Project Genesis

Pinkie Pointing and Splitting the Sea

Filed under: Torah Scrolls

Question: Why does everyone hold up their pinkie and point it toward the Torah during the part of the service when the Torah scroll is held up for all to see?

Answer: There is no law recorded in Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Law) that mandates pointing with any finger towards the Torah when it is raised up before the congregation. The Shulchan Aruch only states that it is a Mitzva for all men and women to see the written text of the Torah, to bow, and to say, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.” The prevalent custom is to continue with another verse, “by G-d’s command, through Moshe”. One is only to make this statement upon seeing the actual words on the parchment, preferably seeing the words and being able to read them from where he’s standing. (I use my Bushnell binoculars…just kidding).

The finger pointing is not based on any passage in the Talmud, nor is it to be found in earlier Talmudic commentaries or the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. (There is a Midrash which mentions a similar custom.)

I did find one contemporary authority that suggests that every time the Torah mentions the word “Zeh” or “Zos” (“this”) it means a vivid perception that one can point to with his finger and declare with conviction. When the Jews witnessed the miracles of the splitting of the sea, and the open revelation of G-d’s power, they declared “Zeh Kayli” (“this is my G-d”), and Rashi explains that they were exposed to such miraculous wonders and lofty levels of prophesy that they were able to point” at G-d and declare “This is my G-d.” Similarly, one of the 13 Principles of Faith necessary for one to be true to the dictates of the Torah is to believe that the transmission of the Torah from Moshe till today is the very same Torah without any mutations or inaccuracies. When the Torah scroll is lifted up for all to see what is written inside, we declare with conviction, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Jews”. We point with a clarity and conviction that these are the very same words and letters, surviving thousands of years without any mistakes or different versions.

So why the pinky? (Or is it pinkie? Check out my other column, “Ask the English professor”.) Congratulations! You stumped the rabbi. I have some theories, but nothing I can prove. It’s been one thing I just can’t put my finger on. I’ll have to let it slip through my…never mind.

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Shlomo Soroka
Director of Learning and Education
Saint Louis Kollel,

Ethical Wills

Question: What are some examples of Ethical Wills (See here and here) in the Bible and in the Talmud?

Answer: Ethical wills have a long history in Jewish tradition. The Bible and Talmud are replete with example of ethical wills. The fist recorded ethical will in the Bible appears in Genesis (chapter 49). On his deathbed, our forefather Jacob addressed each of his sons, bestowing a blessing on each. However, his blessings were not merely good wishes, but also contained the mission and destiny of each individual son, based upon each son’s specific talents and skills. In fact, our Sages teach that Jacob was the first person in history to get sick before he died. Until that time, a person would remain in good health right up until the time he died. Jacob prayed to G-d that people should become sick before they died so that a person would have an opportunity to offer his children an ethical will.

In a similar vein, we find in Deuteronomy (chapters 33-34), Moses offers blessings to each tribe before his death. Again, Moses tailored each tribe’s blessing to each individual tribe, offering instructions so that each tribe could fulfill its own destiny.

To cite another example in the Bible, the Book of Kings I (chapter 2) records David’s last words to his son Solomon, his successor. Immediately before his death, David provides Solomon with the instructions needed for a successful reign.

The Talmud as well contains many references to ethical wills; we will suffice with one such example. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin (68a) records the conversation between Rabbi Eliezer, one of the greatest scholars of the Talmud, and his students immediately before the demise of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer bemoans the fact that his students did not take advantage of the opportunities they had to learn from him and warns them of the future which may befall them. The students are shaken by his chastisement but accept it to heart. Certainly, Rabbi Eliezer’s intention is to provide constructive criticism to his students so they may grow from his teachings even after his death.

These are but a few of the many examples of ethical wills contained in the Bible and the Talmud. A reading of the medieval Jewish literature makes it clear that it was very common practice to leave a ethical will well after Talmudic times. The ethical will has served as the final act of a parent to guide his offspring in the ways of G-d.

Be well,
Rabbi Yoel Spotts

Why didn’t Joseph tell his father Jacob that he was alive?

Question: Joseph was first consul to Pharoh for many years. Why did he not search to find his father or at least send others to see if his father and siblings were still alive? Thank you.

Answer: Hi! Excellent question. Joseph says the answer in the Torah, though I expect we will find it uncomfortable: Genesis 41(51) “He named his first-born Menashe, for ‘G-d has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.’ ” (I am translating according to the Aramaic Targum Onkelos.) Joseph had been deeply hurt by what his brothers had done to him, and really found it hard to contemplate dealing with them again. I imagine that he thought his father had gotten over it and had suffered enough, and it was best to leave well enough alone. Note that when he next saw his brothers, his first reaction was (42(7)) “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, and behaved as a stranger to them…” This is before he remembered his dreams (verse 9).

Fortunately, G-d wasn’t going to leave things like that. He brought the brothers back to him, the brothers help things by doing teshuvah, and Yoseph and his brothers go through a difficult but ultimately loving reconciliation.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Question: Thank you very much for your answer to my question re Jacob and Joseph. My reaction as a father, grandfather and great grandfather is I cannot believe that a father ever gets over the loss of a child. Joseph is a father and I cannot believe that his father would be over his loss. 

Answer: Well, you are right – the Torah says that Yaakov never did get over it (Genesis 37(35)). It’s said that is especially hard when there is no clear evidence of death – no closure.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Jacob’s Relationship with Menashe and Ephraim

Question: After Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years and is near death we read that Joseph brings Menashe and Efraim to him. Why did Joseph wait until then to bring then to meet their grandfather? There is no other mention in the Torah that they met before this.

Answer: It is true that Gn48-01 says that “...they told Joseph that his father was sick …and he took his two sons with him….” But that doesn’t mean it was the first time they visited him.

Already Rashi, a premier commentary on the Bible states “...there are those who say that Ephraim used to frequently visit his grandfather Jacob who taught him Jewish Law…when Jacob got sick it was Ephraim who told Joseph how serious it was.”

Furthermore Rashi comments on Gn42-23 that Menasheh was Joseph’s interpreter.

These Rashi’s are not derived from Scriptural hints but are based on reasonable real-world assumptions. If Joseph was vice president it makes sense that he should appoint someone trusted to be a translator, his son. It is also reasonable that he chose Menasheh, the eldest son, to be the interpreter.

We find in Gn49 that Jacob “knew” the two grandchildren quite well and expected Ephraim, the youngest to surpass, Menasheh the oldest. A reasonable explanation of why Jacob knew Ephraim so well is because he spent quality time with him (Menasheh did not go because he was tied up with his government job).

There of course is a moral lesson here. Menasheh the oldest was awarded the government job of translator. But Ephraim the youngest who spent regular time with his grandfather obtained the greater blessing because he was closer, by virtue of his extra learning, to Jewish law.

Russell Jay Hendel;

Torah Jew and the Internet

Question: What’s wrong about internet?

Answer: I suppose the answer to your question will depend on who you ask. As I’m sure you already know, there are some who feel that the risks that come with the content available on the Internet – like exposure to lifestyles that the Torah (not to mention common sense) considers horrifying and ideas that should be disturbing to Torah-loyal Jews – outweigh the benefits to such a degree that you’re far better off trying to isolate yourself from the whole thing.

I personally feel that the potential benefits of the online world are significant and that, at this point, isolation is pretty much impossible in any case, so we’re better off learning to recognize the problems and to intelligently manage them.

The first step is to think carefully about what you, as a Torah Jew, consider essential; what you should never give compromise under any circumstances. In other words, define for yourself exactly what your growing relationship with HaShem requires of you. Then think about what categories of Internet activity can harm those key values. For instance, consider what exposing yourself to potentially careless and dangerous relationships or perverse behaviour patterns you might encounter through social networking sites. Or simply consider the potential for countless hours of wasted time!

Once you know what’s truly important to you, and what aspects of the Internet could cause you harm, you could then look for strategies for filtering what you see and do on-line and using what’s good in a healthy way.

And, of course, never ignore your family’s values in these matters!

I wish you great hatzlacha,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Toronto, Canada

Jacob’s Weakened Prophecy

Question: Why does it say that Jacob both saw and heard of the corn in Egypt (Genesis 42:1-2)? Why are the 2 senses of sight and hearing mentioned?

Answer: The verse first states that Jacob saw, which as the commentary of Rashi explains means through a level of prophecy he was able to ‘see’ there was food to be had in Egypt. However, since his son Joseph had been lost, Jacob’s prophecy was affected and the vision was unclear. Hence, although Jacob saw through prophesy that there was food, he was unable to pinpoint exactly where it was located. He therefore inquired and ‘heard’ from others where exactly to travel to buy food.

Similarly, the brothers (sons of Jacob) knew through prophesy that Joseph was still alive somewhere in Egypt, however they too were unclear as to where he was and therefore did not know where to find him.

Thank You,
Rabbi Eli Biegeleisen
Director Oorah Staten Island

Why am I failing financially?

Question: I have been struggling for the past 11 years financially. I am giving Tzedekah (Charity), working diligently toward growing a business and things seem to fall apart consistently even when it appears it is all lining up, there will be an upset.  What can I do or what do I need to do so I can have ease and peace of mind regarding finances to take care of myself and grow?

Answer:  That’s a really tough question. Who could say for sure why G-d would hold back something from you that He gives to others? It’s easy to imagine how anxious this all must make you and how much stress it can cause. In general terms, I would suggest a few things to consider – even while I emphasize that I really don’t know if they actually apply to you personally.

  • Perhaps G-d is using this stress as a test designed to inspire you to “throw your troubles on His shoulders” and trust His judgement. In other words, can you sidestep the stress and calmly go about your business relying on HaShem to do the right thing.
  • Perhaps He wants to see how you engage in all relevant mitzvos despite the stress. If you throw yourself into enhancing the intelligence and intensity of your mitzvos you might prove that financial success won’t distract you any more than its absence.
  • Perhaps (and, again, I have no way of knowing if this is relevant to you) He’s waiting for greater care in financial honesty with clients, suppliers and the government. The “seal of HaShem” is truth, becoming passionate about that can’t hurt.
  • Maybe adopting a single mitzva – perhaps one that’s been hard for your until now – might have some affect. Anything that will increase passion for His Torah.

There might also be some value in some parts of a couple of books I’ve written about related subjects:

I hope you will soon see great hatzlacha (success).

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Locations of Adam and Abraham

Question: Where is Adam’s paradise described in the Torah? Is it on the earth or in the sky?

Answer: If you are referring to the Garden of Eden, it is on Earth, but I cannot tell you precisely where it is, or exactly what it is.

Question: Thank you for your answer. Where was Abraham born?

Answer: There is a difference of opinion as to whether Abraham was born in Charan or Ur Kasdim. Charan is by the Euprates river near the border of Turkey and Syria, while Ur Kasdim is by the Tigris river in Iraq, not too far from the Persian Gulf.

Regards, Eliahu Levenson

Taking the Soul of the Deceased to the Next Level

Question: I was writing, and at some point I was not aware of what I was writing. I found that I had written “Your father can not go to the next level”. My dad passed away several years ago, and I’m not sure what the “next level” can mean in the context? Any insights would be appreciated.

Answer: The response to your question requires a lot elaboration more than an email response but I will try to be as concise as possible.

Assuming your “message” isn’t just something that you may have subconsciously been exposed to earlier in the day and daydreaming about, I believe there is great meaning to this message and am glad that you are taking it seriously.

In Judaism we believe that man consists of body and soul. Although when one dies the body is buried awaiting the resurrection after the coming of Moshiach, the soul lives on in Gan Eden (after the purification process of Gehinom) experiencing some level of spiritual delight. This is not to be confused with the ultimate reward and pleasure of the world to come that will only take place after the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah) and resurrection of the dead.

How does one’s soul achieve these various pleasures of Gan Eden and the world to come? It is only through the mitzvah achievements that one did in their lifetime. As our sages teach “Today (during our lifetime) is the time to work, whereas Shabbos (symbolic of world to come) is time to rest and enjoy pleasure.” Whatever one accomplishes through their good deeds in their lifetime is the key for their reward, once they die they can no longer add to their reward.

There is one exception. When one’s children perform mitzvohs (Torah commandments, good deeds), they elevate their parents soul and the deceased can continue to reach higher levels in the afterlife even though they didn’t personally do those acts. This is really the deeper understanding of children reciting Kaddish on behalf of their parents. It benefits the soul of the deceased. Tragically, when ones children do not maximize their own responsibility of Torah observance, not only are they lacking in their own life achievements and purpose, unintentionally they are also depriving their deceased parents their only hope of continued elevation in the world to come.

We all have much to improve in terms of our growth in Mitzvah observance and commitment to religious life. I think, however blunt it may sound, that you were worthy and privileged to receive a message from your personal father (perhaps more importantly G-d, our Father!) that there are areas in your Jewish commitment that can be improved. Perhaps you are complacent and aren’t increasing your Mitzvah observance and through honest introspection can reach higher in your Torah commitment and additionally help your fathers soul? Ultimately, these are assessments you have to make, but I think the first step would be to find a orthodox Rabbi or synagogue that you can attend classes and learn more about the Torah and mitzvohs so that you can be educated and know where you can start . If you are interested, I can try to guide you to find a Rabbi near you.I wish you success in your journey and that your fathers soul should find peace.

All the best,
Rabbi Azriel Schrieber

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