Friday, November 27, 2009

the ladder of Ya'akov's dream

Ya’akov in his dream sees the image of a ladder, “V’hinei malachei Elokim olim v’yordim bo,” with angels were going up and down “it”. The pronoun “bo” sounds like it refers to the ladder; however, there is another view in the Midrash (68:18) that explains that “it” refers to Ya’akov himself (unlike in English, there is no difference in the Hebrew between “it” and “him”). The Midrash continues that angels flew to the Heavens and saw the image of Ya’akov engraved (so to speak) on G-d’s throne, but then they descended to Earth and found him slumbering and laughed and mocked him.

The parsha continues, “V’hinei Hashem nitzav alav,” telling us that Hashem stood above “it/him”. Once again, we have a similar debate in the Midrash (69:2) as to whether the ambiguous pronoun refers to the ladder or to Ya’akov himself.

What is the nekudas hamachlokes here?

The two views of the Midrash offer us two perspectives on Ya'akov's dream. The first view of sees Ya’akov’s dream as a look outward at the angels coming and going in the world, governing how things are run. Above this entire mechanistic framework, above the ladder, stands G-d himself, controlling everything. Ya’akov is reminded, as he stood on the threshold of entering Lavan’s home court, that events are not happenstance, but are controlled by an army of messengers sent from above.

The second view sees Ya’akov’s dream as a look inward, at the coming and goings of his own thoughts. R’ Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh haChaim 1:19) writes (based on a Zohar) that the ladder of Ya’akov dream refers to his own soul. Rav Bloch in the Shiurei Da’as explains that the angels of Ya’akov’s dream represent his kochos henefesh, the characteristics and traits of his personality, his self, his soul. Ya’akov’s saw the heights to which his potential could carry him, but also saw the slumber and weakness into which he could fall, a vision of lost potential worthy of being mocked. It’s not the transcendent image of G-d who controls the outside world and nature which appeared to Ya’akov, but rather the image of G-d as standing above him, relating to him personally, aware of and measuring his thoughts and deeds (see Sefas Emes 5651).

(As an aside: a great post on how to approach Midrash.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ya'akov's tears: Questions that result from the reader's paradigm

I am a big believer in appreciating seforim on their own terms. There are multiple ways to skin a cat and answer a kashe, and a pilpul of the Chasam Sofer is no less interesting or valid than a distinction of R’ Chaim Brisker. The key to unlocking and enjoying a sefer is to accept the terms of the system being used, the boundaries of the thinker’s paradigm, and then exploring how the author maneuvers within it. Stepping outside the box and comparing and contrasting paradigms is interesting, but some people get so bogged down in defending one system over the other that they never come to any appreciation for the genius of the maneuvering and navigation and chiddushim that can come out of a system different than the one they are locked into.

I remember once posting about the twists and turns the Parashas Derachim takes us through in exploring how the Avos kept the entire Torah, with every detail, and at the same time retained their status as bnei Noach. A ben Noach cannot keep Shabbos – what did the Avos do? How did Ya’akov marry two sisters if he kept the Torah? Some people were not even willing to entertain the question because they never got past insisting that the Avos had some general sense of commitment but not did not observe the details of every mitzvah d’oraysa and derabbanan. The torah and genius of the Parashas Derachim are a closed book if you reject the frame of reference needed to set up the question. Or to take another example, if you cannot accept using a mystical framework to read chumash, you have basically shut the door on hundreds of seforim whose insight might enrich your avodas Hashem.

I have noticed that the Ayeles haShachar of Rav Shteinman on chumash adopts the same paradigm or framework as the Meshech Chochma, the Netziv, Maharal Diskin, and especially the Brisker Rav and the Rogatchover, and others. These gedolim read every detail in chumash (and Rashi) as having halachic import or explainable on purely halachic terms (and I know that is a gross oversimplification and exaggeration, but in one sentence I can’t do better). For example, in the post I did earlier on why Ya’akov felt bad about sleeping where he did, the Brisker Rav comes up an explanation based on the halachos of morah mikdash rather than practical, moral, or theological reasons.

Every now and then I find a question where it seems that the boundaries of the paradigm create the real stumbling block rather than a path for a solution (similar to the way the Parashas Derachim's understanding of the Avos' shemiras hamitzvos creates a set of problems that he then resolves, but which might not exist if not for the framework he adopts) and I wonder if there is a deliberate attempt to find an answer that works within the thinker's framework or whether the whole thing operates on some unconscious level and once you are submerged in an approach it eclipses other solutions. You could ask this question in any number of contexts; I raise it here for no other reason than it hit me again when I saw this question of Rav Shteinman on VaYeitzei:

Ya’akov meets Rachel and the Torah tells us, “VaYisa es kolo vayeivk,” Ya’akov cried (29:11). Why was he crying at this moment? Why does the Torah mention his emotional reaction to meeting Rachel? Rashi explains that Ya’akov cried because he saw prophetically that Rachel would not be buried with him.

Rav Shteinman asks: So what? Why should that have upset Ya’akov? He answers that there must be a “sibah meyuchedes” for the Avos and Imahos to be buried together (see Baba Basra 58), but he offers no further explanation of what that "sibah" might be. He also cites (but does not think it is compelling) a ShLa”H who explains that Ya’akov saw that Rachel would be buried on the road as a comfort to the Jewish people headed to exile. Ya’akov cried over the destruction of the Mikdash and that future exile.

Now, call me romantic, but I don’t see the question. Ya’akov has just met the woman whom he will marry. The Torah tells us that “Vaye’ehav Ya’akov es Rachel” – Ya’akov loved Rachel. We know that Ya’akov’s relationship with Rachel was special; she was the akeres habayis. Given all that, is it really hard to understand why Ya’akov would be upset over the fact that the woman who he loves will be buried along the road and not share a grave with him?

Rashi offers another explanation and attributes Ya'akov's crying to the fact that he has come empty handed. Here it is Sifsei Chachamim who asks: So what? Why cry over a lack of money? A tzadik places no value on material wealth. Rav Shteinman answers that Ya'akov did not cry for the loss of money so much as what money represented: the loss of opportunity to do chessed. But why not cry over that loss earlier, when it occurred? Again, the romantic answer is obvious: it's not just the loss of the opportunity for any chessed which troubled Ya'akov, but specifically the loss of ability to greet his future wife with the proper gifts that would be expected of him, the specific chessed (if you want to call it that) which must be shown to one's spouse.

Does reading Rashi with Rav Shteinman's lens in this case solve a problem that the average reader would get stuck on or create a problem that the average reader would not be troubled by? I guess the answer is "It depends" -- is the average reader a romantic or a dispassionate observer? Do we understand emotionally the grief of not being buried with one's beloved, even if it has no halachic justification? Does it sit easy with us ascribing that sense of emotional grief to Ya'akov, or at least reading Rashi as doing so?

One need not pick and choose between these approaches or the many others that are possible. Every approach unlocks questions that we otherwise might not have asked and offers answers that we otherwise might not have thought of, which is what makes learning so interesting and rewarding.

Why did Ya'akov regret his slumber?

V’Anochi lo yada’ti (28:16). Why was Ya’akov so upset that he had slept? The Brisker Rav held that because of the din of morah mikdash there was an issur for Ya’akov to sleep at the spot of the Mikdash even before it was built.

R’ Shteinman in his Ayeles haShachar suggests that Ya’akov was perturbed because during this entire experience of hisgalus haShechina he was asleep – completely passive. Avodas Hashem requires that a person take action, to grow and develop through his/her own efforts, not to passively experience and enjoy whatever Hashem grants. Especially in a place or time of hashra’as haShechina, one's avodah takes on added significance and meaning and Ya'akov felt he missed an opportunity.

The Seforno and Ohr haChaim stress a slightly different theme. Upon waking up Ya’akov realized that the place where he slept was so imbued with holiness that he was even able to experience prophecy with no prior preparation. Ya'akov bemoaned the fact that if such a great revelation could take place with no preparation, how much greater the result could have been if he had actively prepared. The effect of kedusha is far more pronounced when anticipated and prepared for them when haphazardly experienced. V'hi hanosenes that when we enter a place of kedusha, such as a shul, what we glean from the experience will be far more meaningful if we prepare for and anticipate the experience rather than haphazardly attempt to grab whatever inspiration may fall into our mind by chance.

I think there is another reason Ya'akov felt he missed an opportunity. I hate to be cliché, but what comes to mind is the phrase “Strike while the iron is hot”. As people in sales know, you have to close the deal while the customer is hooked, because if he/she gets off with an “I’ll think about it,” odds are that enthusiasm will wane and nothing will come of it. Inspiration that is not followed up immediately by an act of commitment will not make a lasting impression. Perhaps this is why we start learning again right after making a siyum: the tremendous inspiration of the siyum needs to be invested immediately into beginning again on more learning. Ya’akov wanted to respond to this moment of bracha and revelation with some act that would capture his inspiration and transform it into a concrete commitment, but in this case he was unable to do so.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

shok b'isha ervah: tzniyus skirt length

If you have daughters you have undoubtedly faced the question of how long a skirt must be to pass halachic muster. The answer to this important question can make or break a good shopping opportunity. The easy part to figure out is that since "shok b'isha erva" (Brachos 24a) a skirt has to cover the part of the leg called the "shok". The harder part is figuring our where on the leg the shok is.

The Torah tells us regarding a korban shelamim (VaYikra 7:32):
וְאֵת שׁוֹק הַיָּמִין תִּתְּנוּ תְרוּמָה לַכֹּהֵן מִזִּבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם
Rashi comments: Shok refers to [the part of the animal’s hind leg extending] from the אַרְכּוּבָה [knee-joint, the bone and the flesh of which are usually] sold together with the head, up till the middle joint [of the upper leg] which is called רֶגֶל סֹבֶ שֶׁל. [The animal’s leg has three sections to it; thus, the שׁוֹק is the middle of those three sections.] In other words, shok is not the lower bone of the leg, but is the upper bone -- the thigh. The Pri Megadim, Mishna Berura, and Chazon Ish all conclude that a skirt must therefore cover at least from the knee and above, but below the knee is just a matter of minhag.

Things get tricky because Tosfos (Menachos 37) writes that human anatomy is different than animal anatomy and the shok on an animal does not correspond to what the shok is on a person. Tosfos writes that the shok is actually the lower part of the leg in people. The description of the term shok by the Bach (O.C. 75) as a place that if not for the chiddush din or ervah we would not consider prohibited to be exposed because it is normally covered in dirt seems to point to the lower foot as the area being discussed, not an area above the knee. Based on these sources some poskim (R' Vozner; the Chazon Ish also debates the proofs for this position) argue that a skirt should be much longer and cover far below the knee as well.

If the shiur of the Chazon Ish and Mishna Berura are good enough for you, your daughters may once in awhile find a skirt that passes muster in a regular store. If not, your daughters are pretty much limited to "frum" stores which cater to long skirt lengths.

In the school which my girls attend they are required to wear a uniform with a skirt that goes well below the knee, but they are also required to wear knee socks (socks which cover to the knee, not just the ankles) so that no part of the lower leg is exposed. My suspicion is that this is just a matter of conforming to what other similar schools set as their uniform rather than a formal psak. My impression is that the knee-sock rule is flaunted by most girls on weekends or outside school, but what really reinforces my belief that this is just a matter of uniform and not halacha is the fact that the school has Moros who wear sheer stockings or to cover their lower leg (below the knee). Obviously if you think a first grader needs to wear knee socks because the lower leg is ervah, then teachers who are religious role models should follow the same standard. (For the record, the Chazon Ish 16:8 writes that the age at which you start enforcing these rules depends on the maturity of the girl, so a first grader may have no halachic obligation to follow any of these rules to begin with.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eisav and Ya'akov kicking in the womb

At the beginning of Toldos the Torah relates that Yitzchak has married Rivka "bas Besuel haArami achos Lavan" and they have no children. Rashi explains that the Torah recounts Rivka's lineage to emphasize that in spite of growing up around a wicked father, a wicked brother, and in a neighborhood of evildoers, she rose above it all and became righteous. Why does this praise belong here at the opening of Toldos?

Later, Rivka is troubled by the pounding she feels in her womb. The Midrash explains what troubled her: When she passed a house of idolatry she felt the kicking of Eisav to get out; when she passed a beis medrash, she felt the kicking of Ya'akov to get out. Meforshim are bothered by this description. Chazal (Nidah 30) tell us that while a baby is in the womb it is taught the entire Torah by an angel. We can easily understand why Eisav would want out of such an environment, but why would Ya'akov be trying to get out? One of the answers given is that even with an angel doing the teaching, Torah cannot be learned properly or appreciated sitting next to an Eisav.

With this in mind perhaps we can answer our original question. The praise of Rivka for rising above the influence of her father, brother, and neighbors is (perhaps) a precursor to the parsha that follows. Why was Rivka so confused at the struggle in her womb? Because she understood why Eisav wanted to get out, but she could not understand why Ya'akov was kicking. If she could spiritually flourish surrounded by negative role models, why was Ya'akov, who was learning Torah from an angel, so anxious to get out just because his neighbor was Eisav?

For another insightful comment on the parsha, see my wife's blog here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Alter of Novardok on Eisav's personality

We all know that Eisav is the bad guy in the parsha right from the outset, but if you just read the pesukim it's hard to figure out why. The facts: he looked red and hairy at birth, he was a man of the field, and next thing we know Ya’akov is trying to get him to surrender the bechorah for a pot of lentils. Rav Shteinman writes that the Torah succinctly says it all with the simple description “man of the field”. It’s not what Eisav did which is significant, but what he didn’t do. The dedication to worldly pursuits at the expense of being “yoshei ohalim” demonstrated a lack of caring for spiritual values. The Chasam Sofer cites the Hafla’ah who noted that Eisav is not just called “ish tzayid” but is “yodeya tzayid” -- “yode’a” in the Biblical sense means connecting with, not just having knowledge of. Eisav felt a connection with the world outside the Beis Midrash, not with what took place within its walls.

This emphasis on rejection of the hallowed study hall as the root of all evil will undoubtedly strike some as dismissive of those who do not have the fortitude to be "yosheiv ohalim". Is there no middle ground between the life of being "yosheiv ohalim" and becoming an Eisav? As Rav Hirsch seems to indicate, is it perhaps that lack of a middle ground that contributes to making Eisav in the first place? Leaving those questions for food for thought, I want to present an approach taken by the Alter of Novardok in Madreigas haAdam (Darkei haChaim ch 1-4) where he devotes a few chapters to the personality of Eisav and explaining why Yitchak wanted to bless him.

What made Ya'akov so sure that Eisav would sell him the birthright? Why did he even think the topic was open for discussion? When Eisav comes back from the field, it is a house of mourning that he enters. Rashi tells us that Ya'akov was cooking lentils because Avraham had died; lentils were a traditional food of mourning because they symbolically represent the circle of life and death that follows us all. Eisav takes no note of the context, the type of food and why it is being served, and instead just demands some of the "red stuff" in the pot. He does not see the situation beyond what the momentary demand of his appetite allowed for. The Alter explains that it is the failure to pause and take stock is the hallmark of Eisav. It's too late to attempt to learn mussar in the midst of a trying situation or after desire has taken over. Mussar is about cultivating the power to pause and appreciate a situation fully or to consider all the ramifications that follow from a choice before acting. Seeing that Eisav was governed by impulse and not given to reflection was the clue that the bechorah, the service in Mikdash which demanded discipline and sacrifice of immediate needs for long term reward, was not for Eisav.

We should not yet so easily dismiss Eisav as either lacking in emunah or not recognizing the value of the precious gift of bechorah which he held. As Rashi tells us, Eisav asked Ya'akov what the bechorah meant before surrendering it and it was only the demand to abstain from wine or suffer death for profaning the avodah which dissuaded Eisav from keeping his treasure. But why do we fault Eisav? Imagine the yeshiva bachur who decides he is just not cut out for learning and instead should pursue a lucrative career. He knows that learning has its rewards, but he also recognizes that a true Torah lifestyle of "pas b'melach tochal" has challenges which are not to be treated lightly. Should we fault the choice to give up the rewards given the assessment that the challenges and demands are too great?

Here the Alter has what I think is a profound insight. Were Eisav really honest with himself, he would acknowledge that it's not the threat of death for failure which dissuaded him from accepting the role of bechor -- it's the desire for that cup of wine. Any step upward in ruchniyus carries with it greater demands and responsibilities. It is easier to excuse ourselves as unworthy of lofty goals or not capable of rising to meet great challenges than to admit that it's the enjoyment of the position we are in now that weighs us down. Faced with the option of pursuing a lucrative career or spending a few more years learning, can a bachur say b'lev shaleim that the draw of money, the freedom to live a more relaxed religious lifestyle, the desire to see or be part of the world, etc. all play no role and have no influence on his decision of which path to pursue -- it's a purely disinterested and intellectually objective calculation? Or is he perhaps selling his bechorah for a cup of wine and using supposed lack of ability as an excuse? I am merely using this scenario as an example and do not mean to suggest that every decision to not stay in learning forever is wrong or a surrender to worldly temptation. The point is that objectivity is hard to maintain when an easy way out is present, and all kinds of good excuses and rationalizations that are not easy to penetrate can disguise lazy surrender as the greater good.

How can we tell if we are being honest with ourselves or just making excuses to remain in a comfort zone? After the sale Eisav despised the bechorah. Why? If I see a painting by Rembrandt or hear a symphony by Mozart I don't feel angry or jealous; I know these people have gifts which I lack. If the bechorah was not meant for Eisav, if he truly did not think he was fit for the position, then why the harsh reaction if someone else steps up to the plate? The difference is that while I know I am not Mozart or Rembrandt, Eisav in his heart knew that he did have the kochos hanefesh to be the true bechor and was just making excuses to allow himself to follow temptation. Seeing someone else with the same ability who offers no excuses but instead rises to meet the challenge is what grates on the nerves. If Ya'akov is the paradigm of truth, his opposite, Eisav, is a paradigm of falsehood. The false image of himself which Eisav shows his father is but a small lie compared to immense lie which he tells himself, the web of excuses disguised as objective calculation that he uses to justify pursuing a direction that he forever will regret.

What the Alter is trying to teach us is that we often fail (as he writes) not because emes is so hard, but because sheker is so easy. The inner struggle between ratzon and seichel can be won only only if we are willing to strip away the facade and look at ourselves and life in a brutally honest fashion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

the penalty of kofer

The value of a person can be pledged to the Mikdash (e.g. dmei ploni alay) and calculated based on the price a person would fetch on the slave market. The Mishna (Archin 20a) tells us that if the person who is the object of the pledge dies, the pledge cannot be redeemed because a person's worth as a servant cannot be calculated after death.

This halacha seem to contradict another din. If a shor mu'ad kills a person the owner must pay a penalty, kofer. There is a machlokes whether kofer is calculated based on the value of the mazik, the owner of the ox, or based on the value of the nizak, the person killed. If we can assess the value of the nizak after death for purposes of kofer, why can we not assess the value of a person for purposes of redeeming a pledge to the Mikdash?

Tosfos answers that in the case of kofer there is a special gezeiras hakasuv that allows and demands that an assessment of value be made. Rashi suggests a logical distinction between the cases. In the case of an ox which gores the owner becomes liable the instant the damage is done; the assessment is just a means of determining how much to pay. In the case of a pledge, the assessment itself creates the obligation to pay; it is not just a means of determining how much cost is involved.

Why does Tosfos resort to saying this is a gezeiras hakasuv instead of accepting Rashi’s logical distinction? Perhaps Tosfos holds that the obligation of kofer is not a natural result of the crime, but must exists only after the court assess the damage (the value of the nizak) and imposes its penalty.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

the donkey of Rav Pinchas ben Yair

Yesterday we compared and contrasted the donkey of R’ Pinchas ben Yair, which would not eat prohibited food, with the camels of Avraham Avinu. Today I want to directly address this strange phenomenon of a donkey which does not eat ma’achalos asuros – how does this work and what can we learn from it?

The gemara (B.M. 85) tells of a fight between R’ Chanina and R’ Chiya. R’ Chanina warned R’ Chiya that he is not one to be trifled with – “If all the Torah were forgotten, I could restore it with my pilpul.” R’ Chiya was not fazed and replied that he is not one to be trifled with either – “I would ensure that Torah is never forgotten. I would first raise flax, then use the flax to weave nets; I would use the nets to catch fish, then use the fish to attract and capture deer; I would then use the hide of the deer to write books and the flesh of the deer to feed poor orphans. I would take the books I have written and go to a town and teach five children each one of the five books of chumash and then have them teach each other, and I would teach six children each an order of Mishna and then have them review with each other, and in this way the Torah would never be forgotten from the Jewish people."

Why did Rav Chiya have to plant the flax to make the nets to catch the fish to get the deer to write the books? Why not just go buy hides or paper? The Maharasha explains that we see from this gemara the importance ofnot just doing good deeds, but ensuring that the means which are used to accomplish them are pure and proper. Who knows where the paper in the store came from or why it was produced? But if you make it yourself, you know it was made l’shem shamayim. Rav Ya’akov Moshe Lesin, the former mashgiach of YU and talmid of Slabodka, adds in his Maor sheBaTorah that this goal even warrants the sacrifice of Rav Chiya’s own learning to bring it about.

The Shomer Emunim (Derush haEmunah ch. 7) quotes from early sources that there is a concept of “koach hapoel b’nifal”. A craftsman, for example, who makes an object is not divorced from the object once it is complete – something of the craftsman’s character, effort, motivation, soul remains with the object and defines its character as well. Were I to simply quote the Shomer Emunim’s advice in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov not to read even Torah literature unless you know that the author is an upstanding individual because the identity of the author, the poel, can corrupt the book, the nifal, even if it contains only Torah thoughts, you might dismiss it as an overzealous stringency of chassidus. But the same sentiment is echoed by R’ Lesin, who writes in the name of R’ Chaim Volozhiner that a student who uses a sefer which happens to have been published by a non-G-d fearing individual will have less success in his learning. Why did davening and learning in the days of the gemara take place in a field? The GR”A suggests it is because the presence of impure motivation in building a study hall might corrupt the learning that is done later in that building.

While this idea may have you trembling a bit, there is a positive side as well. I am sure Rav Pinchas ben Yair rode his donkey for good reasons, l’shem mitzvah. And when you use something, even a donkey, chamor=chomriyus in general, for good reasons, it becomes invested with all the love and l’shem shamayim of its owner: koach hapoel b’nifal. Such a donkey is not one that can eat ma’achalos asuros. I don't think it is by accident either that Chazal highlight the donkey's behavior specifically with respect to its not eating food which did not have terumos and ma'sros taken off. What made the food in question prohibited is the mixture of that which we can eat with that which must be given to the kohen or levi. A donkey whose master does not tolerate a mixture of motives is a donkey which will not eat a mixed up jumble of issur and heter either.

And if you need a little more of a boost, remember that Hashem is “machadesh b’tuvo” all of creation every single day. Think of the koach ha’poel all of the world is invested with – if only we pay attention and tap into it.

The madreigos the Shomer Emunim is speaking of, or R’ Chaim Volozhiner is speaking of, are far above where most of us are holding. I don’t think anyone would suggest that you start making your own paper instead of buying a notebook, but we can still glean something from these ideals in terms of our behavior. I recently heard a Rosh Yeshiva thank the accountant who watched the yeshiva’s books for making sure that although they were trying to raise money for a building, everything was done on the up-and-up. This is R’ Chaiya’s principle in action. The Rosh Yeshiva could easily divorce himself from how the bricks and mortar get there and focus on the benefit of saying a shiur to a larger audience in a more spacious environment, but whether we sense it or not, somehow that shiur would be a different shiur.

Monday, November 16, 2009

did Avraham's camels need a muzzle?

When Eliezer arrives at Rivka's home he removed the muzzles from his camels so they could eat. Rashi explains that the Torah deliberately calls our attention to this detail to emphasize that Avraham’s camels traveled with their muzzles on to prevent their eating neighbors’ crops.

Another opinion in the Midrash challenges this view. Certainly Avraham’s camels were no less holy than the donkey of Rav Pinchas ben Yair, which refused food which did not have ma’aser properly taken. There was no need to muzzle Avraham’s camels because they could be relied on not to eat stolen food.

In defense of the first view, the meforshim on the Midrash and meforshei Rashi explain that while the camels could be depended on to miraculously not eat stolen food, that does not absolve Avraham and Eliezer from taking proper precautions. Ain somchin al hanes – we do not rely on miracles, even ones that we know will occur. But why then does the second view argue? What is the point of disagreement between the two sides?

The gemara tells us just as Hashem protects R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s donkey from sin, kal v’chomer Hashem protects tzadikim from coming to sin. Tosfos (Gittin 7a) quotes Rabeinu Tam’s view that this special protection applies only to ma’achalos asuros, but not to other sins. Other Rishonim disagree (see the Otzar Meforshei haTalmud). Perhaps the debate between the two views in the Midrash hinges on this issue. Stolen food is not the same as ma’achalos asuros, as the food is intrinsically permitted; it is the prohibition of theft which places it off limits.

If you want to go a step further, perhaps you might argue that the debate arises specifically in this case where there is an act of achila but an issur gezel (or mazik) – is extra protection afforded because a ma’aseh achila is being done, or does it depend on the chalos of the issur, which is gezel? Along these same lines, Tosfos explains that there is no protection afforded where the issur involved is only derabbanan. Perhaps this indicates that an issur derabbanan done b'shogeg is not an issur at all (because lo tasur is violated only by an act of deliberate rebellion), or perhaps one might explain that even though the act done is one of achila, since the issur violated is the more general lo tasur, no protection is afforded.

The question of how to understand the exemption of ones arises in a number of sugyos. Is an issur done b’ones considered a ma’aseh aveira for which there is no punishment, or is it not even considered a ma’aseh aveira? Rav Yosef Engel (Beis haOtzar #25) writes that a nafka mina between these views would be whether Hashem protects a tzadik from an issur b’ones. I wonder if I am missing something, because it seems that there is a major limitation on this nafka mina. According to Tosfos, Hashem’s protection is limited to cases of ma’achalos asuros, yet misa’aek b’chalavim v’arayos is chayav because of the hana’ah received – i.e. even if one accidentally b’ones ate ma’achalos assuros, one would still be chayav. Of course Hashem’s protection would extend to a case where the act results in a chiyuv. I’ll leave it to the comments for someone to work out a chiluk between ones and misasek (Shu”t RAK”E #7?) or come up with a case that is ones but not misasek.

Friday, November 13, 2009

cause and effect

Getting to Chayei Sarah, a few quick ideas on this short Friday:

1) The pasuk first describes Lavan as running to greet Eliezer (24:29 - vayaratz...) but then continues the description of the scene (24:30) by telling us "vayavo el haish", he approached Eliezer. The Meshech Chochma suggests that the reason Lavan ran to greet Eliezer was because he mistakenly thought that Eliezer was there to invite him to be Avraham’s son-in-law. The gemara darshens (Baba Basra 16b) the pasuk, “Hashem beirach es Avraham bakol,” to mean that Avraham also had a daughter. Lavan assumed what better match for this girl than himself! However, as the parsha continues, “When he saw the ring and the bracelet…” which Eliezer had given Rivka, it dawned on Lavan that it was not he who Eliezer had come for, but rather his sister. Lavan immediately slowed down, no longer running with the same show of enthusiasm.

There is an element of self-centeredness to Lavan's reaction. Perhaps this is why later the parsha speaks of the dialogue between Eliezer and "Lavan and Besuel," mentioning Lavan even before his own father. Lavan's ego craved being the center of attention. If he could not gain fulfillment for that need through being the object of Eliezer's interest, he would fulfill it by managing the negotiations.

We often hear about the danger of negiyos, but like all kochos hanefesh, there is a positive side to negiyos as well. Look at the zerizus Lavan showed when he thought Eliezer was there for him! The Shomeir Emunim writes that even the greatest tzadikim at times lose their motivation, kal v'chomer the rest of us. There is nothing wrong with contemplating the gadlus and reward that comes from Torah -- what's in it for us -- as a means to regain that motivation.

2) Meforshim (Seforno, Kli Yakar, Ishbitza) explain that when Yitzchak went out to the field to daven (as Chazal explain the pasuk), his intent was to pray for the shidduch that was in the works. He looked up and saw the approaching camels and there was Rivka, his bride. Hashem responds to our tefilos before they even escape our lips -- terem nikra'u v'ani e'eneh.

But was it really Yitzchak's davening, or intent to daven, which caused his shidduch to be brought to fruition? Wasn't it the efforts of Avraham in sending Eliezer (which Yitzchak seems to have played no role in) and Eliezer's efforts in carrying out his mission which were the crucial ingredients? Yitzchak's tefilah after the job was over seems too little too late to have made any difference. Imagine the askanim and ba'alei batim who get together and raise funds and build a shul and along comes the Rov and says a kapitel of tehillim before cutting the ribbon on the front door -- thanks, but we could have done it without you.

Apparently the whole chaim of events, starting with Avraham's charge to Eliezer, was in fact all caused by Hashem preparing a response to Yitzchak's tefilah. It is that one kapitil of tehillim at the end which brings together all the people and money and ingredients to build the shul (which in no way diminishes their efforts).

Along the same lines, Rashi comments earlier in the parsha that the words "yosheiv" in the pasuk "Efron yosheiv b'toch bnei Cheis" is written missing a vav because Efron was appointed leader on that very day so that negotiations with Avraham would be done through a distinguished person. Rav Shteinman writes based on the Matnos Kehunah that the Midrash does not mean to celebrate the deference which the Bnei Cheis showed to Avraham, but rather the pasuk is celebrating the effect which Avraham's presence had on the Bnei Cheis. Even though Efron would otherwise not have deserved to be made leader, the kavod which Avraham deserved caused his appointment to occur. Tzadikim have a spiritual impact that shapes events in the physical world (as the Nefesh haChaim discusses at great length.)

more on what made the akeidah unique

As a follow up to last week's post on the test of the akeidah I was privileged to have received the following summary of a sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos Vol. 20 p. 73-78)from R.A. (thank you!) and am posting it here. I would just add (specifically to answer the question in parenthesis) to also see R' Tzadok in Pri Tzadik at the end of Lech Lecha who also contrasts the early tests of Avraham with the akeidah, but we have to save that for another time as we're up to Chayei Sarah already.

The Rebbe asks the question asked by many commentaries as to why it says that if Avraham failed the test of the Akeidah 'people would say the first tests were meaningless' - how could this be so, especially considering that the test of the Akeidah was such a difficult one.

The Rebbe prefaces by quoting the question of the Sefer Haikkarim (3:36) as to why we constantly quote the story of the Akeidah more than all the other kedoshim who gave their lives Al kiddush Hashem like R. Akiva and his colleagues and all the kedoshim in every generation (and one can't say that it is due that to give ones' child up demands more self-sacrifice than to
give up ones' own life, because also in later generation there was Chana and her seven sons (see Gemara Gittin 77b) as well as the instances throughout history where many others have done the same).

The Sefer Haikkarim answers by quoting Breishis Rabbah (66:10) that there was nothing 'forcing' Avraham to do what Hashem had asked him, as he could have said to Hashem that earlier he had been promised that through Yitzchak he would become a nation etc., yet nevertheless he said 'I didn't challenge your intentions' (kivashti es rachami vloh hirhari acharei midosecha). [The Ran in his drashos (no. 6) mentions this point in the context as to why
Hashem used the expression 'please' when speaking to Avraham, because it was a request as opposed to a command]. On the other hand the kedoshim who gave their lives throughout history did it on the basis of a command (Venikdashti btoch bnei yisroel - Emor 22:32)

This answer however is problematic for two reason: a) When Hashem Himself requests something its definitely a 'hechrech' and b) amongst those who gave their lives their were many who did so under circumstances in which they were not required to according to Torah.

The Rebbe answers by saying that the difference by Avraham was that he was the first one to have self-sacrifice, and by his act he opened up the gates, so to speak, for all others to be have self-sacrifice after him. In a spiritual sense this 'opening of the gates' required a much greater level of self-sacrifice than anyone else that came after him.

(There is another question on this in regards to the fact that Avraham seemingly had such self-sacrifice previously by the test of Ur Casdim but we will leave that for now.)

One could argue however, that seemingly we see that the concept of self-sacrifice also exists by the other nations of the world; they also seem to be capable of giving up their lives for the sake of their beliefs? The answer is that the true concept of self-sacrifice is - the sacrifice of the 'self'. In other words it very possible that a person would give up their life on the basis of a calculation that they stand to gain (even in death) a certain sense of fame or proving their point. This is a 'calculated' self-sacrifice. The true concept of self-sacrifice is that one gives himself entirely over to Hashem without any calculations etc. - one is totally nullified to Hashem's will, whatever it may be. The self sacrifice that Avraham had at Ur casdim was a public one in a sense, it was in connection to Avraham's desire to spread the belief in Hashem in the world as he had been doing until then, to the point that he was willing to give up his life. However in the Akeidah, the self-sacrifice was not about anything that he believed in or stood for, rather it was simply following the command of Hashem. As the Ibn Ezra points out 'at the time that he tied up his son no one was there'. (see note 40, 41 in the sicha). In fact the whole episode was contrary to Avraham's desire to spread Hashem's name in the world, because this was only to have continued through his son who he was about to sacrifice!

This was the unique quality of the Akeidah - It had absolutely no place in intellect or logic, rather it was purely about fulfilling the will of Hashem, which is the true definition of self-sacrifice.

This answers why the Gemara says that 'people would say that the first tests were meaningless', because had Avraham failed it would have shown that he had only passed the first tests because of his own nature, his own (holy) interests. However once he passed the test of the Akeidah, which required him to do something that had no intellectual basis and made absolutely no
sense, to the point that it contradicted everything he stood for, only then it became evident (and proven retro-actively in regards to his previous tests) that it had not been his own 'calculations' that had driven him to self-sacrifice but rather it was simply him fulfilling Hashem's will.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

the akeidah: the only test?

Rashi (22:2) writes that Hashem used the term “na”, please, in commanding the akeidah because Hashem begged Avraham not to fail so as to not provide the people of the world with an excuse to say this failure proves the first tests meaningless and Avraham and his religion are a failure. It is remarkable that people might even consider dismissing the rest of Avraham's accomplishments and legacy if he should fail to meet the demanding test of the akeidah, but we know that's how people are. As I commented recently on someone else's blog, a talmid chacham could spend years learning and teaching Torah and all that good can be undermined and dismissed if the individual makes even one strange comment that gets noticed and broadcast --the yotzei min haklal becomes the definition of the klal. Anyway, getting back on topic, I don't think Rashi here means to say that the only reason G-d wanted Avraham to succeed was l'afukei his detractors (as some interpret), but rather in addition to all the good reasons we would expect G-d should want Avraham to succeed the word "na" clues us into an additional factor at play here.

Rav Shteinman in Ayeles HaShachar raises the rather pragmatic question of how people might draw any conclusion from Avraham's response to the akeidah -- who knew about the test and who would know whether Avraham passed or failed? He therefore concludes that Rashi does not mean to say others will literally question Avraham if he fails, but rather the one blot on an almost-perfect record would cry out for correction. You don't get as much credit for the 99 successes as the blame you get for that one failure.

Rav Shteinman goes yet a step further and writes that all the previous successes were not true tests as they did not pose a challenge for someone on Avraham's level. The akeidah was the one and only true test of Avraham's character (I would note that the word "nisah", test, is used only here and not earlier in the Torah [see Netz"iv]), and therefore, success here was critical.

I want to contrast R' Shteinman's approach with that of the Arugas haBosem. The Midrash notes that the test of the akeidah and the first test which Avraham faced, the test of leaving his home, are both introduced with the words, "lech lecha". Given the similarity of expression, the Midrash seems to equate the two tests and asks which was greater. The answer -- the akeidah was greater -- is obvious and not nearly as surprising as the fact that a question and hava amina to think otherwise was raised in the first place. The Arugas haBosem explains that objectively speaking the akeidah is certainly the greater test, as the Midrash concludes. However, G-d's tests are calibrated to the level and ability of each individual. The test of leaving home may very well have been as challenging to an Avraham early in his relationship with G-d as the test of the akeidah was to an Avraham who was already mature in his religious development. It's not the objective accomplishment alone which counts in G-d's eyes; l'fum tza'ara agra -- its the effort and progress of the individual relative to their ability and gifts which count as well.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. We each have a task and goal for which we were placed in this world; whether we passed that test and did or did not achieve that goal is a significant question. But at the same time, achieving that goal may require overcoming numerous hurdles and obstacles, each of which drives development to the next stage and each of which is an accomplishment in its own right.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

can angels eat meat that's not really meat?

Rashi explains based on the gemara (Baba Metziya 86) that although angels cannot eat, the angels who came to Avraham pretended to eat so as to not deviate from the normal practice of the community. The lesson for us is to blend in when blending in is appropriate. However, Tosfos on that sugya quotes the Midrash that contrary to the gemara's assumption, the angels did in fact eat. It is hard to say that there is a machlokes in "metziyus" whether angels can or cannot eat, so there must be some other explanation of what the underlying issue here is. I once tried to explain the gemara's position based on the view that the angels came on Pesach and matzah was served. The process of making matzah, turning raw wheat into a finished baked product, represents the sanctification of the physical world, a process angels are removed from and incapable of engaging in. Rav Shteinman in his Ayeles haShachar explains the two views as disagreeing over whether an angel can adopt a physical body for the purpose of fulfilling a mission or not. I'm not sure how much this adds to our understanding of the issue, as it begs the follow up question of why an angel can or cannot an angel appear in physical form -- in other words, the basis for that dispute -- which seems to bring us full circle back to where we started.

My wife's grandfather, R' Dov Yehudah Shochet, apparently (the return letter is published, but not the letter he sent) suggested in a different context that the machlokes Rishonim whether angels have a body or not (which I am not familiar with) can be explained as being no machlokes at all because it all depends on what the meaning of the word "body" is. Yes, angels have a body if you mean some type of spiritual envelope for their presence, but no, angels do not have a body if you mean a physical form. The Lubavitcher Rebbe replied to this letter with proof from the Rambam that no body means no body, i.e. no form whatsoever. Perhaps this machlokes is reflected in the differing views of the gemara and Midrash.

The Rishonim and Achronim discuss how Avraham could have served milk and meat to his guests when Chazal tell us that he obeyed the entire Torah even before it was given. The Da'as Zekeinim answers simply that the milk was served first followed by the meat. There are numerous other creative answers. Malbi"M writes that the cow served was no ordinary cow, but was an animal created through kabbalistic means using sefer yetzirah. Proof comes from the pasuk itself -- "es habakar asher asah," the cow which was made, not just prepared. The assumption is that this type of cow is not really meat and can be eaten together with milk. When discussing this at home the suggestion came up that these different views may help explain the difference between the gemara and Midrash (this is obviously speculative). If the meat served was physical beef, as the Da'as Zekeinim understood, then it is no wonder angels could not eat it, but if the beef was mystical beef created with the sefer yetzira, perhaps this type of food might be on the menu even of an angel.

On a final tangential note, the Malbi"m's assumption that meat created miraculously does not have the properties of what we call meat reminded me of a famous kashe of R' Chaim Brisker. The Beis Yosef asks why we celebrate Chanukah for eight days when there was enough oil for one day. One answer is that the jug of oil miraculously refilled itself each day, including the first, upon being emptied. R' Chaim questions why this miraculously created oil was acceptable for use in the menorah when the Torah demands that specifically olive oil be used. Miracle oil may look, taste, and feel like olive oil, but it did not come from olives! I saw another blogger discuss this recently and will leave you with the link and something to mull over as we get closer to Chanukah.

Monday, November 09, 2009

chinuch for chessed

Rashi writes that Avraham fulfilled the mitzvah of chinuch by giving Yishmael the job of preparing the meat for this guests who arrived (18:7). The Minchas Chinuch (264) questions whether chinuch applies only to a mitzvah chiyuvis, e.g. tefillin, lulav, which the child will inevitably be bound to perform when he becomes an adult, or does it also apply to mitzvos like aveilus, which may a person may never have to observe in his lifetime. Rav Shteinman in his Ayeles haShachar uses this aRashi as a source to prove that chinuch applies even to a non-chiyuvis mitzvah. I’m a bit surprised. Why is chessed defined as non-chiyuvis because guests and people in need don't show up every day and may not show up at all? Instead of looking at chessed as being reactive, shouldn't we be proactive and seek out opportunities to do kindness?

Another point to consider is that Rabeinu Manoch (Hil. Shvisas Asor 2:10) suggests based on the wording of the Rambam that in addition to how to perform specific mitzvos, chincuh also encompases a more general obligation to see that a child grows into a Torah observant Jew. Perhaps when Rashi refers to chinuch he means it in this global sense of inculcating Yismael with the value system which Avraham lived by.

Aside from the chinuch of Yishmael, there is an interesting Seforno that suggests that the environment of Avraham's home already impacted Yitzchak. Why did these angels need to visit when Avraham had already been told by Hashem that he would have children? The Seforno answers that they came to tell Sarah the good news so that she would also be happy and give thanks to Hashem, "k'dei she'yehiyeh ha'obar shaleim", so that the child would be "complete." It's not just the mother's mood, the feeling of simcha, which would contribute to Yitzchak's sheleimus, but it is Sarah's giving thanks to Hashem which would spiritually set the tone for his future.

Friday, November 06, 2009

the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (II)

This post is a continuation of what we started yesterday. What really drove my thinking about the Rashi of Hashem changing the story for the sake of shalom bayis is the following gemara and the Maharl's spin on it. The gemara (San. 97) tells the story of a certain person, R’ Tovus, or according to others, R’ Tovyomi, who declared that no matter how much money he was offered he would not tell a lie. Once upon a time he discovered a town called Keshot (coincidentally, the Aramaic word for truth) in which no one died before their time. Attracted to the town, he married a wife from there and settled down and had two children. Unfortunately the end of the story is not so nice. A neighbor stopped in one day and asked for R’ Tovus/Tovyomi’s wife, who at that moment was washing her hair. Not wanting to speak with a lack of tzniyus and say his was in the shower, R’ Tovus/Tovymi instead said she was not home. Immediately thereafter his two children died, and when the town leaders discovered the cause they asked him to leave the town to remove untruthfulness from their midst.

Maharal calles this gemarakasha me’od” and discusses it at length. There seems to be a relationship between the name of the town, which means truth, and the behavior of the town’s residents, who all told the truth. But if being in the town influenced its residents to always speak the truth, “hamakom goreim”, why was Rav Tovus/Tovyomi not influenced in the same way to only speak truth? And if the town’s name and character had no influence, isn’t it odd that all the residents, without a single exception, always told the truth?

The Maharal explains that Keshot is not a physical place, but rather is a spiritual accomplishment, a madreiga, which a person can reach. In the place called Keshot no one dies because, as we discussed yesterday, truth is the only thing which is eternal – 2+2 was 4 long before we were here and will continue to be four a million years from now. If you attain the degree of spiritual perfection called Keshot, you gain eternity.

R’ Tovus/TovYomi sacrificed that madreiga of keshot for the sake of the competing value of tzniyus. Undoubtedly this was the right thing to do, but doing the right thing does not absolve one from suffering whatever costs and consequences may result. 2+2 cannot equal 5 even for a good purpose, and though he may have spoken a white lie for good reason, R’ Tovus/TovYomi suffered the consequence of falsehood.

The Maharal has much more to say about this gemara, but enough for now. Compare this gemara to the Rashi in Parshas vaYeira about Hashem changing the story for the sake of Avraham and Sarah’s shalom bayis. B’shlama with respect to Rav Tovus/TovYomi, he reached a madreiga and then fell from that madreiga, albeit for a good purpose. But how is it possible to speak of Hashem kavyachol falling in madreiga? – the words don’t even make sense. So what’s going on here?

Here are two ideas I had:

1) Yesterday I quoted the gemara that Hashem's "chosam", his seal, is truth. When is the seal placed on a letter? After it is complete and all written, ready to be posted for delivery. Sometimes it is only after all the facts are in, after we see the full picture with all the details in context, that things which looked questionable turn out to be closer to the truth than we might have thought.

Did Sarah mean to disparage her husband Avraham? I don't think so. I think a comment posted yesterday headed down this road. Sarah's words did not produce a disruption of shalom bayis. To repeat those words to Avraham and produce an effect never intended may capture her quote word for word more truthfully than if those words were omitted, but in context will produce a false outcome that is a greater distortion of the truth.

2) Before a child is born a bas kol declares, "Bas ploni l'ploni," and I assume that a bas kol declared that Sarah was meant to be the soulmate for Avraham Avinu. A person has the right to exercise his/her bechira and choose whomever he/she wants as a mate irrespective of what the bas kol declares, but that does not change the fact that his/her soul might have been meant in truth for someone else (see here for more on this).

Sarah may have inadvertently chosen the wrong words, harmful words, but that is between her and Avraham. Those words exist only k'lapei her personal bechira and can be measured only based on their effect in this world, which in this case was nothing. However, k'lapei shemaya, in the world where the words of "bas Ploni l'Ploni" reverberate for all eternity, the truth is that the neshoma of Sarah is meant to be united in perfect harmony with the neshoma of Avraham. K'lapei shemaya any disruption of that harmony is sheker, falsehood, and cannot be uttered by Hashem.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Before we get to an interesting Rashi in this week’s parsha and what I think it means, we need a little background about the midah of emes. Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55) that “chosamo shel Hasem emes,” G-d’s seal is truth. Why is G-d’s seal (whatever that means) truth and not some other trait like kindness, justice, mercy, etc.? Maharal explains (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv haEmes ch. 1) that the midah of truth is unique because there is only one truth under any and all circumstances. 2+2 cannot truthfully not equal 4 – that must be the answer – but there are an infinite number of possible wrong answers. Like truth, G-d’s existence is unwavering. G-d is one, while there are an infinite number of things that might be not-G-d; G-d’s existence must be and always will be.

No creation shows the same similarity to the trait of truth. The very possibility of any creation not existing or ceasing to exist marks it as qualitatively different from 2+2=4, which must be so and always will be so. Therefore, we ascribe the trait of truth in its purest form to G-d alone (see also Kuntres Emunah u’Bitachon 1:9 printed in Chazon Ish Taharos [it is omitted from the small edition] for his comparison between G-d's existence and “muskalos” [a priori truths]).

The Midrash (B”R 8:5) describes a tremendous debate which took place in Heaven over the question of whether or not to create man. Truth objected to the creation of man, and as a result G-d cast it out of Heaven. R’ Nachum Ziv (Kitvei HaSaba m’Kelm v’Talmidav, vol 1) writes that truth must be thrown into this world -- this is not its natural environment. A trait that is so special that only it can be used as G-d’s seal is too spiritually pristine for our world and does not fit in.

Getting to our parsha: When Sarah laughs at the possibility of her having a child in old age, she also remarks on her husband Avraham’s old age. However, when G-d tells Avraham what happened, he omits any mention of Sarah’s comment about him. Rashi explains that we see that a little “white lie”, a deviation from the exact truth, is permitted for the sake of peace. Rather than tell Avraham that Sarah doubted that he could have children, Hashem presented her remarks as only doubts about her own ability to conceive, preserving the "shalom bayis" of Avraham's household.

Question: if it will make peace between two accountants, can 2+2 suddenly equal 5? Of course not. So how can G-d, whose seal is truth precisely because truth is eternal, unchanging, "muchrach" and without substitute, just as G-d is, utter what is not the truth? It's a contradiction in terms to speak of G-d and falsehood in the same sentence. So how does this work? I'm deliberately dividing this into a few posts because: 1) you may not like one part (I'm not sure I like my setup of the kashe, but the hesber will be nice, I hope!) and still take something away from the rest; 2) I'm still working through where I am going. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

the fate of Sdom and the cost of lost opportunity

When Avraham begs G-d to save the city of Sdom and the vicinity if forty or even thirty people can be found, G-d responds, “Lo e’eseh” -- I shall do nothing to the city if that many righteous people are found. However, when Avraham begs G-d to save the city if just twenty or ten people can be found, G-d responds, “Lo ashchis” – I shall not destroy the city on their behalf, but the city will still suffer some punishment. With so few righteous people present, the city cannot get off scott-free.

Why then, asks the Meshech Chochma, does G-d respond to Avraham’s plea to save the city for forty-five righteous people by saying, “Lo ashchis”, I shall not destroy the city, implying that the city will still be punished? If for forty or even thirty righteous people G-d would withhold all punishment from the city, then certainly if forty-five righteous people were present no punishment at all should be administered?!

The Mishna In Pirkei Avos tells us that there are two aspects to G-d’s judgment: “din" and "cheshbon”. The Vilna Gaon explains that “din” is judgment and punishment for a wrongful act. “Cheshbon”, calculation, means making an assessment of the lost opportunity to do good that came as a result of sin.

The Meshech Chochma applies this distinction here. Avraham first asked G-d to spare Sdom if fifty righteous people could be found, ten righteous people in each city. When that failed, Avraham asked that the cities be spared if only nine righteous were found in each, forty-five in total. Imagine having nine righteous people in a city -- if only one person would step forward to do good, there would be a full minyan of good people! What a lost opportunity! With only seven or eight righteous people, each individual could say that one more or less good person would make little difference. But once a city has nine, all it takes is one more to make a qualitative difference.

While the “din” of a having forty-five righteous people may warrant less severity than a city of only forty or thirty righteous people, the “cheshbon” of lost opportunity cries out for an even harsher punishment. Therefore, G-d promised only to spare the cities from destruction if forty-five righteous people were present, but not to excuse the cities completely.

With this conceptual background other details of the story of Sdom fit into place as well. It's not by chance that the destruction of Sdom takes place immediatly after their appointment of Lot as judge. By placing a relatively honest person in a position of leadership and still failing to make any change, the cheshbon of lost opportunity sealed the city's fate. And it's no wonder that the Malachim come to the city even before G-d begins deliberating Sdom's fate and hearing Avraham's plea on their behalf (as noted by the Shem m'Shmuel). The Angels were a burst of spiritual energy that entered the city. Had Sdom been receptive to the presence of Angelic visitors, this moment might have been a turning point for good. The squandering away of this precious last opportunity for change was yet another factor in sealing Sdom's fate.

support local institutions first

The 5Towns this past week and upcoming week seems to be playing host to an influx of Rebbes of a variety of stripes and flavors, among them the Toldos Avraham Yitzchok. No matter what the hashkafa of the R' Ahrele descendents or other visitors, I don't believe withholding funds from a soup kitchen or a hungry family is right -- we can discuss our hashkafic differences after first making sure everyone has dinner on the table and a roof over their head. But I do think the invitations which bring these travelling circuses to town are wrong.

We have hungry people even in the 5Towns, the land of rich and plenty. There is a Tomchei Shabbos that does a weekly route and always can use volunteers and funds. We have people suffering unemployment who are in danger of losing their homes and we have yeshivos which have lost the tuition $ and support these families provided in the past. I am sure the TA"Y kollelim (5, according to the color brochure mailed to my home) are wonderful mosdos, but what of the community yeshivos in the 5Towns and Far Rockway that desperately need support and funding? I'm not talking about institutions which are ivory towers for scholars, but yeshivos which provide a direct benefit to the community. Sha'ar Yoshuv runs dozens of shiurim a week in their community learning center, all free of charge; Yeshiva of Far Rockway is a community school with bochrim mainly from Far Rockaway and the 5T; Yeshiva Gedola of the 5 Towns is currently housed in a storefront for lack of a building and also opens its doors and offers shiurim and chavrusa programs every night. Why write a check to a kollel in Mea Shearim when the yeshivos and schools (and I can't list them all) right in your own backyard need help? What about "aniyei ircha", "achicha ha'evyon"?

Why is this encouraged? The answer is simple: because the "leaders" and Rabbis involved believe the pocketbook will never run dry, the pie will always expand to accommodate another shul, another yeshiva, another kollel. Of course, that is simply not true, and the struggle the community schools have to simply make payroll (and I am not exaggerating) as funds are drained off elsewhere is the net result.

Community leadership is not a democracy, and he who pays the piper calls the tune, so unforunately the car we are all in together will keep picking up steam as we approach the cliff ever faster.

Monday, November 02, 2009

removing the "dust on the feet"

Rashi writes that Avraham, not knowing his guests were angels, asked them to wash their feet before entering his home lest they be pagans who worshipped this dust and would bring their idolatry into his home. It could be that the Torah (or more accurately, Rashi) simply means to underscore the degree to which Avraham distanced himself from idolatry, but (as my son’s Rebbe asked yesterday) why mention specifically the detail of “worshipping dust of the feet”?

We find another reference to dust in Parshas vaYishlach in the context of Ya’akov’s battle with the angel of Eisav, where the Torah uses the expression, “vaYe’avek ish imo.” Chazal see a hint in this expression to the dust of their feet rising to the Heavenly throne. Again, why call our attention specifically to the rising dust in the context of this conflict?

Ya’akov’s battle occurs when he is left alone, “vaYivaser Ya’akov levado.” Rashi (based on Chazal) writes that Ya’akov was alone because he had returned for the little vessels which had been left behind. The Ohev Yisrael explains that every tzadik and every person has moments of gadlus hamochin and katnus hamochin. At times we feel inspired, alive, confident, we relish our avodas Hashem and learning; at times we may become small minded, depressed, out outlook narrow, or vision diminished. The Torah uses the term Yisrael when it wants to reference the former state; it uses the term Ya’akov when it wants to reference the latter state. It was the little vessels, the smallness of vision and outlook, which brought Ya’akov (as opposed to Yisrael) back and left him feeling alone and abandoned. In some sense the battle with the angel of Eisav is a battle to elevate this smallmindedness, this lack of vision and inspiration. Ya’akov was able to lift himself out of katnus hamochin, to worship Hashem not only when he was at the height and pinnacle of inspiration, when he head was into it, as we say, but even from the lowest depths of his consciousness, even the dust of his feet, his katnus hamochin, was elevated to the Heavenly throne.

The Maor v’Shemesh is medayek in the Torah’s use of the expression “mincha” instead of “matanah” to describe the gifts sent by Ya’akov to Eisav. “Mincha” has the same gematreiya value as avak, dust (=103). To overcome Eisav, to even dream of transforming Eisav to good, would require elevating the lowest levels of creation, the dust, the darkest katnus hamochin. (Update: My wife made the following suggestion: "mincha" is associated with Yitzchak, who Chazal tell us instituted that tefilah. Perhaps Ya'akov was trying to remind Eisav that they both shared a relationship with their father Yitzchak and in his honor a fight should be avoided.)

I heard once from R’ Naftali Jeger, Rosh Yeshiva of Sha’ar Yoshuv, in the name of R’ Tzadok (which I have not been able to track down) that this is the meaning of the Mishna in Brachos which tells us that we may not enter the Har haBayis with dust on our feet. The Mikdash is not a place for katnus hamochin! And with this in mind we can perhaps gain an appreciation for the description of so many aveiros as avak – avak lashon hara, avak shevi’is, avak ribis. These sins come about because we are dragged down in our avodah and wallow in the dust, unable to raise our spirits.

The Ohev Yisrael explains that this the meaning of Avraham’s request to remove the avak, the dust of the feet, before entering his tent. Avraham asked his guests to leave behind their katnus hamochin, their small minded vision of the world, and elevate themselves by joining him in his avodah.

(Side note: for two interesting thoughts on last week's parsha, see my wife's posts here and here.)