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It is a mitzvah to have children, and we believe strongly that the family structure both fosters and enhances commitment. Infertility, however, is not an aberration in Jewish life; in a certain sense, it was the starting point. Throughout the stories of the Book of Genesis, we read about our barren ancestors who so deeply longed for children. Their tears, prayers, and tribulations continue to resonate even thousands of years later for those who find themselves in similar situations and bear critical lessons for those who do not.
In Parashat Vayetze, there is a raw and charged exchange between Rachel and Jacob around this very challenge. And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and Rachel was jealous of her sister.
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Could it be that one of our saintly mothers could not restrain her jealousy? Did she really imagine that Jacob was purposefully holding something back from her? Was her threat appropriate? Our greatest commentators, too, were trouble by this passage.
Their efforts to make sense of it, however, hold deep insights into the plight of infertility, and careful study of some of their suggestions may sharpen our own awareness and understanding. Rachel thought that if Leah merited children, she clearly must be more deserving. Rachel is neither accusing Jacob nor demanding of him to give her children. Rather, she is asking him to pray more fervently for her, the way that his father, Isaac, did for his wife, Rebecca, when she was barren. When Rachel threatens to die, it is merely a reference to the fact that one without children may be overwhelmed by his or her lack of continuity.
Jacob lashes out at Rachel and asks how she can expect him to pray as fervently as his father, Isaac, did. Isaac had no children at the time, but Jacob has children from Leah! Others, however, such as Rabbi David Kimchi Radak , think just the opposite. She takes out her anger about her unfortunate situation on him, blaming him for her childlessness and threatening him that she cannot continue living like this.
Read this way, Jacob is more understandable in reminding her that God is in control and that if she wants to be angry at someone, she should turn to God. Many of the emotions expressed here might be familiar to those dealing with infertility.
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There can be feelings of inadequacy, that somehow a couple is underserving or not good enough to have children. There may be guilt or blame, that the problem lies with one partner or the other. And sadness, loneliness, anger and even despair often factor into the picture as well. Yet another commentary provides us with a powerful, insightful and novel approach to understanding the exchange above.
The first teaches that woman was taken from man, stressing that, like him, a woman may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral field…. The second alludes to the power of childbearing and rearing children, as is indicated by the name Chava. A woman deprived of the power of childbearing will be deprived of the secondary purpose, but be left with the ability to do evil or good, like the man who is barren.
Our actions and our deeds, R. Yitzchak Arama is telling us, are our ultimate contributions to the world. Jacob was reminding Rachel that she was not worthless just because she had no children. There have been many great women of history who were not blessed with children, such as Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Beis Yaakov movement and school system, and Nechama Leibowitz, the well-known Torah commentator and teacher, who made huge contributions to our world and who left behind enormous legacies.
Arama offers a powerful message to those who yearn for children, but it is just as important a reminder for those who are already raising families. Our children are not in our control, and they alone are not the sole testimony to who we are and what we have accomplished. All of us, one day, will be judged on the basis of our own deeds, and we need to always take responsibility for that.
Still, as a community I think we can continue to find ways to better support those around us who find themselves dealing with the unexpected challenge of infertility, whether primary or secondary. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
Being religious is fraught with danger. People are often pulled in directions where they can easily break their necks. To be religious is to allow your neshama soul to surpass your body, taking it to places where it cannot dwell and may self-destruct. Only in that way can they achieve self-perfection. For Aristotle, although ethics and politics are serious issues, the essence of a person—the very activity that is distinctly human—is intellectual contemplation of eternal truth. Its content has no practical human benefit.
In Judaism, this is not what life is all about. According to biblical thought, the body is not perceived as being in conflict with the soul. It is not an obstacle, but a most welcome companion. Otherwise, what is the purpose of the body? Just to be a nuisance that one would be better off without? True, the body may sometimes pose challenges, but ultimately this is to allow the complete human being , not just the soul, to grow. The purpose of human beings is not to dwell in Heaven and contemplate, but to act with their bodies and bring Heaven down to the material domain in order to transform the world into a better place.
The meaning of life is to be effectively realized by bringing about the interpenetration of the soul and the body. The mind of a human—the custodian of all spiritual and ethical values—is, on its own, incapable of action. On the other hand, all the forces and energy in the body are intrinsically indifferent to ethical or spiritual concepts. Only in a combined effort of mind and body can they build the world. Everything that people do must be able to permeate their thoughts, and everything that people think must find a way into their bodies Heschel.
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While this might very well lead to disaster, it can also bring a person to an exalted state of life. This is the task and challenge for which we were created. Knowledge alone is never a cause for action. Western civilization has mistakenly believed that it is possible to educate the body by reasoning with it.
So it continued speaking to the mind, but never really reached the body. This has led to disastrous consequences. Many philosophers have delivered themselves into the hands of evil as a result. There is no greater religious moment than this. It is an unprecedented encounter with God. But it is also extremely dangerous. The dream carries him to Heaven, a place where his body cannot dwell. It is paralyzed and nearly eliminated. It is tremendous to have a religious moment, but what happens when it is impossible to handle? What am I going to do in the real world with this flash of intense unparalleled revelation?
The biggest problem is not with the moment itself, but with how to keep it alive and take it with me throughout the rest of my life, in a way that is beneficial. Not only will it fade into oblivion, but it will be a trauma that will haunt me for the rest of my life! It can easily turn into madness. It is all meaningless unless I can translate this into the mundane. He wants to find the mundane, because it is there that life takes place.
And unless he can apply his experience in a practical way, all of these heavenly events will have been in vain. Let this stone, which I have set up as a memorial, become a house of God. Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You. It must mean engaging with this world and giving it religious and heavenly meaning. To redeem this experience, it must be established in a specific space—in a physical act, in the ordinary—not by night, but only by day when human beings are awake.
He introduces one of the great foundations of Halacha: To give a religious moment an ongoing effect, it must be translated into the tangible, the mundane. It must establish patterns of bodily reactions and conduct, which testify to an acute corporeal awareness of a reality beyond body. To achieve an authentic state of religiosity, there must be an element of everydayness, of the commonplace, which often includes what others may call trivialities.
There must be a finite act through which one perceives the infinite Heschel. Every trifle is infused with divinity. Halacha tells man not to fall victim to grandiose dreams. There are limits to human existence, and it is exactly this fact that makes life a challenge and a joy.