking out opportunities to be hospitable. He did not delegate or pawn off any aspect of hosting guests; he rolled up his sleeves and got to work himself. And Avraham did not limit his hospitality to ‘important’ people. He didn’t ask probing questions to determine who his guests were and whether they were worthy of his attention. His goal was simple and pure – to give and to engage. Period. Nothing was contingent on status, and there were no ulterior motives.
May we follow in Avraham’s footsteps!
Rabbi Daniel Kraus is the Director of Community Education at Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and the Associate Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for the Birthright Israel Foundation.
BY AVIVA STERN
Hashem takes Avraham outside and likens his future progeny to the stars of the sky. The Netziv explains that since Avraham was already promised descendents numbering the dust of the earth, the metaphor of innumerable stars teaches him, and us, something new. Each star is a unique source of light, with the ability to contribute and guide others. So too every child of Avraham can bring light to the world, influence others and impact the entire universe.
It’s easy to feel that we are merely going through the motions of life without making a significant difference. Even Avraham feared he wouldn’t leave a legacy! But Hashem reassures Avraham that he will. This promise, that each of his children will be a star, is an inspiration to me.
On Rosh Hashanah, I reconnected with a student I hadn’t seen in a very long time (she is now the age that I was then!). She said that every Rosh Hashanah during Mussaf, she thinks of the first Mishnah of Masechet Rosh Hashanah that we learned, sang, acted out and memorized together, back when she was in 5th grade.
I only taught 5th grade once, and I only taught Mishnah once. I was inexperienced, and it was hardly a highlight of my career. And yet, that sing-song Mishnah, and me, the teacher who taught it, are what she remembers during the most awesome moments of the year.
I’ve had the privilege of teaching Torah to hundreds of students over the years. When the daily grind of classroom teaching has me doubting whether I’m making an impact, I turn to Avraham and the promise he received: that every Jew can illuminate the entire world. That was Hashem’s promise to Avraham, and it’s a promise that continuously inspires me.
Aviva Stern currently teaches at Ulpanat Rosh Tzurim and serves as a Yoetzet Halacha for the Efrat community.