Parshat Vayera: The Meaning of Prayer

Parshat Vayera contains the first appearance of the word tefilla in Tanach. Avaraham prays (“Vayitpallel”) for Avimelech’s household and God responds to his prayer. Then, Sarah too is remembered by God and becomes pregnant after years of infertility. How does the language of “hitpallel” teach about the efficacy and purpose of prayer? Furthermore, where is Sarah’s prayer?

After the king Avimelech takes Sarah, he is stricken and the wombs of his household are closed as punishment by God, “because of the matter of (al d’var) Sarah”. Avraham prays to God for Avimelech and his family and they are healed. Bereshit Rabbah points out that this unique first expression of the word tefilla indicates that a “knot was undone” – prayer has the power to influence God’s response and yield positive results. However, the Hebrew root פ.ל.ל has another meaning in Tanakh. In Shemot, when damage is done, the reparation is determined “b’flilim,” meaning, “according to the judges.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on the connection between the word for prayer and judgment. The word “hitpallel” is reflexive – an opportunity to “assess/ judge oneself” and one’s relationship with God and the world. 

Both can be true. Tefilla is about pleading with Hashem, a way of expressing our deepest yearnings and requests to God. Tefilla is also an opportunity to self-reflect and focus on the state of ourselves and our relationship with God and others. 
What about Sarah? Does she not engage in prayer as well? In fact, the Sages teach that she prayed too. The midrash reads “al d’var” not as “the matter” of Sarah, but rather “the words (of prayer) of Sarah.” Sarah prayed to be saved and God assured her that Avimelech’s suffering and healing would be according to her word. The rabbis saw role models for tefilla in both Avraham and Sarah, who both call out to God as the source of protection and healing and are answered. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Pinchas: Learning Leadership from the Women

“Be a light, not a judge. Be a model, not a critic” – Stephen Covey

Parshat Pinchas profiles various types of leadership. Among them, the daughters of Zelophehad demonstrate how to lead positive change. They are a much needed model for today. 

After the Torah describes how the land of Israel will be divided, the five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moshe and request an inheritance in Israel, as they have no brothers to inherit land. The commentaries characterize them as having great “chibah” (love) for Israel. The Talmud goes even further, describing them as “darshaniyot” (interpreters), tzidkaniyot (righteous) and “chachmaniyot” (wise). How do we see these qualities in their behavior?

The daughters emphasize that their father “died by sin in the midbar,” but not as a part of Korah’s congregation. Rashi teaches that they emphasized that while their father sinned, he did not lead others to sin like Korah. Also, Korah spread unfounded criticism and refused to engage in dialogue with Moshe. 

The midrash also contrasts the daughters of Zelophehad with the story of the spies. The spies slandered the Land of Israel and spread negativity among the nation. After their words, the people said they wanted to return to Egypt, leading to catastrophe for that generation. The midrash views the daughters’ words to Moshe as the opposite of the language and behavior that previously led to disasters in Bamidbar. They are proactive. They embrace dialogue and use positive language by saying: “We want to be part of this too!” 

Hashem’s response is “The daughters speak justly.” The midrash sees this as deep affirmation. The Talmud pays them the ultimate compliment: it teaches that the laws of inheritance for daughters are attributed to, and written by, the daughters of Zelophehad. After the earlier stories of people who found ways to criticize and sow discord, these five women model proactivity, dialogue, positivity, and love of the Land of Israel. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson


The Tefillah Paradox: Standardized or Spontaneous?

Tefillah is such a significant part of our lives. 1 Yet, it contains a paradox – on the one hand, the times we pray and the words we say are prescribed by halakha. On the other hand, tefillah is meant to be heartfelt and filled with kavanah. How does one approach such standardized devotion while retaining continuous intention? The sources of the mitzvah of tefillah reflect this tension and offer some potential insight into this dilemma.

To read more…

Parshat Beshalach: Women Leading the Song?

Parshat Beshalach contains a song of gratitude sung by the Jewish people after the miraculous splitting of Yam Suf. According to the peshat, Moshe led the men in singing Az Yashir, while Miriam led the women in a short song. However, one particular line points to the women’s involvement and leadership in Az Yashir as well.

The verse, “This is my God (zeh Eli) and I will glorify Him,” is interpreted as the peak of revelation for the Jewish people. Rashi interprets the word “this” to mean the people pointed to God’s glory. Rashi continues citing another midrash: the “maidservants saw at Yam Suf what even the prophets never saw,” meaning everyone, even the lowliest maidservant, received this highest level of revelation at Yam Suf. 

Another midrashic tradition highlights the women’s unique ability to recognize God in challenging times. The Talmud teaches that in the merit of the “nashim tzidkaniyot” (righteous women), the Jews were redeemed from Egypt. These women bravely continued to give birth in the face of Pharaoh’s harsh decrees. They birthed their babies in the fields and had faith that God would protect the children. God performed miracles for them and provided angels to nurse them. As a reward for the righteous women’s actions and commitment, their children followed in their footsteps and were the first to recognize and point to God’s presence at the Sea and proclaim “Zeh Eli.” 

This has been a challenging week in Israel, from the tragic loss of chayalim to continued disruptive covid wave. When we read Az Yashir, may it be a tefillah that when we God-willing one day cross to the other side of these uncertain waters, we can follow in the footsteps of the righteous women and children and say “Zeh Eli,” as we recognize God and express gratitude for our redemption. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

*Miriam, by Sir Edward John Poynter from The Metropolitan Museum of Art