Project Genesis

Lessons from Samson

Question: What are the main lessons to be learnt from the story of Samson?

Answer: Hi! Thanks for your question. To tell you the truth, I would never venture to make a suggestion on what is the main theme of any part of the Bible. As the Torah is infinite, it can have any number of “main” lessons. So I’m just confining myself to suggesting some things we can learn from the story.

  1. Self-control is strength. Unlike what Delilah seems to have imagined, Samson’s strength was not a result of some kind of magic or trick. It was a direct result of his being a nazir, dedicated from the womb to a special kind of service to G-d. A nazir has turned away from some of the normal pleasures of this world. Any of us who has tried to diet knows how difficult it is, and also knows that success in self-control gives a type of courage and strength that can be matched in no other way.

  2. Strength comes from G-d. Though people tend to describe Samson as ‘ha-gibor”, the mighty one, the narrative nowhere says that he was strong. It says a spirit of strength came over him from G-d, as if his strength were an unusual form of prophecy. I don’t know that he had big muscles, or needed them. The gemara in Sotah says that he was a cripple!

    1. This theme recurs through the Bible. Israel never ever lost a battle because of weakness, or won through their military might. They won when they deserved to, and lost when they didn’t deserve to win. (See the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua, and many other places too in the book of Judges.)

  3. The great importance of simplicity. Samson did his best to defeat the enemies of Israel, but he was not ultimately that successful, because the means he chose (marrying Philistine women) were not ones that are allowed. The theme also recurs throughout the Torah. We are supposed to serve G-d in the ways he prescribes, not in ways that seem to us to be better. There is lots of room for individuality and initiative in the Torah, but there is also right and wrong. Our most successful leaders succeeded by doing the right things, and when they failed, it was because they for a moment thought they knew better. (more…)

Dairy Foods on Shavuos

Filed under: Shavuos

Question: What is the reason for the custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuos?

Answer: There are numerous explanations given for this interesting custom. Here are just a few. These undoubtedly contain allusions to deeper concepts beyond the scope of this response, but there is still much to appreciate on the surface.

(1) The verse that speaks of the bringing of the Bikkurim (Offering of the First Fruits, which are brought on Shavuos) also forbids mixing meat and milk, suggesting that both were eaten then (but not together).

(2) Mt. Sinai is called referred to as “Har Gavnunim” (Tehilim 68:16), and the word for cheese in Hebrew is “Gevinah”, a word closely related to “Gavnunim.”

(3) The initial letters of describing the offering brought on Shavuos are “[Minchah] Chadashah La-Shem Be-Shavuoseichem” spell “ChaLaV”, the Hebrew word for milk.

(4) The numerical value of Chalav is 40, alluding to the days Moses spent on the mountain.

Wishing you a Happy Shavuos!

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Debts, Shemitah, and Jubilee

Question: What does it mean exactly that the debts and land are given back after 49 years ?

Answer: Debts are actually canceled every seven years, at the end of the Sabbatical year (“shemitah“)—see Deuteronomy 15:2. At that time, the Jewish court will no longer force the borrower to pay back the debt; yet, he still has a moral obligation to pay when he can. If the lender has already tried to collect the debt, by turning the debt over to the Jewish court for collection before that time (“prosbul“), he is also allowed to collect it afterwards.

Every 50th year is the Jubilee (“yovel“). At that time, everyone’s ancestral lands that had been sold go back to the original owners (as per Leviticus 25:10). Of course, anyone buying land knew about this. In truth, they were actually leasing the land until the Jubilee, rather than really buying it.

The result was that a family had a guarantee of a permanent place in the land of Israel; even economic disaster could only be temporary.

These days, we don’t have knowledge of which land is whose ancestral lands; we wouldn’t know to whom to return it. In any event, this law is not in effect until most of Israel lives in its land again.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Extent of Honoring a Parent

Filed under: Parenting

Question: Rabbi, I need your help. I am 18 years of age and my parents are divorced. My father constantly abuses me verbally by telling me that I’m a bad son, I’ll go to hell, and be unsuccessful in life. Nevertheless, I always respect him. Currently, I am living with my mother and that bothers him even more. Things are so bad that I suffer from clinical depression due to the situation. Should I still see him, even though he attacks me so cruelly? What course of action should I take?

Answer: As great as the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is, a person is not required to expose himself to intense suffering for them, and surely not to the serious risk of illness (mental or physical).

Maimonides (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Mamrim, chapter 6, paragraph 10) states: “Someone whose father or mother has gone mad should [nevertheless] strive to deal with them according to their wishes until [God sees fit to] bestow mercy upon them. If [however] it’s impossible for him to remain because of their extreme condition, leave them and go away, appointing others to take care of them [i.e., ensuring that their financial needs are met].

Maimonides also writes (ibid paragraph 7): “And how great is the requirement to fear [one’s parents]? Even if one is wearing fine garments and sitting [in honor] at the head of a community gathering, and his father or mother comes and tears his clothes and hits him on the head and spits into his face, do not embarrass them, but rather remain silent and feel the proper fear of the King of kings Who commanded you thus.

It seems clear to me that one must silently endure such treatment only if it unavoidably and unexpectedly “follows” a person, but that one needn’t consciously put oneself into such a situation. (more…)

Relating to G-d by Relating to Man

Question: I have a question regarding the concept of unconditional love. For example, how can it be that Hashem (G-d) really loves the righteous and the wicked the same? Or is it that Hashem loves the righteous more and unconditional love means the concept of Hashem waiting for us to improve our ways (do Teshuva) equally. And what about the wicked person that never changes? 

Answer: Hi! Thank you for your really interesting question. Many years ago I heard a wonderful principle from Rabbi Chaim Mintz shlit”a, the Mashgiach (spiritual guidance counselor) at the Yeshiva of Staten Island. He said the following idea: The most important thing in our lives is our relationship with G-d. But G-d is non-physical, and not at all visible to our senses, so it’s very hard for us to grasp that relationship or value it properly. Therefore, G-d in his wisdom gave us many types of relationships between human beings, things we can understand, experience, and appreciate. And each of those relationships can help us also grasp a parallel relationship with G-d.

That’s what we mean when we say that G-d is our king, or our master, our husband (as in Song of Songs), or even our neighbor (that’s how the word shekhina, his “Presence”, translates), so to speak.

And one of the most important of these connections is that G-d is our father, and we are his child.

Don’t think that these connections are “imitations” of our human relationships. They are more real; these are our eternal ways of relating to G-d. But the parallel human relationships help us to feel them and deal with them. G-d is infinite, and there are infinite aspects to his love. These are some of the ways we can understand it.

Now these relationships are different from each other in many ways. One way is that some of them are more dependent on our good behavior, augmented by it, and (so to speak) weakened when we do things to harm the relationship.

But the relationship of father to son is not like that. It is a “blood” relationship, so to speak – I have to overuse that phrase here! – and we will always be his children, even if we are disobedient. He will always be our father and care for us, though (and may this not have to happen) sometimes he will need to do it with “tough love”.

The truth is that all of our relationships with G-d are unbreakable. In the end he will guide us to build each of them to the maximum extent possible.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Great Principle of “Love Your Neighbor”

Question: I have read that “Treat your neighbor as yourself” is how one Rabbi summed up the Torah. Is that a common theme of the torah?

Answer: The verse states. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva expounded, “This is a great principle of Torah.”

It has two meanings. One is referring to your human neighbor, that we should love each other as ourselves and take care to treat them in every way as we’d want to be treated, both in a positive and negative sense.

Rashi (Medieval commentator) adds that it also refers to G-d. We must love our neighbor in this world – G-d – as our self.

According to this, one covers both the man to man and man to G-d requirements.
—Rabbi Meir Goldberg

Understanding “Love Your Neighbor”

Question: I have to write an essay on a few of the famous quotes in Leviticus. I am having a particularly troubling time on chapter 19, verse 18 and understanding the meaning of the different commentaries by Rashi and Rambam and one other of my choice of any prominent rabbi. If you could please help me understand the meanings of the commentary by those rabbi’s on the verse “Love your neighbour like you love yourself” that would be great!

Question: “Don’t take revenge or bear a grudge against your fellow Jew, and love your fellow as yourself, I am Hashem.” Rashi explains revenge: I asked you to borrow an ax, and you said no. When you ask me later to borrow something, I say no back. A grudge: When you ask me later, I say yes, but I add, “Not like you did!” Neither of these is an act of love, of bringing closeness between our people. If you love someone, especially if it’s “like yourself”, you can act lovingly toward the other even if he doesn’t always reciprocate. Loving like yourself doesn’t mean, as much as you love yourself – that doesn’t make any sense (Ramban). It means, as a part of yourself. Love is a recognition that I am connected to the other, and that what happens to him matters to me. (There’s an old saying: A mother is only as happy as the most unhappy of her children.) This is what Rabbi Akiva adds is a fundamental principle of the Torah; Jews are all connected.

The Ramban adds that included in this is a lack of jealousy. I want all the best for him, not: But of course, as long as I have a little bit more. Parents aren’t jealous of their children’s accomplishments. Their children are part of them, their successes are the parents’ successes too. We have to feel that way about our fellow Jew, because he’s part of us.

Best wishes,

Michoel Reach

Laws of Money and Clothing

Question: In what way are money and clothes kosher? what are the laws concerning money and clothes?

Answer: You are asking a very good question, about a topic that many people don’t know.

The Torah forbids us to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen. This is called ‘Shatnez’ and is mentioned a couple of times in the Torah. All other mixtures of materials are permitted, but clothing should always be checked for shatnez (there are many ‘shatnez laboratories’ across the globe). Sometimes even a pure wool garment is found to have linen thread holding the buttons on, or the shoulder padding may be linen, etc.

Kosher money is a less specific term. There are laws about money, e.g. the prohibition in lending with interest, and giving 10 percent of earnings to charity. Often, though, people refer to non-kosher money when it was earned in dodgy, or unethical ways.

Rabbi David Sedley

The Spiritual Dimension of Work

Question: I work with undergraduate students who are in the process of finding their first professional job after graduating college. One often unarticulated, but clearly present,  issue for them is what one might call the spiritual dimension of work e.g. what it  is all about besides a paycheck. Can you point me in the direction of any good books or sources on Jewish perceptions of the meaning of work or the spiritual value of work? Thank you.

Answer: The Torah and the Talmud, with their commentaries, discuss the spiritual value of work in many places. Here are just a few:

Tractate Avot 1:10 says, “Love work..” The Commentary of the Tosfos Yom Tov points out that it says it’s the work that you should love and not the money. Even if you are independently wealthy you should still seek out a profession as the Talmud says in Ketubot 59b, “Inactivity leads to idiocy.” As human beings we must keep ourselves fulfilled, for otherwise our minds will atrophy.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Prayer Book, writes that this Avot 1:10 is counseling us to preserve our personal independence. When we are dependent we may do things that coincide with the views of those who support us and have more power than us. Work allows us to live by our own principles. This is based on the verse from Psalms 128:2,”When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you.” One is best off eating the labor of their own hands. In the Grace After Meals we say, “Please G-d, let us not be in need of the presents from flesh and blood.” We want our sustenance to be a direct result of our relationship with the Almighty (See below). Similarly, in Proverbs 15:27 King Solomon writes, “One who hates gifts shall live.” Also see the Talmud in Berachot 8a on the verse from Psalms 128:2 above. (more…)

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