Thursday, October 25, 2012

lessons in tefilah from Avraham and Sarah

After Hagar gave birth to Yishmael she began to suspect that perhaps the reason Sarah did not have a child was because Sarah was not as righteous as she appeared. Sarah complained to Avraham, "Chamasi alecha!" (16:5). The word "chamas" literally means theft. What did Avraham steal? Rashi explains that Sarah accused Avraham of davening on his own behalf and not hers as well. Therefore, he was blessed with a child through Hagar but she remained barren.

A number of chiddushim worthy of attention here:

1) Theft does not just mean taking something that doesn't belong to you; it can also mean withholding something that should be given to another. Whether it's a tefilah for someone, a compliment, a good word, a good deed -- not responding with empathy and kindness to another's plight robs them of the chessed deserved (Rav Shach in Machsheves Mussar elaborates on this point a few times). My wife recently cited in one of
her posts the Zohar in Parshas Tazriya (87): Just as a person is punished for hurtful speech, so too is one punsihed for not speaking well of someone when afforded the opportunity to do so (see Sefas Emes (Metzora 5661)).

2) The gemara (Yevamos 64) tells us that Sarah was physically incapable of having children. It would take no less than a miracle for her to have become pregnant. One would have thought that it would be a waste of breath to even daven for such an impossible turn of events. Nonetheless, explains R' Nosson Wachtfogel, Avraham should have davened. There is no limit to what we can ask of Hashem in our tefilos. Of course, he may not give us what we want -- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask.

3) It is almost impossible to believe that Avraham did in fact daven only for himself and not for Sarah. The reason Avraham is criticized becomes apparent when we contrast his behavior with the Torah's description of the tefilah of Yitzchak for Rivka. "Vaye'etar Yitzchak l'Hashem l'nochach ishto" --the Torah makes specific mention of the fact that Yitzchak davened opposite his wife, within her proximity.  Avraham of course davened for Sarah -- but he never let her know he was davening for her. The Torah is telling is that it's sometimes not enough to just care; we also need to let the other person know it.  (It was entirely by chance that I saw this idea quoted
here by R' Tzvi Shiloni, a RA"M in YNA, in the name of his father and then it dawned on me this R' Shiloni and I were in 9th grade together,which is neither here nor there.)

mesirus nefesh for halacha while running away from G-d

Rashi comments on "Vayisa Lot m'kedem," that by leaving Avraham and moving to Sdom Lot was moved away from "Kadmono shel Olam" = G-d. That's quite a mouthful of a comment. There are lots of folks who prefer to live in neighborhoods that are less "restrictive," where you can dress as you like and have a little more freedom to do what you want without a holier-than-thou neighbor around to watch. And it doesn't hurt to have a nice job and a comfortable house, even if that means living next door to the Joneses instead of the Cohens. Such is the nature of running away from the "Kadmono shel Olam" -- it's so easy and so justifiable you don't even realize that's what's going on.

I saw this idea in a sefer presented far more sharply. Lot practiced the hachnasas orchim he learned in Avraham's home even in the midst of Sdom -- he was moseir nefesh to keep to tradition! The picture you have to conjour in your mind is someone who moves away from the old country to some far flung place and, despite the hostility of the new environment to his whole belief system, still keeps to his old minhagim with complete dedication and self-sacrifice. Lot undoubtedly saw his hachnasas orchim, his behavior and lifestyle, as a continuation of the path set by Avraham Avinu, albeit in a different environs, one where he found more opportunity and comfort.

Despite Lot's attempt to delude himself, this is the person who the Torah describes as fleeing from the Kadmono shel Olam. Life in Sdom and life lived in accordance with Avraham's philosophy are mutually exclusive paths. Just because a person displays mesirus nefesh does not erase the fact that he may just be a misguided Lot.

(I think Lot's mesirus nefesh for hachnasas orchim is an example of seizing on ritual or certain particular mitzvos as an ends unto themselves, divorced from the larger picture of what Torah is all about.  Need I give examples of all kinds of hedonistic gashmiyos being pursued so long it can be done while certain basic ritual observance remains uncompromised?)

There is another way to look at Lot here that is perhaps a bit more charitable. By way of introduction, later in the parsha, when Hagar is thrown out by Sarah, a malach appears to her and asks her where she is coming from and where she is going. The Seforno explains that these are not two questions but one. The malach was challenging Hagar: Look at the house of tzadikim which you have been living in for years -- you are leaving that to go back home to your world of avodah zarah? You gave up the life of a princess, you gave up fame and fortune, to join Avraham and Sarah because you recognized the moral superiority of their lifestyle, and now you want out?

What was Hagar's answer to the malach? R' Yerucham Lebovitz in Chochma u'Musar explains that Hagar did not deny that she indeed had benefited and absorbed much from the tzidkus of Avraham and Sarah. Hagar did not deny that there was no comparison between the moral plane Avraham and Sarah lived on and that of the rest of the world. Hagar's answer was that precisely because she had spent so many years under the wing of Avraham and Sarah learning from their ways, appreciating the beauty of their lifestyle, that she felt she could now leave. When she was searching for Truth, she needed Avraham and Sarah's guidance even at the cost of leaving the riches of her former home. Now, years later, why should she remain in Avraham and Sarah's home under difficult conditions -- she had already absorbed the teachings they had to offer, so why not venture off to start a new life elsewhere? (Don't ask me how to read this into the text -- I'm not sure.)

The malach responded by telling Hagar to return to Sarah even if she feels oppressed. You, Hagar, feel ready to leave only because until now you have been sheltered and protected from the threat of the outside world. Don't risk the temptation -- it may be uncomfortable, but that harsh mussar that Sarah is giving is part of the growth you still need.

R' Sorotzkin in his Binah u'Bracha explains that Lot had left everything behind to travel to Canaan with Avraham. He had spent years under the tutelage of Avraham. absorbing his every teaching, watching how Avraham was mekareiv those around him. Fortified with those years of spiritual growth, Lot therefore thought there was no danger in setting of on his own, even in his moving to an environment like Sdom. Perhaps he even thought he would gain the uppter hand and turn them around to good, just as Avraham had influenced so many others.

It is easy to delude oneself into thinking that one has absorbed enough of the ruach of yeshiva, of a close knit community, of a makom Torah, etc. and one can move on independently to other places and challenges. Sometimes it works out, but sometimes its just a false delusion. Deep cheshbon hanefesh is required.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nira'sa ha'kashes b'yamecha? -- Was a rainbow seen in your lifetime?

The gemara (Kesubos 77b) relates that R' Shimon bar Yochai greeted R' Yehoshua ben Levi in Heaven with the question, "Was a rainbow seen during your lifetime?"   The rainbow is the sign of Hashem's promise to Noach not to destroy the world again.  RSHb"Y was trying to gauge the level of tzidkus of R' Yehoshua ben Levi -- did his generation need to invoke the promise of the rainbow to escape punishment, or was RYb"L's own tzidkus enough to protect them?

R' Yehoshua ben Levi replied that rainbows did appear during his lifetime (in truth there weren't any, but R' Yehoshua ben Levi did not want to openly reveal his tzidkus).  RSHb"Y replied that if so, R' Yehoshua was not really the son of the great R' Levi, his father -- RSHb"Y was in effect calling him a disappointment. 

RSHb"Y's test seems at first glace to be quite harsh.  As great as any one tzadik's merits are, he is but a single individual.  The gemara tells us that there were tzadikim who were worthy of receiving ruach hakodesh but were denied that gift because they lived in a generation that was not worthy of such a level of hashra'as haShechina.  Why did RSHb"Y find it so unimaginable that R' Yehoshua ben Levi was a tzadik of the highest calibar but despite his great personal tzidkus, he lived in a society that still needed that rainbow to ward off punishment? 

"Kol she'lo nivneh Beis HaMikdash b'yamav k'ilu necherav."   Here too, even tzadikim seem to take the blame for the Beis haMikdash not being rebuilt in their lifetime, as if they could single-handedly bring it about.  The Kozhnitzer Maggid quotes the Alshich as explaining that the key word in this teaching of Chazal is "b'yamav."  It should not be translated as "in one's days," but rather as "with one's days."  Each and every person's day to day actions contribute (or c"v the reverse) in some way to the ultimate rebuilding of the Mikdash.  Of course no one individual can do it all. What every individual is responsible for is doing his/her part to the utmost.  

RSHb"Y was not asking R' Yehoshua ben Levi whether his merits removed the need for the rainbow for the entire world.  He was asking, "Nira'sa ha'kashes b'yamecha?" -- Have you, R' Yehoshua ben Levi, done all you could with your own time, your own days, to obviate the need for that rainbow? 

Monday, October 15, 2012

thinking like Tosfos

1. Last post we discussed the significance of Adam's name coming from the word "adamah," dirt.  I just wanted to add that we can now better appreciate Hashem's words to Adam upon expelling him from Gan Eden.  Hashem tells Adam that he must now work "ha'adamah asher lukach mi'sham."  What is this dirt taken from Gan Eden that Adam had to labor over?  Answers the Sefes Emes: It was Adam himself.  

2. The Belzer Rebbe, R' Sar Shalom, has a wonderful psychological insight based on a careful reading of the pesukim.  When Hashem commanded Adam not to eat from the eitz ha'da'as, He specified the tree by its exact name -- "M'eitz ha'da'as tov v'ra lo tochal mimenu," "Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil."  However, when Chavah  told the snake what Hashem had commanded, she does not name the tree, but instead only obliquely refers to it, saying that, "M'pri ha'eitz asher b'toch ha'gan... lo tochlu mimenu," she could not to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden (3:3). 

Chavah was torn between the temptation to eat from the tree and the knowledge that Hashem had referred to the tree as "tov v'ra," as good and evil.  This created a horrible feeling of cognitive dissonance that Chavah tried to escape by avoiding naming the tree.  It was no longer the source of "tov v'ra," but just another tree in the middle of the garden. 
The snake recognized the significance of Chavah's inability to name the tree and immediately capitalized on the situation.  He told Chavah that once she ate, "V'hiyisem k'Elokim yod'ei tov v'ra," she would possess knowledge like G-d himself (3:5).  He reduced Chavah's cognitive dissonance even further by explaining away the troublesome phrase of "tov v'ra" as not being a description of moral confusion that would result from eating, but rather a description of the potential knowledge that Chavah would come to possess.  Chavah could now persuade herself that there was in fact nothing really wrong with eating and give into temptation.

Most of us know what's wrong is wrong, but we want to do it anyway, so we also work out our cognitive dissonance by avoidance, by explaining things away, and all kinds of other defense mechanisms to avoid facing reality.  Things don't change much in the battle with the yetzer ha'ra.

3. I apologize for most of the blogging being reduced to short stuff on the parsha -- I just don't have much time, so hopefully this is better than nothing.  I haven't had time to write an amazing pshat in a Rambam that R' Naftoli Jeager, Rosh Yeshiva of Shor Yoshuv, said in his leil hoshana rabbah shiur, but I want to mention something else he related which is easier to write over.  He said that once visited R' Elyashiv and the person he was with told R' Elyashiv a story about the Nachalas Dovid (I have heard the same story told about R' Chaim for whatever that's worth).  Someone quoted a chiddush from a  Tosfos to the Nachalas Dovid, but the Nachalas Dovid insisted that Tosfos said no such thing.  No matter how much the person protested that he remembered the Tosfos, the Nachalas Dovid would not listen.  Finally, they got a gemara and checked and sure enough the Nachalas Dovid was right.  The Nachalas Dovid told the person that he should not think that he, the Nachalas Dovid, knows every Tosfos in shas by heart.   What he does know is how Tosfos thinks.  Therefore, he was certain Tosfos could never say what this person was putting in Tos mouth.

RavElyashiv said that he does not believe this story is true.  It is impossible for us to fathom the depths of how a Tosfos thinks, how a Rishon thinks, how an Amora thinks, how a Tanna thinks.  A person can never be 100% sure that they know what went on in Tosfos' mind and therefore say it is impossible for Tos to have said something.  All we can do is try to analyze what we know they do say and try to arrive at some understanding of their words.  

R' Jaeger went on to give an example from a sugya in Sukkah of a gemara that is nearly incomprehensible on a level of pshat to illustrate how the amkus of Chazal is simply on a level that we cannot fathom.  No matter how sharp a person is, there is always something more that is unknown, proving that ultimately we fall short of truly thinking like the giants of the past.

If this is true of the Nachalas Dovid, if it's true of R' Elyashiv, need I say this is true for lesser folks as well?  

4. Looking ahead to Noach: I haven't really looked around too much yet, so this is just thinking out loud.  I don't know why the Torah tells us that Shem and Yefes placed the garment they used to cover Noach on their shoulders when they walked backward towards him to cover his nakedness (9:23), but what really bothers me is the hey hayediya in that pasuk -- they took "ha'simlah," the garment.  Is there some particular garment the Torah is referring to?  Why not a garment -- why the garment?  

Gut chodesh!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

my name is mud

It is very hard to get back into the swing of work after a long Yom Tov, so once again little time to write.  Two brief thoughts on the parsha:

 א"ר אחא בשעה שבא הקב"ה לבראת את האדם נמלך במלאכי השרת אמר להן נעשה אדם אמרו לו אדם זה מה טיבו אמר להן חכמתו מרובה משלכם הביא לפניהם את הבהמה ואת החיה ואת העוף אמר להם זה מה שמו ולא היו יודעין העבירן לפני אדם אמר לו זה מה שמו אמר זה שור זה חמור זה סוס וזה גמל ואתה מה שמך אמר לו אני נאה להקרא אדם שנבראתי מן האדמה

1. The Midrash writes that when Hashem consulted with his angels in creating man, the angels asked, "What is man's nature?"  Hashem responded that man is greater in wisdom then they are.  He brought before the angels each of the animals that had been created and asked them what its name was.  The angels were unable to answer.  However, when Hashem brought each animal before man, man gave a name to each one in turn (Braishis 2:19).  Hashem then asked man what his own name was, and man replied, "Adam -- because I was created from adamah [dirt]."   

Obviously the naming of animals was more than a matter of semantics or coming up with some random combination of letters and vowels that would be unique to each creature.  It is impossible to believe that angels couldn't do that, or that the ability to do so is more indicative or man's wisdom than other cognitive tasks.  When the Torah tells us that man named each animal, it means that man was able to intuit that animal's essence and purpose and ascribe to it a name that perfectly fit it's spiritual character (see Tanya, Sha'ar haYichud, perek 1).  The angels lacked that same level of perception. 

If so, isn't it odd that man should give himself like "Dirt"?  Shouldn't man's name better reflect his own spiritual potential, especially given his having chochma greater even than that of the angels? 

That Alter of Slabodka (quoted in the Sichos of the Alter, vol 2) explains that the greatness of man is precisely the fact that he has the ability to reflect and show the self-awareness that despite his great wisdom, he is no more than a creation made from a pile of dirt and can sink as fast as he rises.  No other creation, either beast or angel, has the same ability to reflect on its own shortcomings and fraility, either physical or moral.

2. The Netziv notes that the Torah repeatedly refers to Adam and Chavah in the plural, e.g. "Sheneyhem arumim v'lo yisboshashu," (2:25), right up until after the sin of eating from the eitz ha'da'as.  The plural, "Vatipakachna einei sheneyhem vayed'u ki eirumim heim..."  is followed by a switch to the singular, "Vayischabei ha'adam v'ishto," Adam and Chavah each  hid (3:8).  The Netziv explains the switch in language as purely a function of practical necessity.  There was no place that would cover the nakedness of both Adam and his wife properly if they stayed together, so they were forced to go their separate ways into hiding.  I think perhaps there is a psychological dynamic at work here as well.  The Torah is telling us that sin creates a wedge between the sinner and even those closest to him.  The sense of wrongdoing and embarrassment isolate the individual from others.  Adam and Chavah shared what for all intents and purposes was the same wrongdoing, yet after the fact there was now a sense that they were not longer a perfect unit -- each went his/her own way into self imposed hiding.  Hiding from whom?  Not only from G-d, but from each other. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

gevuros geshamim

The Ksav Sofer in Parshas ha'Azinu quotes a difficut Yalkut Shimoni: In the future the Jewish people will stand before G-d in judgment and protest, "We don't know who wronged whom -- did Bnei Yisrael betray and wrong G-d, or did G-d betray and wrong us?"  The answer is given by the pasuk, "V'Yagidu hashamayim tzidko" -- the Heavens proclaim that G-d is just.  What is the hava amina that G-d should be the one who is at fault?  And how does the declaration of the skies, the heavens, resolve the issue?

By way of introduction to the Ksav Sofer's interpretation I want to share a GR"A with you.  At the opening of Zos haBracha the Torah describes Moshe Rabeinu as "Ish haElokim," an interesting contrast with the earlier description of Moshe as "Eved Hashem" -- note the change from "eved" to "ish", and the change in the name of G-d used.  The GR"A explains (in Aderes Eliyahu) that the name Elokim is a description of G-d as He makes his presence manifest through nature.  We see this name Elokim again and again throughout the upcoming parsha of Braishis in describing the creation of the physical world, starting with the first pasuk in the Torah, "Braishis bara Elokim..." Moshe Rabeinu is "Ish Elokim" = master over nature, one who lives on a higher plane than those forces of nature, someone who transcends the boundaries of the physical world and can bend them to his purpose, to bless Bnei Yisrael.

The GR"A adds that even though the whole physical world is goverened by this name "Elokim," there is one exception to the rule.  Chazal tell us that we mention rain, "mashiv ha'ruach u'morid hageshem," in the same bracha as we mention the future resurrection of the dead because these phenomenon are equivalent.  What this means, says the GR"A, is that rain comes from the same source as the gift of life itself -- directly from G-d.  There is no law of nature (i.e. there is no governing aspect of the shem Elokim) that allows to to perfectly predict when and where and how much rain will fall.  It is completely and directly in G-d's hands.

The gemara (Ta'anis 2) tells us that there are three things which Hashem himself holds the "keys" to and does not give over to mankind -- one of these is rain.

I think this GR"A makes intuitive sense to most of us.  Half the US is currently in a drought with crops ruined and farmers suffering and with all our technological prowess there is nothing we can do about it.  There is nothing we can do when a Katrina hits or some other meteorological disaster strikes other than get out of the way as quickly as possible. 

About a year ago we discussed the same idea based on an amazing diyuk of the Meshech Chochma.  When it comes to the mitzvah of aliya la'regel on Pesach and Shavuos, the Torah in Re'eh writes to go to the place, "Asher yivchar Hashem l'shakein shemo sham." However, when it describes the same mitvzah of aliya la'regel on Succos, it says to go to the place, "Asher yivchar Hashem," but it leaves out the words, "L'shakein shemo sham." Why the difference?  The Meshech Chochma answers that on Pesach and Shavuos we are judged respectively on wheat crops and fruit. The Torah adds the words, "l'shakein shemo sham" to remind us that unlike what the other nations think, there is no power other than Hashem, whose presence is manifest most clearly in the Beis haMikdash, that can influence what will happen to these crops. It is "sham," in the hands of G-d who is manifest in the Mikdash, that our fate is decided.  On Sukkos, when we are judged on how much water and rainfall will occur, we don't need a similar reminder. Even the nations realize that Hashem and only Hashem controls rainfall and water.  (Parenthetically, if you are looking for the source for the vort of R' Dovid Cohen that R' Kooperman references in his footnotes to that Meshech Chochma, let me spare you the time I devoted to finding it.  Here's a link.)

When Bnei Yisrael travelled through the desert led by Moshe Rabeinu they were not constrained by the ordinary laws of nature; they were not governed by the name Elokim.  They had a direct connection to G-d and enjoyed the miracle of the man, the be'er of Miriam, and the miracle of ananei hakavod.  But that manner of existence was temporary.  Bnei Yisrael were ultimately forced to tackle a world where G-d remains hidden behind a veil of all kinds of physical, social, economic, and political forces that seem to be the cause of all that occurs. 

Returning to the Yalkut, the Ksav Sofer explains that when Bnei Yisrael will ultimately be judged, they will turn to Hashem and try to argue that they are not to be blamed for their failures.  Had Hashem only revealed his presence to them as He did in the midbar, they would have eagerly followed.

Hashem, however, will respond that the skies prove them wrong.  True, His presence is veiled in so many ways, but he did leave one area open, one area where that direct connection with no intermediary and no laws of nature is obvious -- the rain.  Maharal explains that of all the material gifts that we enjoy in this world, only the rain falls from the sky, forcing a person to look upward, to Heaven, to see its source.  Ironically, it is the cloudy skies that reveal most clearly that it is not forces of nature, but rather Hashem himself, hashgacha pratis, which is in control of all. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

nisuch hamayim - elevating lost souls

The Torah tells us that during the six days of creation G-d had to separate between upper and lower waters to make space for land.  

These lower waters are constantly crying to be reunited above, closer to G-d.

G-d promised that during Sukkos we would do nisuch ha’mayim and elevate those waters to offer them on the mizbeyach.  (Rashi Vayikra 2:13)

There are Jews who unfortunately live in a state of being "lower waters," who desperately want to reunite with their source above.  There are Jews who are even so far from their source that they don't even sense that deep inside their neshoma is crying to reunite with that source.

Rosh haShana comes, Yom Kippur comes, and even the eimas Yom haDin, the fear of these days of judgment, is not enough to elevate these waters.  Sadly, the phenomenon of the two day a year Jew is even becoming a thing of the past, as even the Days of Awe carry little meaning for many people.

It's only Sukkos, zman simchaseinu, that lifts up these waters to the mizbeyach.

It's only through making our simcha contagious that we can elevate these lost souls and reunite them with their source as well.

(Based on Shem m'Shmuel.  Link to a different hesber from 2 years ago from Sefas Emes.)