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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

October 19-20 Parsha Lech Lecha

A biographical sketch of our Matriarch Rachel on this day 11 Cheshvan which is her Yahrtzeit. When Avram got in trouble with the local authorities for preaching monotheism, his father Terach took him and his brother Nachor, and immigrated to Charan in southeastern Turkey. Avram moved on to Israel, but Nachor remained in Charan. One of Nachor’s sons was Besuel, and one of Besuel’s sons was Lavan. Lavan married Adina. For years they had no sons, but they did have twin daughters, the older being Leah and the younger Rachel. In the meantime, Yitchok (Lavan’s first cousin once removed) also had twins. It was assumed that someday the elder of the twins, Eisav, would marry the elder of Lavan’s twins, Leah, and the younger Yaacov would marry the younger Rachel.

Yaacov had to flee the evil intentions of his brother Eisav, so he went to be with his kin in Charan. When Yaacov arrived in Charan, the twins Leah and Rachel were 15 years old. After working for Lavan for seven years, Yaacov was supposed to marry Rachel, but Lavan substituted the older Leah in her stead. Rachel, sensitive to the gross embarrassment Leah would suffer if she were found out, gave Leah the pre-arranged signals that she and Yaacov had agreed upon. Yaacov was outraged when he found out that he’d been tricked, but the deal was done. He subsequently married Rachel. Rachel gave birth to Yosef and was pregnant again when the family left Charan to return to Israel.

While passing through the city of Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor. She struggled and gave birth. The midwives told her she had delivered a boy. She exclaimed he is “ben oni - the son of my travail” and she then passed away. Yaacov named the boy Binyomin. Binyomin’s birthday is therefore the same day as his mother's Yahrtzeit. Interestingly, Binyomin died 109 years later, also on 11 Cheshvan.

It was the end of a long hot summer and the rains had not yet come. Yaacov (as he later explains to Yosef) decided to bury Rachel right there along the road. He feared that waiting until they reached Hebron would be a desecration of her body. Each of Yaacov’s sons placed a large stone over the grave and Yaacov placed one on top of the others, so that the grave was marked by a tower of 12 stones.

When Yosef agreed to bury Yaacov in the Cave of Machpelah when he died, he also suggested that his mother be interred there as well. However, Yaacov did not allow Rachel to be reinterred. He explained that Rachel serves as a beacon to the children who will pass her grave on their way into the exile, but will also walk along the same road upon their return. The prophet Jeremiah paints the picture of Rachel by the side of the road longing for her exiled children to return. She cries and cries and cannot be consoled. Hashem reassures her that she serves a purpose. Her tears are not ignored. Just the opposite - in their merit her children will return to their borders.

In the 19th century, on one of his visits to the Holy land, the philanthropist Moses Montefiore had a building erected over Rachel’s tomb to protect it from Arab vandals. Today, Rachel’s tomb is regularly visited by the broken hearted, who pour out their hearts at the burial site of the mother Rachel, who longs for the return of her children.


October 12-13 Parsha Noach

We are all somewhat familiar with the great Rabbi Moshe son of Maimon, or Maimonides. His halachic and philosophic works form the backbone of Jewish life and living until this very day. What many don’t know about him, was that he lived a life of personal tragedy. This brief sketch of the life of Maimonides is brought to you on the eve of 6 Cheshvan, a day that Maimonides treasured. It was on 6 Cheshvan in the year 1165, that Maimonides arrived for the first time in Jerusalem. He would celebrate this day annually for the rest of his life.

Moshe was born in Cordoba, Spain, on the 14th of Nissan (the eve of Passover) of the year 4895 (1135C.E.). His father Maimon, a direct descendant of King David, was a judge in the city's rabbinical court. Tragedy entered his life early. His mother passed away when he was but a small child. At the age of thirteen, his family was forced to flee Cordoba when a fanatic Islamic sect took control of the city; the Jews were attacked by rioters and many synagogues were destroyed. Moshe and his family traveled from place to place. Not finding a suitable place to relocate to in Spain, he his father and younger brother, David, moved to Fez, Morocco, for five years. In 4925 (1165 C.E.), he visited the land of Israel and then moved to Egypt, settling in Fustat, today known as Old Cairo, where he lived until his passing.

At this point, 30 year old Moshe hoped to find some peace and stability after years of upheaval, but it was not to be. Tragedy befell him when his father, wife and two of his sons died within a span of two years, starting in 1166.


In Egypt, Maimonides was supported by his brother David, a merchant who imported diamonds from India. His financial support gave Maimonides the ability to devote himself to the study of Torah. This situation lasted only a few years. Tragedy struck again in 1171 when his brother David drowned when his ship sunk en route to India. Without the support of his brother, he began practicing medicine and
struggled to support himself and his brother's family.

In his mid-fifties, Maimonides was appointed as a personal physician by a royal courtier and then to Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. His new appointments and duties gave him financial stability but very little time to devote to his Torah studies. His son and faithful student, Abraham, was his only remaining immediate family member.

Maimonides passed away on the 20th of Tevet of the year 4965 (1204 C.E.) at the age of 69. He was buried in the city of Tiberias in the Holy Land.

In light of all of his personal difficulties, we are even more impressed, if that is possible, with the accomplishments of this great man. As our sages have remarked, “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses”.


October 5-6 Parsha Bereishis

Where was the Garden of Eden located?

Nobody knows where Eden is, but the Torah seems to give us a great clue.

"And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted (yipared Heb.), and became four heads. The name of the first is Pishon; it compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon; it compasseth the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Chidekel; which goeth toward the east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Pras." (Gen 2:10-14).

So if we can identify any of these four rivers, we should be able to trace back to Eden. There are numerous references that identify Chidekel as the Tigris and Pras as the Euphrates. Both of these rivers originate in Eastern Turkey. So far so good. The problem is that the Pishon circles the land of Chavila which has traditionally been identified as modern Ethiopia and Somalia. The Gichon encircles Cush which is traditionally been identified as modern-day Sudan. Rashi identifies Pishon with the river we call the Blue Nile. This would make the White Nile a logical candidate for Gichon. The Blue Nile and White Nile merge and flow through Egypt. At that point the Torah refers to the combined rivers as the River of
Egypt. So how could a river which flows out of Eden split into four rivers which originate thousands of miles apart?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains the problem to be in our translation of the word Yipared as parted. He shows that the word Yipared can also mean lost. According to Rabbi Hirsch the correct reading would be And a river went out of Eden and from there it was lost i.e. disappeared into theground. And reappeared in four separate places. Therefore, we can understand that the great rivers that form the borders of the fertile crescent and dominated all life in antiquity, originate in a river in Eden. From there it flows underground to spring up in four different places. Where then is Eden? Nobody knows.

We do however know where the rivers are, and that is perhaps more significant. In Gen 15-18 it says "In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: 'Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates."

This prophecy was actually fulfilled in the time of King Solomon and we pray will be fulfilled sometime again soon.


September 14-15 Parsha Vayelech

On the 10th day of Tishrei, Yom Kippur 1965, Sandy Koufax, arguably the greatest left handed pitcher of all time, sat out the first game of the World Series. Koufax’s Dodgers were playing the American League champions, the Minnesota Twins, and the series opened in Minnesota.

Although not an observant Jew, Koufax declined to pitch the World series opener, choosing instead to attend services at Temple Aaron in St Paul. Koufax came back to pitch the next day, but lost to the Twins 5-1. Koufax went on to pitch shutouts in games five and seven, the Dodgers won the World Series and Koufax was named MVP.

hile fewer and fewer remember the 1965 World Series, in the Jewish world Sandy Koufax’s fame shines bright. Sandy Koufax’s decision to place his Judaism before his profession instilled Jews across the country with pride in their Judaism. Yet at the very moment that American Jewry was embracing its new hero, one boy was introduced to his existential conflict.

Nowhere was the Koufax saga greater than in Minnesota where it all played out. The Jewish community could talk of nothing else. Everyone knew someone who had seen him in Temple. Interest in Koufax was so high that on the day after Yom Kippur, the Torah Academy of Minneapolis brought a television into the lunch room and the entire school watched Koufax pitch game two.

Everybody was enamored with the Jewish hero - except one boy. Benjy Friedman had discovered baseball that year big time. He had followed every one of the Twins 102 victories. He fell asleep with the transistor radio under his pillow listening to games from the West Coast. He rarely took off his beloved all wool Twins cap that he and his grandfather had purchased together. Koufax was a Dodger. He was on the other team. Our team is the Minnesota Twins, filled with heroes named Killebrew. A good Twins fan davens for Koufax to lose!

Yet, Koufax is a Jew. Our team is the Jewish team. We are the team that is always playing in someone else’s stadium. Everyone wants us to lose. A good Jew davens for Koufax to win. The split identity is the essence of the galus. Which team am I on and which championship are we playing for?

A few years later, June 1967 came along and my sense of team greatly expanded. I watched as my parents’ tense anxiety changed to euphoria in a period of six days. The image of the real team began to coalesce. Then I traded in the sad sports refrain of “next year” for the much more joyous “next year in Jerusalem”!


September 7-8 Parsha Nitzavim

We all know that Tishrei 1 is Rosh Hashana, the day that man was created. That’s a big enough event for us to annually celebrate. However Tishrei 1 has quite an outstanding Biblical history, aside from it being the birthday of mankind. 

On the first day of Tishre,i in the year 1658 after creation, Noach removed the cover of the ark and saw that the land was exposed. It took nearly two months until it was dry enough for him to leave the ark.

In the year 1959 from creation, on the first day of Tishrei, our matriarch Sarah was born. It took ninety more years, but on the first day of Tishrei Sarah became pregnant for the first time. That year, seven months later, on Pesach, she gave birth to Isaac. 

Our matriarch Rachel, as well as Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel, both became pregnant on 1 Tishrei after many years of barrenness.

In the year 2172 after creation, on the first day of Tishre,i Isaac blessed Jacob. Eisav was outraged and for many years Jacob lived a life that was anything but blessed.

In the year 2230, Jacob’s son Joseph was pulled from the dungeon and brought before Pharaoh. Within a few years, Joseph would become viceroy of Egypt and see his brothers bow down to him as he had dreamt.

On the first day of Tishrei, in the year 2448 from creation, the Israelites in Egypt were told they no longer needed to report for work. They left Egypt seven months later.

There is a theme running through all the the 1 Tishrei events. Something great happens but is not actualized until later. Noach sees the earth but it is not yet dry. Sarah is born and matriarchs become pregnant, but they still have to give birth and then grow. Jacob receives the blessings, but it is a long time before they are realized. Joseph is pulled out of the dungeon but will not realize his dreams for many months. Nonetheless, the first day of Tishrei is important because it initiates all of these life changing events. 

On Rosh Hashanah we pray to be inscribed for good things. These good things may not become apparent to us for months or even years. Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah is festive. We leave shul confident that Hashem has inscribed us for good things in the coming year. We can’t wait to see them actualized.


August 31-September 1 Parsha Ki Savo

The most significant day in history is the 25th day of Elul. On that day, in the year 0, Hashem created the world. According to the Torah, man was created on the sixth day of creation, which is 1 Tishrei. Therefore, Day One of creation was six days earlier, on the 25th of Elul. This is alluded to by the first word uttered by Hashem on that day, the Hebrew word יהי : Let there be, which has the numerical value of 25. According to Ramban, the world was created in its entirety when Hashem said “Let there be..” During the next six days, the various facets of creation were extracted and put in their place. However, Hashem’s initial act of creation was total and complete. On the first day, only Aretz (Land) and Shamayim (Sky) were evident. Shamayim is a combination of aiSH (fire) and MAYIM (water), hence the name Sh Mayim. After the initial act of creation Hashem, brought out Ohr. Ohr is translated as light, but this light was unlike any light we have experienced because the sun wasn’t created until day four. The Talmud tells us that with this light, Man could see from one end of the world to the other. Obviously, it was a penetrating faculty that enabled true enlightenment and understanding. Later, Hashem felt this light was too precious, and therefore prone to be abused by unworthy people. He thus hid it away, to be used only by the righteous at a time to come. Technically, the Jewish calendar does not begin until day six of Creation (Rosh Hashana), which commemorates the birth of mankind. This is because human beings are the pinnacle of Creation, enjoined to protect the world and to utilize all its resources to bring the world to its spiritual completion. Therefore, we don’t celebrate 25 Elul itself, despite it being the most significant day in history.

Rabbi Eliezer taught: the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul... This implies that Adam was created on Rosh Hashanah. In the first hour [of that day] the idea arose [in the Divine mind to create humankind]… in the ninth [hour Adam and Eve were] commanded [not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge], in the tenth [hour they] transgressed the commandment, in the eleventh [hour they were] judged, and in the twelfth pardoned by the Holy One blessed is He. The Holy One, blessed is He said to Adam: “This will be a sign for your descendants. Just as you stood before me in judgment on this day and were pardoned, so too will they stand before me to be judged on this day and be pardoned.” — Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 23:1

Sun, October 21 2018 12 Cheshvan 5779