Monday, November 29, 2010

avoiding tests

Yosef refused the advances of Eishes Potifar, "V'lo shama eileha lishkav etzlah l'heyos ima." (39:10) The Midrash darshens the double-language of the pasuk to mean that Yosef not only refused to have relations with Eishes Potifar, but he even refused to lie in the same bed as her (lishkav etzlah), despite prophetically knowing that he was destined to join her in olam haba (l'heyos ima).

The Koznitzer Maggid asks what the chiddush of this Midrash is. Obviously Yosef haTzadik would avoid even being in the same bed as her as Eishes Potifar. Would we dream otherwise?

A person grows from each challenge faced and each test overcome. Kal v’chomer this is true of a tzadik like Yosef. Each time he faced Eishes Potiphar and resisted her advances he became spiritually stronger. Eishes Potiphar therefore offered Yosef what seemed like a reasonable suggestion – instead of running away from her, increase the temptation and test by drawing closer, by lying next to her. How much greater schar would be from withstanding such a test – it would guarantee both of them a place in olam ha’ba!

This was the trap that the Midrash is teaching us that Yosef did not fall prey to. Yosef refused to lie next to Eishes Potifar even for the sake of proving that he could resist her and thereby gain additional schar. Given the choice, it's always better to avoid a difficult situation rather than prove one's ability to overcome the challenge. Tempting fate is far too great a risk, no matter what the potential benefit may be.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

the difference between the Sar HaMashkim and Sar haOfim's dreams

Why did Yosef interpret the dream of the Sar HaMashkim to mean that he would be restored to his job while he interpreted the dream of the Sar HaOfim to mean that he would be hung?

The Sar HaMashkim was in jail for failing to detect a fly in Pharoah's cup. He dreamed of vines growing, grapes sprouting, of squeezing those grapes to produce wine, and finally serving that wine to Pharaoh. The Sar HaMashkim knew he had slipped up. In his dreams he replayed every step of the winemaking process, redoing it over and over, striving to correct his error and serve the perfect cup to Pharoah.

The Sar HaOfim was in jail for failing to detect a pebble in the bread. The Sar HaOfim dreamed of loaves of bread sitting in their baskets, ready to be served. The Sar HaOfim did not dream about the process of bread baking, he never considered what he had done wrong, what he might do differently, what steps in the process of baking he could correct or improve on.

The attitude of the Sar HaMashkim, explains R' Leibele Eiger, was one that could lead to tikun. Not so the attitude of the Sar HaOfim.

Friday, November 26, 2010

rav soloveitchik on the dreams of yosef

I really want to spend time on the lomdus of the Rav, but it would really be remiss not to speak about Parshas VaYeishev, as it served as a springboard for some of the Rav’s seminal ideas. If Parshas VaYishlach is the blueprint for our perennial confrontation with Eisav, the non-Jew, Parshas VaYeishev is the blueprint for dealing with internal conflict, one Jew against another. Ya’akov’s return to Eretz Yisrael, Eisav’s move to the mountains of Seir, might have been the beginnings of the process of ultimate redemption (interestingly, this same theme is echoed in various sifrei chassidus), the final “yeshiva b’shalvah.” Yet, much like the parsha of the spies thwarted Moshe’s anticipated entry into Eretz Yisrael and the bringing of a final geulah, the conflict between Yosef and his brothers thwarted Ya’akov’s plans for ultimate redemption as well.

Why do the brothers hate Yosef? Yosef knows that the "yeshiva b'shalvah", the serene life desired by Ya’akov, will prove transient, he knows the burden of galus awaits. The brothers hate Yosef not only for what he dreams, but because he dreams – he thinks of the future, he makes plans to cope with the changes he sees approaching, while the brothers prefer to focus only on present, the status quo. The binding of sheaves represented a new economic model, different from the shepherding the brothers were used to; the sun, moon, and stars represent powerful outside forces that the brothers will be forced to contend with and interact with. Where will these changes take place? Not on the home-soil of Canaan, but in the cultural milieu of Egypt, making adjustment to change all the more daunting. Yosef saw that planning for change was necessary and unavoidable. Clinging to the way-of-life of the moment will lead only to stagnation and failure.

The Rav identified the personality of Yosef with the Mizrachi movement that he became part of. The dream of life in Eretz Yisrael, life outside the context of European Orthodoxy even while that culture seemed secure and the need for change remote, is what enabled yeshivos and comunities to rebuild and continue after the havoc of the war. Without that planning and vision, how much more would have been lost.

The Rav also identified Yosef’s two dreams as representing two different crucial ingredients for Jewish continuity. The binding of wheat represented material and economic success, physical prosperity. But Yosef saw that Jewish survival required much more than that. The dream of the sun and stars represented heavenly forces – spiritual forces. Yosef envisioned having not only economic and political greatness, but spiritual greatness as well. The kesones passim, the multi-colored coat, represents these multiple facets Yosef dreamed of. Could these two very different ideals, spiritual as well as material/political greateness, be combined in one person, in one people? Yosef challenged his brothers to believe they could.

It is tempting to read into the Rav’s portrayal of Yosef an autobiographical portrayal of his own mission. The Rav saw that rebuilding Orthodoxy on post-war modern American soil required a different outlook than what worked in Lita, in Poland, in the Russian Pale. It was the kesones passim of the Rav’s personality, his multi-faceted intellectual greatness, which gave the Rav the tools to address the concerns of the new face of American Jewry in a way that few others could. The Rav had his detractors. His “brothers,” other Roshei Yeshiva and gedolim, questioned his dreams. The Rav said that we know that Providence sided with Yosef in the dispute with his brothers. I think we can say that the evidence of bnei Torah committed to the ideology the Rav taught shows that Providence has affirmed the value of his dreams as well.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the role of nevuah in the eyes of a Brisker

I did a post last week based on a diyuk of R' Soloveitchik in a Rambam, and it dawned on me that in all the time I've been writing this blog I don't think I ever made a concentrated attempt to focus and review the Rav's torah. Maybe it is time to do so. I never heard shiur from the Rav, but you can glean a lot from what has been printed. I have to see if I can make the effort while being crushed at work with other stuff.

The pieces in Shiurim l'Zecher Aba Mori are interesting because, while the shiurim are oriented towards halacha/lomdus, the Rav develops and dwells on certain philosophical ideas that emerge directly from the halachic discussion at hand. Examples: ideas on the meaning of Shabbos emerge from the shiur on kiddush, ideas about teshuvah can be found in the shiur on mechikas Hashem, etc. This element is completely absent from the writings of R' Chaim or the Brisker Rav. I am not sure if the Rav paid more attention to philosophical themes because of the venue (a public lecture is different than a shiur given to close talmidim ) or whether it was more generally part of his thinking process.

These philosophical digressions and shadings are interesting because the Rav follows (obviously) the Brisker tradition of generally eschewing both mysticism and mussar/machshava. The universe of Brisk is defined entirely by the boundaries of the "four cubits of halacha." Perhaps Halakhic Man and Halakhic Mind should be read as the Rav's attempt to integrate his own philosophical quest and interests into these self-imposed boundaries. One passage from Shiurim l'Zecher Aba Mori (vol 2 page 173, excuse my rough translation) struck me as especially illustrative of this narrow Brisker focus:
I have always been troubled by the role and position of the prophet. On the one hand, we rule that a navi is prohibited from introducing innovation in halacha, from adding or detracting "even the crown of a letter yud;" on the other hand, Hashem communicated with the nevi'im, they prophesied, and their prophecy was written for all future generations. What purpose did their prophecy serve, given that they could introduce no halachic chiddush? True, they rebuked the nation, and to give rebuke is certainly one of the reasons prophets were sent. But still, I am troubled by the notion that their message should be completely devoid of halachic content.

The Rav simply could not fathom that there could be a "cheftza" of the dvar Hashem seperate from the narrow universe of halacha. I read this to my son and he was dumbstruck. Kushya m'ikara leisa if you have not bought into the world of Brisk. My wife reminded me that the gemara itself is suggestive of a similar idea -- Chazal tell us that had the Jewish people not sinned, they would only have needed the five books of chumash and sefer Yehoshua (to know the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael). In an ideal world all that exists is halacha.

The Rav goes on in that shiur to answer his question by saying that indeed there is halachic content to the words of navi. A person has an obligation to imitate G-d. The nevi'im teach us G-d's midos so we can fulfill our halachic obligation of modeling our behavior accordingly. Rather than acknowledge a universe outside the narrow world of halacha, the Rav reduces that outside universe to fit into the four amos of halacha. Just as the Chazon Ish in Emunah u'Bitachon erased the separation between mussar and halacha by teaching that ethics is compltely defined by the world of isur v'heter (i.e. there can be no such thing as an ethical wrong which is permitted, or an ethical good which is prohibited -- halacha is the arbiter of just/good), the Rav here reduces all mussar and ethics to kiyumim that fit into his narrow halachic universe.

Some will definitely find the focus of Brisk is too narrow, and their souls will yearn for some poetry to go with the prose. For others, the beauty of the rigor and analysis of Brisker torah forms its own form of poetry.

idolatry of the Kusim

In last week's parsha we read that following the attack on Shechem Ya'akov collected the avodah zarah plunder from his family and followers and buried it (why he chose this method of disposal is discussed by the Ramban, Kli Chemdah, and others at length). Just an interesting bekiyus yediya: in many places in shas the gemara raises the question of whether the Kusim were true converts or whether they were actually pagans who merely adopted some Jewish practices. The gemara (Chulin 6a) tells us that Rabbi Meir declared the Kusim to be non-Jews because he discovered that they engaged in idolatry. What idol did they serve? Tosfos cites a Midrash that they served these very idols that Ya'akov had buried.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

for a pair of shoes

The Midrash interprets the pasuk in the hafatarah, “Al michram b’kesef tzadik, v’evyon b’avur na’alayim,” as referring to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, who then used the money to buy shoes. Odd – it’s hard to imagine that the Shevatim were walking around barefoot before they sold Yosef. And is it really important to know how the brothers spent the money from the sale?

The Ostrovtzer explains beautifully that Midrash is speaking a symbolically. When Moshe speaks to the Shechina at the burning bush he is told to remove his shoes. The kohanim walked barefoot without shoes in the Beis haMikdash because that is the holiest place in the world. We don’t wear shoes on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. For Ya’akov and the Shevatim, Yom Kippur was everyday; every action of theirs was like the avodah of kohanim in Mikdash -- that is, until they sold their brother Yosef. The disintegration of the unity among Ya’akov’s children spoiled that pristine state of kedusha, and the brothers from that moment were no longer required to be barefoot, as the Shechina had left their midst.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a change of name

While on the topic of names, my wife Ariella has a post (link) on Eisav's wife Basmas being called Machalas in the parsha. Rashi explains that one's sins are forgiven on the occassion of marriage. Apparently this credit extended to Eisav as well, and hence his wife was called Machalas, from the term mechila, forgiveness.

Rashi is based on a gemara in Yevamos 62b: “Rav Chama bar Chanina said, once a man marries a woman, his sins depart, for it says, ‘One who has found a wife has found good and will draw ratzon [appeal] from G-d.’” Maharal explains that the idea of cheit = chisaron, incompleteness. Man is spiritually incomplete without a wife. Marriage removes the cheit, this state of incompleteness. The individual, thus transformed, has a new identity -- gone is the old self and its sins and imperfections.

I would suggest that it's not just the name Machalas, but the name change itself which underscores this point. As we discussed, the Ishbitzer identifies shem=ratzon (in gematriya). "Matzah isha matzah tov v'yafek ratzon m'Hashem" -- the finding of a wife releases an added measure of ratzon from Hashem. The recipient of that ratzon is imbued with a different identity, hence a different name.

Friday, November 19, 2010

the angel with no name

Ya’akov wrestles with an angel in our parsha, and before the angel departs, Ya’akov asks him to reveal his name. The angel replies, “Why do you ask my name?” and leaves without answering. Why did the angel evade Ya’akov's question and not respond?

R’ Leib Chasman explains that the angel did answer Ya’akov’s question. A name defines the essence of a person, a thing, a being. (In the past I’ve quoted the Mei HaShiloach that shem = ratzon in gematriya; your aspiration, your ratzon, is the essence of who you are.) The angel who battled Ya’akov was the embodiment of the yetzer ha’ra, Eisav’s protector. The yetzer ha’ra has no true essence and indentity – it is the power of illusion, the temptation of chimerical vision. Wrongheaded decisions, acquiescence to temptation, incorrect goals, are all products of our being tricked into thinking there is some other path, some other reality, other than what Hashem wants and decrees. Focus on the truth, the real essence, and the yetzer has no power.

Perhaps this ambiguity -- the lack of name -- of the angel's essence has to do with the machlokes (Chulin 91) we discussed earlier as to whether the angel appeared to Ya'akov as a pagan or as a talmid chacham. The yetzer hara employs different strategies to suit his needs, and therefore is often hard to identify.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the takanah of tefilah -- Avos or Anshei Knesses haGedolah?

The gemara (Brachos 26b) quotes a machlokes whether tefilah is k’neged korbanos (Rashi: and were established by Anshei Knesses haGedolah) or tefilos avos tiknum. Yesterday we noted that the Rambam seems to quote both views: in Hil Melachim he writes that Avraham davened shacharis, Yitzchak davened mincha, etc, but in Hil Tefilah he writes that the nusach and zmanin of tefilah were established by Anshei Knesses haGedolah. How could the Rambam take both sides in the dispute?

The simplest explanation is that the Rambam is addressing two different issues: 1) the historical question of when tefilah originated; 2) the halachic question of when the obligation to daven originated. The Rambam in Hil Melachim is giving is a historical retrospective; the Rambam in Hil Tefilah is giving us a legal analysis (see P.S.'s comment to the previous post). What about the gemara? The debate in the gemara is whether the historical metziyus was itself a takanah (or the basis for a takanah which originated later), or whether the takanah of tefilah is distinct from it historical antecedents.

You can stop reading here if you like, but the truth is that it’s a little more complicated than that. To say the Rambam in Hil Melachim is addressing metziyus while the Rambam in Hil Tefilah is addressing din is not exactly correct. The Rambam in Hil Melachim writes:

ג וכן היה הדבר בכל העולם, עד אברהם נצטווה יתר על אלו במילה, והוא התפלל שחרית. ויצחק הפריש מעשר, והוסיף תפילה אחרת לפנות היום. ויעקוב הוסיף גיד הנשה, והתפלל ערבית. ובמצריים נצטווה עמרם במצוות יתרות, עד שבא משה רבנו ונשלמה תורה על ידו.

Avraham was commanded and obligated to do milah – it was not voluntary or optional for himself or his descendents. The Rambam’s lumping of tefilah in the same category suggests a similar level of binding obligation. The contrast between Hil Melachim and Hil Tefilah is not historical metziyus vs. din, as both sets of halachos deal with legal obligations. But this begs the question (again): why do we need two overlapping sets of takanos?

The answer can be gleaned from another Rambam that Havolim discussed recently on his blog (link - second week in a row that I'm stealing his material). The Rambam opens Hil Aveilus by saying that seven days of aveilus, although practiced by Yosef and his brothers, is not a din d’oraysa but rather a takana originating with Moshe Rabeinu:

אבל שאר השבעה אינן דין תורה, אף על פי שנאמר בתורה "ויעש לאביו אבל, שבעת ימים" ניתנה תורה, ונתחדשה הלכה; ומשה רבנו תיקן להם לישראל שבעת ימי אבילות, ושבעת ימי המשתה

Havolim explains: “…The events that preceded Matan Torah cannot have the force of law. Only the Torah is the source of the law. But…the Torah is stating a truth, a fact, a reality. The reality is that a life-changing discontinuity, an emotional upheaval, necessitates a week of adjustment and assimilation. This is not a halacha, it is a statement of fact…”

Apologies if I may be misreading him, but it sounds like what he is saying is that aveilus of Yosef is a metziyus, not a din. But b’mechilas kvodo, that’s not exactly what the Rambam says (and I’m no smarter than Havolim is - I just happened to see the diyuk in Shiurim l’Zecher Aba Mori by the Rav, vol II, p. 204) The Rambam uses the expression “nitna Torah v’nischadsha halacha.” We find this idea applied in halacha to mitzvos ben Noach which apply post mattan Torah, but which take on different parameters. The Rambam here is mechadesh that the same reasoning applies to takanos derabbanan. There was indeed a legally binding obligation of aveilus created by Yosef. However, that legal obligation took on a new character post-mattan Torah and was only binding as re-ratified by Moshe Rabeinu.

In other words, there are two types of takanos. There were gezeiros and legal obligations which existed pre-mattan Torah and carried the weight of law in their time. However, Mattan Torah transformed things. Old takanos may have continued as minhag (I can’t imagine everyone stopped davening), but they had to be reintroduced and formally incorporated into the new system to gain the stamp of authority as Rabbnic law. The former type of takanah is what the Rambam was speaking of in Hil Melachim. The latter type takanah, relevant to our behavior, is what the Rambam was speaking of in Hil Tefilah.

Let me end off with this: we once discussed (link) R’ Elchanan’s question of how takanos existed pre-Mattan Torah when there was no pasuk of “lo tasur” binding anyone to follow them. R’ Elchanan answers based on the Ramban, who rejects "lo tasur" as the basis for the authority of takanos derabbanan, that takanos are binding because they in essence are the ratzon Hashem. I think the Rambam (perhaps l’shitaso) might answer that question a little differently. Looking for the smoking gun of "lo tasur" is pointless because the requirement of "lo tasur" is a product of nitna Torah v’nischadsha halacha, a post-mattan Torah perspective on legislative process and authority. It simply did not apply to earlier periods. Perhaps pre-mattan Torah ain hachi nami, there was nothing other than communal consent which held takanos in place.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

one's own merit

What did Ya’akov Avinu mean by telling Eisav, “Va'yehi li shor va’chamor…”? Was the point to demonstrate the Eisav how rich he had become? That wouldn’t do much to appease Eisav! Rashi already addresses the point, but I’ll add 2 cents of my own.

In last week’s parsha of VaYeitzei Hashem appeared to Ya’akov in a dream – “Ani Hashem, Elokei Avraham avicha, Elokei Yitzchak…” – and promised to protect Ya’akov until his return home (28:15).

Ya’akov responded by taking a neder – “Im yi’hiye Elokim imadi ushmarani… v’shavti b’shalom el beis avi…” – that if Hashem protects him and ensures his safe return home he will dedicate ma’aser (28:20-21)

What did Ya’akov mean when he said, “Im…,”If Hashem will protect me….?” Hashem had just appeared to Ya’akov and promised him that and more! Why should Ya’akov have been worried, why should he have taken a neder -- what more did Ya’akov want?

A careful reading of Hashem's promise and Ya'akov's response reveals a crucial difference between them. Hashem introduced himself to Ya’akov as the “G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak.” Ya’akov was being offered protection based on his zechus avos, based on his lineage, his family, what his ancestors accomplished. Ya’akov’s neder, however, asked for a promise for Hashem to be “with him” – not just a guarantee based on zechus avos, but a guarantee based on his personal relationship with Hashem (Meir Einei Chachaim, see also Kli Yakar for a similar approach). Ya'akov did not want a gift of protection -- he wanted to earn it. Ya'akov did not want to live off the merit of his forefather's faith -- he wanted to transform that faith into his own.

Our forefathers established a bank account with Hashem. They made deposits, they built their credit. Eventually, we inherit that account. We can make withdrawals, we can ask for a loan, we can get credit based on that account, but loans and interest come at a cost. At some point we have to pay up or lose the account and our creditworthiness. Ya’akov did not want a loan or a withdrawal – he wanted to be a depositor. We each are handed that account to steward. Don’t overdraw. Make your own deposits.

Ya’akov was telling Eisav in our parsha that his success did not come about because of Yitzchak’s bracha alone. “Va'yehi li shor va’chamor” – “I have oxen and donkeys…” All that success, said Ya'akov, came to me, it came through my own efforts; it was not inherited, it was not a gift. There is nothing you, Eisav, can complain about because you had the same opportunity to make it on your own.

It's important to note that despite this self confident proclamation, when Ya’akov davened to be spared pain from Eisav, he did not invoke his own merit, but instead invoked Hashem’s relationship with his father and grandfather, his zechus avos: “Elokei avi Avraham v’Elokei avi Yitzchak…,” . “Katonti m’kol hachasadim…,” Ya’akov declared himself personally unworthy of the success he enjoyed (32:10-11)

It seems that in dealing with Eisav, in dealing with the outside world, one needs to feel secure and successful in one’s own religious achievements. Zechus avos, the fact that your grandfather or father may have a certain tradition, in and of itself is not enough to ward off challenges. One must develop one’s own religious identity.

Yet, at the same time, confidence in one’s own identity should never blind one to the fact that so much is owed to the past. Whatever deposits one may make into one’s spiritual bank account are dwarfed by the interest and credit that has been accumulated by others. One must never lost one's sense of perspective and humility.

who made the takanah to daven?

This came up for discussion in the comments to the previous post, but since not everyone reads the comments, I’ll post it:

The gemara (Brachos 26b) debates whether tefilos avos tiknum – shacharis was instituted by Avraham, mincha by Yitzchak, ma’ariv by Ya’akov – or whether tefilos k'neged korbanos, tefilah corresponds to the korbanos of the tamid shel shachar, tamid shel bein ha’arbayim, and the burning of the leftover meat. Meaning, explains Rashi, that tefilos were instituted by the Anshei Knesses haGedolah to correspond to these korbanos.

The Rambam in Hil Melachim (ch 9) gives us a history of mitzvos. He enumerates the six commandments given to Adam, the mitzvos given to Noach, and continues with other mitzvos that were practiced by the Avos, among them the fact that Avraham davened shacharis, Yitzchak davened mincha, etc. It sounds like the Rambam subscribes to the view that tefilos were instituted by the Avos.

Yet, the Rambam in Hil Tefilia (ch 1) writes that our tefilos were composed by the Anshei Knesses haGedolah. The times for tefilah were established by the Anshei Knesses haGedolah. Here the Rambam sounds like he subscribes to the view that tefilos k’neged korbanos, i.e. insitutued by AnK"G.

How can the Rambam quote both opposing views in the gemara at the same time?

Stay tuned for an answer Rav Soloveitchik gave. Until then, think about it : )

Monday, November 15, 2010

tefilas arvis reshus

Ya’akov’s tefilah at the opening of VaYeitzei marks the institution of tefilas arvis. The gemara (Brachos 27) writes that tefilas arvis reshus, as opposed to shacharis and mincha, which are real chiyuvim. The gemara does not mean that one can arbitrarily skip ma’ariv – what the gemara means is that if a person is engaged in some other mitzvah, that other mitzvah takes precedence over ma’ariv (Tosfos; see R’ Chaim al HaRambam, Hil Tefilah, for a different approach). Many poskim write that since we now all customarily daven ma’ariv, it is no longer treated as reshus, but has the same status as other tefilos.

Why is ma’ariv considered a tefilas reshus? Some suggest that Ya’akov was caught offguard by the sudden setting of the sun. His tefilah was unplanned (he may have in fact been intending to daven mincha – see Divrei Shaul of R’ Yosef Shaul Nathanson) and not formalized in the same was as shacharis and mincha.

Since ma’ariv is reshus, poskim write that even women who daven shacharis and mincha may skip it. Although men have accepted upon themselves to treat ma'ariv as obligatory, women have not. (Howoever, it’s worth noting that Rabeinu Yonah in his Sha’arei Teshuvah does make reference to women davening three tefilos a day.)

An interesting exception to the rule: the Sha’arei Teshuvah (on Shulchan Aruch, citing Mor u’Ketziya) writes that ma’ariv on Shabbos and Yom Tov is not a reshus, but is a chiyuv. The logic is that ma’ariv on Shabbos and Yom Tov serves a dual-function: it is a kiyum mitzvah of tefilah, but it is also a kiyum mitzvah of being mekadesh Shabbos or Y”T (R’ Yonasan Shteif). It follows that women must also daven ma'ariv on these nights.

Practically speaking, this helps resolves another halachic difficulty. The Magen Avraham writes that a man is yotzei his mitzvah of kiddush d’oraysa when he davens ma’ariv. Asks the Dagul m’Revava: if so, how can he say kiddush for his wife and be motzi her? Her chiyuv kiddush is d’oraysa, his is only derabbanan – you can only be motzi someone if both parties share the same level of chiyuv? If one’s wife or daughter also davens ma’ariv, fulfilling her d’oraysa of kiddush, this question is moot.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ya'akov Avinu -- tehillim zugger?

The Midrash tells us that before Ya’akov came to Lavan’s home he was learning yoman va’layla, he was completely immersed in Torah and did not even sleep a wink for the 14 years he spent in Yeshivas Shem v’Eiver. Continues the Midrash, when he came to Lavan’s home what did he do? According to one view he recited all of sefer Tehillim, according to another view he recited the chapters of Shir haMa’alos.

Now, I understand that, depending on the situation, leaving the yeshiva and going to an in-law’s home or a parent’s home can involve a certain measure of batalah. You have to pretend to be what the rest of the world calls “normal” and try to talk about things other than R’ Akiva Eiger and Ketzos. Ya’akov was obviously preoccupied with not the most understanding father-in-law in Lavan (to say the least), and on top of that he had 11 kids and 4 wives to deal with. But to go from complete immersion in Torah to just sitting and saying Tehillim?! Not even daf yomi?

The Ostrovzer explains:

We encounter two different types of yetzer hara in life. The first is the yetzer hara of lust, greed, ta’avah, that pulls us in the direction of physical desire. This is the yetzer hara of Eisav. We know these things are wrong, but we sometimes fall prey to temptation anyway.

But there is yet another type of yetzer hara. This yetzer hara is not out to get us to do aveiros – this yetzer hara wants us to do mitzvos! The only catch is that it wants us to do what it calls mitzvos, not what we think are mitzvos. This is an intellectual yetzer hara, a yetzer hara that uses reason and logic to make a case that its agenda is the true good. This is the yetzer hara of Lavan. It’s not by accident that the name Lavan, white, suggests purity and cleanliness, because that’s exactly the image this yetzer cultivates. Lavan has an excuse, a justification for every trick he pulls, whether it be switching Ya’akov’s wives or the terms of his employment, so that by the end of the day you think Lavan is in the right and Ya’akov is in the wrong and you give him a big y’yasher koach for setting you straight.

The gemara (Chulin 91) offers two views as to how the angel who wrestled with Ya’akov in next week’s parsha appeared: like a pagan or like a talmid chacham. The Shem m’Shmuel there explains that these two images represent these two types of yetzer hara – the first represents temptation, the second represents intellectual corruption. Ya'akov had to wrestle with both.

Our Midrash teaches how to prepare for and deal with these two challenges. The way to combat the yetzer hara of Eisav, of temptation, is to immerse oneself in Torah, as Chazal tell us, “moshcheyhu l’beis hamedrash,” drag that yetzer hara into the beis medrash, meaning either channel one’s energies into learning, or devote oneself to more intellectual pursuits instead of concentrating on desire. This is what Ya’akov Avinu did for 14 years while he was hiding in the Yeshiva of Shem v’Eiver.

However, when it comes to dealing with the yetzer hara of Lavan, the more you sit in the beis medrash and learn, the more ammunition this yetzer hara has to work with – it will twist and corrupt every sugya and every sevara so that it supports its agenda instead of truth. How can you beat this opponent? The answer is say Tehillim – daven, ask Hashem for help, don’t rely on your own judgment, always reinforce the idea of l’shem shamayim, just as Ya’akov Avinu did in his long sojourn in Lavan’s home.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

waiting for the sheep

It’s a safe bet that Ya’akov Avinu could not wait to get out of Lavan’s house. So why after Lavan agreed to let him go, and further, even paid tribute to Ya’akov, saying, “Nichashti, va’yevarcheini Hashem biglalecha,” (30:27) acknowledging that Hashem blessed his home because of Ya’akov, did Ya’akov insist that he will stay on and work until he had his own flocks and only then leave? Why not cut and run – why wait that extra six years accumulating sheep?

If you’re the Rogatchover, the answer (link) is that Ya’akov wanted to fulfill his neder of giving ma’aser, i.e. ma’aser beheima. Since sheep that has been acquired is exempt from ma’aser beheima, Ya’akov had to accumulate his own flocks. This is also why he kept his sheep separate from Lavan’s, so as to avoid a ta’aroves of those which were chayav in ma’aser with those which were not.

I wanted to share a less technical answer but an equally beautiful one that is offered by the Ostrovtzer in his Me’ir Einei Chachamim (vol 3). I mentioned last week the teaching of the Ch. HaR”IM that even if a Jew is far from where he should be, so long as he recognizes and is moved by the appearance of a tzadik, there is yet hope for his return. The Ostrovtzer’s answer reflects the same idea. He explains that Ya’akov thought that his mission in the galus of Lavan’s home was finished with the birth of Yosef and it was time to return and confront Eisav. However, when he came to take his departure and he heard Lavan acknowledge the fact that bracha came to his home only through Ya’akov, he realized that there was yet some goodness left in Lavan’s heart. So long as Lavan recognized that everything good came though the tzidkus of Ya’akov, not his own corrupt persona, there was something to stay behind for.

Only after those years tending the flocks passed and Ya’akov overheard Lavan’s sons saying, “M’asher l’avinu asah es kol hakavod hazeh,” (31:1) that Lavan was the source of his own wealth and prosperity which Ya’akov drained and made his own, did Ya’akov decide that it was then truly time to depart.

in one sentence, what yeshiva chinuch is all about

“In public school, they’ll ask you at the end, ‘Well, what have you learned?’ But here at Rice, the question is, ‘What kind of person have you become?”

p. 75 in “The Street Stops Here – A Year at a Catholic High School in Harlem” by Patrick McCloskey

I don’t think I could come up with a better one sentence summary of what yeshiva education should be all about.

corrupt belief

Rashi explains the redundancy of the Torah telling us, “Avraham holid es Yitzchak,” by telling us that the “leitzanei ha’dor” believed and gossiped that Avimelech, not Avraham, was Yitzchak’s true father. To dispel any such misinformation, Hashem made Yitzchak look exactly like Avraham, reinforcing that Avraham and no one else was Yitzchak’s true father.

These “leitzanei ha’dor” clearly had a different agenda, a different message, than that of Avraham. So why, asks the Brisker Rav, are they called “leitzanim” and not simply “resha’im?” And even by their own reckoning, no matter who the father was, these leitzanim still had to acknowledge that Sarah had a baby at 90, certainly a miraculous feat, so what did they gain with their rumors?

The Brisker Rav answers that there is a need to believe that is built into the human psyche. For some people, that need to believe finds a positive outlet in Torah and mitzvos. For other people, that need to believe finds its outlet in false spirituality or other –isms that capture their imagination.

(Isn't it amazing that every -ism movement has Jews at its forefront? We are such a small percentage of the population, yet rise to the top of every cause. I would say, based on the Brisker Rav, that this is because we are ma'aminim b'nei ma'aminim -- we have an extra strong dose of belief power ingrained in us. When it's not directed to Torah and mitzvos, it expresses itself elsewhere with equal force and fervor.)

The leitzanei ha’dor are called leitzanim and not resha’im because they believed – they did not deny that Sarah could miraculously have a baby at age 90. The problem for them was accepting that Avraham could be the father, that nevu’ah could be fulfilled, which would mean that Avraham’s message is true, which would mean they need to change their lifestyle, which would mean yeshiva tuition and kosher food and a whole host of other “uncomfortable” rules and regulations. So along the way that belief had to be distorted. Yes, we believe -- just your message is false. We have our own interpretation that makes better sense.

What’s the answer to the leitzanei ha’dor? I don’t know if the Brisker Rav would like it, but I would interpret the Midrash cited by Rashi non-literally. More important perhaps than the fact that Yitzchak’s nose looked like Avraham’s, that Yitzchak’s eyes looked like Avraham’s, was the fact that when people looked at Yitzchak’s behavior, his character, his learning, they saw Avraham Avinu. Rav Kook is reported to have said, after meeting and hearing shiurim given by a young R’ Soloveitchik in 1935, that the experience reminded him of hearing shiurim from R’ Chaim’s back in Volozhin – “The genius of the grandfather has transferred to the grandson.” (link) When a ben Torah is mechavain to a Ketzos, to a R’ Akiva Eiger, to a R’ Chaim, when his thinking matches the giants of the past, that’s “Avraham holid es Yitzchak.” Not only in the beis medrash, but also in our homes, our business practice, our attitudes, should we hope that people see in us, “Avraham holid es Yitzchak.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

lav she'ain bo ma'aseh b'shogeg

I was recently discussing with my son the chiddush of the Nesivos (234) that violating an issur derabbanan b’shogeg does not require kapparah. The logic here (see Sha’arei Yosher 1:7) is that what the Torah prohibits through “lo tasur” is rebelling against the authority of Chazal. If one is not aware that something is prohibited, then by definition one is not rebelling – you can’t rebel against something you are not even aware of. (This assumes that the Nesivos means that a violation of a derabbanan b’shogeg is not a ma’aseh aveira, though technically speaking all the Nesivos says is that no kapparah is needed.)

The Kli Chemdah on this week’s parsha has an even bigger chidush. He writes that violating a lav she’ain bo ma’aseh b’shogeg is not a ma’aseh aveira. A lav can be violated only through either deed or thought. By definition, a person who is shogeg has not made a conscious decision not to take action – he/she is simply unaware that something needs to be done.

One of his proofs comes from a diyuk in Rashi. Rashi (Brachos 2a) writes that the seyag of not eating korbanos past chatzos was instituted lest a person inadvertently continue eating even past daybreak when the meat becomes nosar. Why does Rashi need to introduce eating into the equation – leaving the meat over itself violates “lo tosiru ad boker?” (Tzelach) The Kli Chemdah answers that the Chachamim would never have instituted a seyag just to prevent leaving over the korban meat. Since nosar is a lav she’ain bo ma’aseh, forgetting or inadvertently not consuming the meat before daybreak is not a ma’aseh aveira; it involves neither intent, thought, nor action. The seyag was invoked only to prevent eating, which would entail action and therefore constitute a ma’aseh aveira.

gedarim and bans

There is a predictable reaction every time the idea of banning something, be it cell phones, internet, or whatever, is raised. The argument is that internet, cell phones, etc. are not inherently harmful – it’s the abuse and misuse which are harmful. Instead of attacking the symptom, attack the cause and fix the educational and social problems that lead to misuse and abuse. If this argument is so good, I am just wondering why Chazal didn’t think of it. Just think of how many gedarim, seyagim, chashashos derabbanan we could do away with if instead or prohibiting an action or object, Chazal would have just done a better job of teaching people to behave better. For example, stam yeynam, pas aku”m, and other gezeiros exist to prevent Jewish people from intermingling with non-Jews and intermarrying. Why ban a nice bottle of wine, sharing a drink with a non-Jewish colleague, instead of attacking the root cause and getting people to understand the harm of marrying out? Wine and cell phones don’t kill people (spiritually), it’s bad parenting, bad chinuch, social dysfunction that does it, right? Go fix those problems and all the rest is unnecessary. Yet obviously, Chazal took a different approach.

Ahh, but we’re not Chazal? The Mesilas Yesharim writes that true, the idea of “asu mishmeres l’mishmarti” on a communal level can be enforced only by Chazal, but each individual also has a chiyuv of “asu mishmeres l’mishmarti,” to enact personal safeguards against transgression, and this on top of good chinuch and good parenting, etc. After all, the Mesilas Yesharim was talking to the type person sitting and learning Mesilas Yesharim! : )

At the end of the day there is room for disagreement as to where to draw the lines, but these questions of practical implementation should not obscure the broader point that boundaries and limits, even above and beyond the law, are often necessary.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

setting expectations

There is one thought on this past week’s parsha from Rav Hirsch that I think everybody, even those of us who don’t know anything else Rav Hirsch had to say on chumash, knows. I saw it quoted by two different yeshivos (neither of them attended by my kids) in their newsletters. Google “Hirsch” and “Eisav” or “Ya’akov” and you will find the idea on dozens of other websites and parsha sheets.

Here’s a synopsis: Since Ya’akov and Eisav were twins, they were treated alike and given identical educations. What could be more fair than that? Why would Eisav have any cause for complaint or rebelliousness? But, says Rav Hirsch, this type of fairness was exactly the problem. Eisav and Ya’akov had very different temperaments and personalities. Eisav was not cut out for the yosheiv ohalim type education Ya’akov thrived in. Had he been offered education and opportunity that was more in line with his own needs and talents, perhaps he would not have deviated from tradition.

In other words (perhaps not the words intended by Rav Hirsch), dear parents, if your child wanders from the reservation, you know whose fault it is? -- Yours. Had you only been more sensitive to your child’s needs and wants, more cognizant of his or her individual talents, you might have tailored his/her education accordingly and avoided rebellion. Just read any of the advice to parents of at-risk youth (and what youth are not considered at risk these days?) and you will get the same message: Show tolerance. Don’t demand that your children be something that they are not. Don’t pressure (the ultimate evil) kids.

I am going to commit the heresy of bucking the trend. My reaction: Bunk.

OK, I should temper that a bit, but like the Rambam says, the only way to cure an extreme is to emphasize the exact opposite. The world that is trying to shove down our throats the message that feel good tolerance is the palliative for all educational ills. Loosen the reins, lower the standards, exert less pressure, and everything will be A-OK. When a Rabbi or Rebbe is walking in the park on Shabbos and he sees students dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts playing ball, he greets them with a big smile, a high-five, a big Good Shabbos, because if chas v’shalom that a Rav or Rebbe should actually tell kids that what they are doing is wrong – that Shabbos is not field day – that kid might be turned off. And I’m taking an example that’s minor and the least of it – you can come up with your own examples without my help.

This fear of the turn-off has led not to educational expectations targeted to the level of the child, which is what I think Hirsch intended, but rather to the abandonment of all expectations -- don’t tell anyone that what they are doing is wrong, tolerate everything. The results are obvious and predictable -- kids who grow up knowing no more about Judaism than they did in first grade, but who see their Rabbi smile at them and give them a big Good Shabbos because they are at least in an orthodox shul and not at the country club playing golf.

So here’s my plea to restore what I call in my home the big R word – Responsibility. Rebellion is not always a parents’ fault – a teenager can and should be held accountable for his/her behaviors, for his/her choices. Chanoch la'na'ar al pi darko -- set expectations appropriate to the age and level of the child, but don't give up on setting expectations. Kids need to be taught that we as parents, we as a society, have rules that go along with rights, and part of growing up is accepting the challenge of meeting them. Sometimes kids and adults fall short – but learning how to cope with setbacks and try harder, not lowering the bar, is usually the best medicine.

There is certainly a need for Hirsch’s message. In certain segments of the Orthodox world there is enormous pressure to be yosehiv ohalim even when one is clearly not cut out for it. No everyone is Ya'akov Avinu. But sadly, and maybe I missed it, I don’t think these yeshivos advertised this vort of Rav Hirsch in their weekly parsha sheet. Davka in the places where there is no pressure to be among the yosheiv ohalim, where the Shabbos baseball game and much more is already tolerated, is the message of tolerance and more tolerance emphasized again and again.

All I'm saying is that a little balance would be better in both cases.

Monday, November 08, 2010

when to say no

Daughter #2 asked me what I thought was a very good question this Shabbos. When Eisav came in from the field starving from hunger, why did Ya’akov not simply give him some food? Isn’t that how chessed is supposed to work? If you see someone starving, is that really the time to drive a hard bargain with him to force him to see something you want?

In other words, we can go through all the halachic details of why this sale did not violate ona’ah, why it was not a davar she’lo ba la’olam, etc. but at the end of the day, was it the right thing to do? Wouldn’t sharing the food at no cost have been better?

My answer is that we need to look at this episode in context of the extenuating circumstances that were in play. Ya’akov knew the spiritual value of the bechora; he knew that value was lost on Eisav. To maintain the status quo would be no less than spiritual suicide for Ya’akov. Chessed means we must share what we have, but if the cost of doing so is the sacrifice of one’s own existence, then all bets are off. I would say it is analogous to the classic gemara of being lost in a desert with a friend and you have only one glass to water – you don’t have to share the water if it would mean your own death. Or, to take another analogy, in the Heinz dilemma there is good reason to justify even theft. Ya’akov didn’t steal what Eisav had, but given the opportunity, he made the best of the situation.

I meant to write about this topic a few weeks ago but just didn’t have time. Avraham is the paradigm of chessed, yet he separates from Lot, he drives away Hagar and Yishmael, he insists that his son marry only in the family to the exclusion of even friends. Aren’t these acts a breach of chessed? No, they aren’t. The danger posed by Lot, by Yishmael, by the Kena’ani tribes, was so great that Avraham had to distance himself from them for the sake of spiritual self-preservation. Along similar lines, the Brisker Rav notes that Avraham was mekareiv so many people to belief in Hashem -- how could he drive away Yishmael and not be makareiv him? He answers that to do kiruv, first one's own house must be in order. Keeping Yishmael around would have meant the destruction of Avraham's own spiritual house.

There are a number of nice books that have been published by members of Harvard's Program on Negotiation, among them William Ury's "The Power of a Positive No." In a nutshell, his thesis is that being respectful of the needs of another party need not force one into accomodating their requests if one's own deeply held convictions or needs demand otherwise.

If we want to be ba'alei chessed but that the same time have a sense of self, we need to learn how to deliver a positive no.

Friday, November 05, 2010


Since I touched on the Tiferes Shlomo’s earlier in the week, let me end the week with some other ideas of his:

1) Rivka was upset because she felt strange pounding in her womb. When she passed a Beis Medrash, she felt kicking; when she passed a place of avodah zarah, she also felt kicking – a tartei d’sasrei. She was comforted only when she heard that she was having twins – there were two babies kicking, not one.

Why does the Torah go into such detail and relate to us Rivka’s suffering? The Torah is telling us that our lives cannot be a tartei d’sasrei. There are people who try to make their home in beis medrash and kick around there, but then also go and kick around other inappropriate places and enjoy themselves there. They want to be Ya’akov and Eisav in the same body. Rivka knew this was impossible. Twins – yes; one person – no.

2) Yitzchak asks the Plishtim why they have now approached him when they hate him and previously drove him away. They reply that they have now seen, "Ki haya Hashem imach...ka'asher asinu imcha rak tov." We are sometimes like the Plishtim -- we send away our teachers and mentors thinking that we can do it all without them. We don't realize that the success we enjoyed while under their tutelage is not the product of our own efforts and skill, but is simply a reflection of their guidance. And so we return and we acknowledge, "Ka'asher asinu imcha rak tov," only while with you, our mentors, were we able to do good.

3) Yitzchak tells Eisav to prepare a meal, "ba'avur tevarechecha nafshi," so that he may bless him. Rivka tells Ya'akov that she heard Yitzchak saying, "Aseh li matamim v'ocheila v'avarechecha...," to bring food in order to receive a blessing. She instructs Ya'akov to bring his own food to Yitzchak, and she repeats again, "ba'avur asher yevarechecha," so that Yitzchak should bless him. When Ya'akov serves the food, he again repeats that the meal is, "ba'avur tevarchani nafshecha," to receive bracha. Why does the Torah reiterate each time it mentions food that it's purpose was to get Yitzchak's bracha?

The parsha is telling us that the whole purpose of Eisav's service to his father, his preparation of this meal, was in order to receive bracha. Ya'akov had to step into the character of Eisav to trick his father. He had to present this meal not lishma, but as a means of getting something in return. This is what Yitzchak meant when he said, "Hakol kol Ya'akov v'hayadayim y'dei Eisav" -- with every good thing that Eisav does, his hand is outstretched to get something back.

4) Ya'akov's dressing up in Eisav's clothes symbolizes the power to take behaviors that we might not associate with a Torah Jew and use them for our own, kosher means. (The key is to be able to remove those clothes when you want and not get too comfortable wearing them all the time).

5) Ya'akov doesn't have to do anything -- Rivka cooks the food for Yitzchak, she bakes bread, she even dresses Ya'akov in Eisav's clothes -- but Ya'akov carries the tray through the door to his father and gets all the credit. Hashem is always working behind the scenes taking care of everything for us, but he gives us the opportunity to put the icing on the cake, to do just one little step so that we can take credit.

6) "Veyevarcheyhu vayomer hinei reyach b'ni k'reyach sadeh... v'yiten lecha haElokim..." The word "vayevarcheyhu" sounds like it belongs just before "v'yiten lecha," as that is the start of the bracha. Why does it appear before the description of Ya'akov as smelling like a field blessed by Hashem?

A bracha is meaningless unless the recipient is capable of absorbing it. Part of Yitzchak's blessing was that the recipient of his bracha should have this capacity. Yitzchak first blessed Ya'akov to be like a field into which seed can be planted to produce fruit, to be a worthy recipient of his brachos. Only then did he give the gift of, "V'yiten lecha..."

Much more is there in the sefer.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

m'tal hashamayim

Earlier in the week I mentioned that it seems inconceivable that the extent of the bracha given to Ya'akov was that he should have the best in materialism, and I cited the Shem m'Shmuel's interpretation of the bracha: "V'Yiten lecha ha'Elokim" -- you should find spirituality, Elokus, "M'tal hashamayim u'mishmanei ha'aretz" -- within the physical. I'm wondering if there is a little more to it than that. It seems that people have an easier coming to religion when they are challenged. Our history is unfortunately filled with examples of Jews who drifted far from their roots, yet who would still not surrender their identity even when faced with the threat of death. You take the threat away and provide freedom, luxury, a good life, and strangely the same person voluntarily drifts away from their Jewishness. Maybe Yitzchak's bracha to Ya'akov was that, "V'Yiten lecha ha'Elokim," he should find his committment to Hashem not just when times are tough, but even, "M'tal hashamayim...," when he has the benefits of luxury as well.

the tefilah pitchfork

I am indebted to Havolim for raising this point for discussion (link). Yitzchak and Rivka were barren, and our parsha opens with their praying for children. The language the Torah uses to describe Hashem’s response is, “Va’yeiaser lo Hashem,” which, as Rashi explains, implies that Hashem was so-to-speak coerced into giving in. The word “va’yeaser” is related to the word “atar,” a pitchfork – Chazal use the imagery of a pitchfork overturning a haystack of grain as a metaphor for the prayers of tzadikim overturning things. But why, asks Havolim, was Hashem’s response forthcoming only after this intense pleading of “va’yeaser”? As Havolim notes, "The expressions in Rashi clearly indicate that the success of these tefillos was contrary to some countervailing consideration." Why should that have been the case?

Before explaining what stood in the way of Yitzchak's tefilah being answered, first a little digression to explain what tefilah is or should be. We are used to thinking of tefilah as a means to get what we want from G-d, but the truth is that such an approach is almost an affront to the idea of prayer. Do we dare stand before G-d like little children who whine and plead and coax their parents to give in to their demands? The Zohar goes so far as to compare such tefilah to a dog barking, “Give! Give!” It is an act of selfishness, of self-centeredness.

So what then should we pray for if not for the fulfillment of our needs? The ideal prayer is selfless – we are not concerned with our own needs, but rather with G-d’s, kavyachol. The purpose of our world is to reveal G-d’s glory. So long as there is a chasm between G-d and the world as we see it, there is a need for prayer, because through prayer that divide is crossed. "Hashem, heal the sick, give us sustenance, bring us to Eretz Yisrael" – not because of our wants and needs, but because in doing so your presence will be felt more fully. Need is not a sibah for tefilah, but is merely a siman, a symptom of disconnect between G-d and the world. Tefilah seeks to remove that disconnect.

The Tiferes Shlomo has this idea in many places and briefly alludes to it in our parsha as well. Rivka feels pain in her womb. She responds, “Lamah zeh anochi – vateilech lidrosh es Hashem.” Strange – why go to a prophet instead of an OB/GYN? And why does the pasuk not even mention the word pain if that was Rivka’s concern? The Tif Shlomo therefore reads Rivka’s question not as, “Why am I feeling pain?” but rather, more literally, “Why is there an 'I'," i.e. why am I concerned only with myself, my own needs, my own ego?” As the Mishna in Sanhedrin tells us, G-d suffers with man. Rivka went to seek G-d, i.e. she directed her attention to the suffering of G-d, not her own. This is tefilah.

We’ve scaled the mountain, we’ve transcended human suffering and pain and need and want and see only the pain of the Shechina, the suffering of G-d’s presence longing to unite with the world. Despite climbing to the greatest heights, we're still not done, as there is still one more obstacle to our tefilah being accepted. Now that we’re on top of the mountain, comes the Noam Elimelech and tells us, “Come down to earth” – don’t forget that there are real people with real needs who experience real suffering.

Yitzchak Avinu was up there in the celestial spheres. His tefilos were “l’nochach ishto,” they were the opposite of those of Rivka, who was davening simply, “ki akarah hi,” because she felt that human pain of being childless. Yitchak was divorced from such “petty” personal suffering, personal pain, personal want. But davka because of his lofty vision, his tefilah in this case was lacking.

I’m not sure my analogy does justice to the point, but I’ll try it anyway – imagine someone who says “refa’einu” having in mind deep, mystical kavanos for that tefilah, but who forgets about the actual sick person who needs the refu’ah. We might admire such a person's spirituality, but their humanity seems wanting.

Havolim writes, “Rashi says that the tefilla turned the world upside down; it wasn't just a krias yam suf, a revolutionary upheaval; it was a metamorphosis of Hashem's will, kaviyachol.” I agree – “vaye’aser,” the pitchfork of tefilah turned the world upside down – but it wasn’t Hashem’s will that was turned upside down, but rather, "lo," it was Yitzchak Avinu’s. It was Yitzchak Avinu who had to experience the metamorphosis. Yitzchak had to reconnect with his own humanity, to forget G-d’s needs for a moment and concentrate on his own –- he had to feel that personal, human longing for offspring and express that in his tefilah. “Retzon yer’ei’av ya’aseh” -- Hashem recreates the tzadik’s “ratzon,” that simple desire to have something, because a prayer that emanates from spiritual heights but loses sight of the ground below is incomplete. More than that – without the recognition of human need, human suffering, there can be no prayer at all.

At the risk of dilluting the N.A.’s point I just want to add two additional cents. I think this lesson is that much more appropriate given the context of Yitzchak's praying to have children. Yitzchak must have realized the tikunim and achievements a son like Ya’akov Avinu would bring to the world, and I would guess that these kavanos were part of what he had in mind in his tefilah – the completion of the triumvirate of chessed, gevurah, and tiferes, etc. However, all those lofty and deep kavanos do not help change a dirty diaper; thinking about the pain of the Shechina doesn’t help at 4:00 AM when a child is crying. Raising children requires hands-on roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty type work. Hashem had to use his pitchfork to overturn Yitzchak, to change him from a spiritual giant into a man who just wanted the opportunity to change diapers.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

why did Avraham make Eliezer take an oath?

Last week I mentioned (link) the Brisker Rav’s question of why Avraham had to administer an oath to Eliezer to ensure that he look for a bride for Yitzchak only from Avraham’s own family – he could have accomplished the same by simply making Eliezer’s appointment as a shliach contingent on his going only to Avraham's own family. R’ Simcha Zisel (Kelm) asks this same question and offers a mussar-oriented answer. The oath was not needed from a legal standpoint, but was necessary from a psychological one. Avraham was so careful to make sure his wishes were accomplished reliably that he went the extra mile and added an extra safeguard to ensure their fulfillment.

There is an additional take away lesson from this episode. Eliezer, as we explained, was “moshel b’yitzro,” “doleh u’mashkeh m’toras rabo,” he was a righteous person in complete control over his desires, wholeheartedly dedicated to Avraham’s teachings. Is this is the type person who needs an oath to ensure that he fulfills his mission? The Beis Yisrael of Ger explains that Avraham knew that Eliezer was steadfast in his righteousness. However, Avraham was concerned that when distanced from his home, Eliezer would be tempted and tested by the spiritually hostile environment created by Besuel and Lavan. Therefore, he took the extra precaution of administering an oath.

The power of environment is emphasized as well in Avraham’s command not to take wife for Yitzchak, “M’bnos ha’Kena’ani asher anochi yosheiv b’kirbo.” Why does Avraham stress that he dwells among the Kena’ani – we already know this? The answer is that Avraham was acknowledging that his teachings would have little influence on a Kena’ani girl who, even if she enters Avraham’s home, would remain surrounded by the comforts of her original cultural milieu. No matter how great the message or the messenger, it cannot complete against an opposing message constantly reinforced by a culturally dominant majority.

A long while back we discussed the question of kids going to study at secular colleges far from home. I don't want to revisit it -- draw your own conclusions from these ideas.

v'yiten lecha Elokim...

V’yiten lecha Elokim m’tal ha’shamayim u’mishmanei ha’aretz… Was Yitzchak’s bracha all about giving his children the best of olam ha’zeh? The Shem m’Shmuel quotes his father as explaining that Yitzchak was giving his children ruchniyus "V’yiten lecha Elokim." Where will they get these sparks of ruchniyus from? From within everything and every experience in the world, "M’tal hashamayim u’mishmanei ha’aretz…"

differing philosophies

John Gribbin begins his book "The Scientists" with the following:
The most important thing that science has taught us about our place in the Universe is that we are not special. The process began with the work of Nicholas Copernicus in the sixteenth century, which suggested that the Earth is not the center of the Universe, and gained momentum after Galileo, early in the seventeenth century, used a telescope to obtain the crucial evidence that the Earth is indeed a planet orbiting the sun. In successive waves of astronomical discovery in the centuries that followed, astronomers found that just as the Earth is an ordinary planet, the Sun is an ordinary star (one of several hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy) and the Milky Way itself is just an ordinary galaxy (one of several hundred billion in the visible Universe). They even suggested, at the end of the twentieth century, that the Universe itself may not be unique.

While all this was going on, biologists tried and failed to find any evidence for a special ‘life force’ that distinguishes living matter from non-living matter, concluding that life is just a rather complicated form of chemistry…
Even if you can get the facts of parshas Braishis to fit together with scientific data, how do you get the philosophy of parshas Braishis to fit together with this philosophy of science? Just asking…

Eliezer appears to Rivka

The Chidushei haRI”M teaches that a Jew may be very far from where he should be, but so long as his heart is stirred when he sees a true tzadik, there is hope.

Rivka had never before seen a tzadik. Her father Besuel was not a role model, her brother Lavan was a rasha. Can we imagine the impression that Eliezer would have made on her? Chazal describe Eliezer, “Hamoshel b’chol asher lo – she’haya moshel b’yitzro,” as someone in complete control over his yetzer hara, as someone who was, “doleh u’mashkeh,” who drew forth his rebbe Avraham’s torah and taught it to others. Rav Wolfson in his sefer Emunas I'techa writes that when Rivka reported back to her family what transpired at the well it was not simply tidings of her potential engagement, but rather it was news of how Eliezer spoke, how Eliezer behaved, as this is what captivated her. We see this clearly from the reaction of Lavan to her words –

“Ki’r'os es ha’nezem v’es hatzmidim al y’dei achoso” – When he saw the rings and jewelry on her hands… According to the letter of the law (not halacha l’ma’aseh) women are not permitted to wear jewelry on Shabbos because the halacha assumes that they will show their rings off to neighbors and end up carrying the jewelry in hand. Lavan saw that the new jewelry Eliezer had given his sister was still on her hands – Rivka had not removed the rings to show them to her family, as these trinkets made no impression on her.

Uk’sham’o… ‘Ko dibeir eilei ha’ish’” – When he heard his sister relating not only what Eliezer had said, but how he spoke, his mannerisms, his refinement, as these were the things which had made an impression on her, Lavan seized the opportunity and ran out to greet Eliezer, thinking that if his sister was naïve and blind to the opportunity to fleece this stranger for all he was worth, he would certainly take advantage of the situation.

Rashi writes that the gift of the “shtei tzimidim” that Eliezer gave Rivka represents the two luchos of the aseres hadibros. In the context of Rivka’s receiving the tzimidim, the word is spelled with an extra letter yud, alluding to the dibros. However, when describing the jewelry seen by Lavan, the same word “tzimidim” is spelled without the extra letter yud. Same jewelry, same gift, completely different perception.

There are so many opportunities to see greatness around us, but too often we are so busy looking at the tzimidim without the extra yud that we lost sight of what is really important.