This coming Monday, January 20, is designated as Dr. Martin Luther King Day across the United States. It has been officially observed in all 50 States since 2000. Dr. King’s life focus revolved around the commands of the Torah that we refer to as mitzvot between individuals and other people, מצות בין אדם לחברו. This is not to say that the mitzvot between humanity and God, מצות בין אדם למקום, were not important to him but how we treat our fellow human beings reflected to him a person’s true inner core.
We are all familiar with the practice that after we read the verse שמע ישראל we immediately say ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד before reciting the rest of the שמע. Where did this practice come from? This intervening statement is not found any where in the Torah. The answer comes from this week’s Torah portion, ויחי, Vayechi.
How did the sages and rabbis at that time know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Maccabee’s victory was divinely assisted? What allowed them to create an annual eight-day commemoration with Rabbinic mitzvot? A close look at the על הנסים”,” “For the miracles,” the special insert into our daily prayers during Chanukah, will shed some light on this question.
We have all seen movies or read novels where the hero or heroine saves the day by cracking the secret code or message. Today, protecting the free world from the tyranny of ruthless leaders and terrorists is perhaps more dependent on excellent intelligence than ever before. At other times a coded message may serve as a preemptive measure. It is a way to communicate, in a subtle yet very diplomatic way, that the perceived adversary has nothing to fear. Just such a case is presented at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, פרשת וישלח, Parashat Yishlach.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, relates the famous prophetic dream by Jacob. In that dream Jacob sees a ladder extending from the ground to the heavens. Angels are ascending and descending. However, prior to his dream we are informed that Jacob took some stones and placed them under his head. When he awoke from his sleep, he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Then the Torah tells us that Jacob took the stone he had placed his head on, set it up as a monument, and anointed it with oil. (Bereisheit 28: 11-12, 16-18) What is the meaning of the dream? What does Jacob mean by calling the place “the gateway to the heavens”? What is the point of telling us “stones” under his head became “the stone” under his head? And what is the significance of Jacob anointing the stone with oil?
One of the most difficult questions we all must face is where our final resting place will be. Some people are fortunate; this burden is alleviated by their already having a designated burial place with a place in a family plot. From this week’s Torah reading, Chayei Sarah, it is apparent that Avraham did not pre-purchase a burial plot for Sarah. Rather, we find him in a very common situation. In the midst of his grief, Avraham must now buy a burial place for his wife. What important idea is the Torah highlighting for us by recording this event?