Thursday, November 29, 2012

katonti m'kol hachassadim -- chessed as an antidote to ego

1. There are two interpretations in the Midrash to Ya'akov Avinu's proclamation, "Katonti m'kol hachasadim."  One view is that Ya'akov was saying, "aini k'dai," that he is unworthy of Hashem performing a miracle for him.  The other view is that Ya'akov felt he was "k'dai," but that it would lead to "katonti," a diminishment of his merits.  The Sifsei Tzadik explains that this machlokes revolves around the same point raised in Shabbos 53b.  One of the Amoraim was miraculously given the ability to nurse his son after his wife passed away.  Rav Yosef remarked at how wonderful it was that this man should merit such a miracle, but  Abaye took exactly the opposite position -- how sad it is that the laws of creation should be changed on this man's account.  Rav Yosef looked at the occurence of the miracle as a positive outcome; Abayei looked at the high cost to a person's "spiritual pocketbook" as a negative.   Yes, the individual may be "'kdai," but the cost is still great.  (The other view held that if indeed a person is "kdai" there is no cost, or the benefit far outweighs the cost.) 

The Imrei Emes offers a psychological interpretation of the machlokes  On the one hand, a person should feel "k'dai," that Hashem values him so much that he would even do miracles on his behalf.  On the other hand, that feeling needs to be tempered by "aini k'dai," the recognition of one's own shortcomings and the acknowledgment that what Hashem does for a person is chessed, not fully earned. 

2. When the messengers Ya'akov sent to his brother Eisav return, the only information they provide to Ya'akov is that his brother is on the way with a large contingent of men with him.  What are Eisav's intentions?  Has he forgiven Ya'akov or is he intent on a fight?  Tosfos (Shabbos 12b) writes that angels can even read minds.  If Tosfos is right, asks R' Yosef Shaul Nathanson in his Divrei Shaul, according to the Midrashic view that the messengers Ya'akov sent were real angels, why were they unable to provide more insight other than a recounting of the surface facts?  It seems that angels are not in fact privy to people's thoughts and intentions.   (Perhaps one could suggest derech derush / speculation that an angel would be so repulsed by the mind of an Eisav that he would not want to immerse in his thoughts.) 

Those two were for those of you learning the daf. 

3. One would not be human if one did not take pride in one's own abilities and accomplishments.  We all have an ego; some a little bigger one, some a little smaller.  We all too easily sometimes forget that all our accomplishments would be impossible if not for chasdei Hashem.  When that happens, we need to be reminded to have a little perspective.  There are two ways that can happen.  The first way is for Hashem to give us a little patch to knock us down to size and remind us just how insignificant our power really is.  Along comes a hurricane that floods houses and cars, takes away heat and power, and suddenly our advanced society can't even provide people with basic necessities for survival. 

But there is another way as well, writes the Sefas Emes.  Hashem can give and give and give, more chessed and more presents and more good news, until a person is forced to say there is no way all this good could be the result of his/her own efforts or zechuyos -- there must be a higher power up there smiling down on them.  How can a person not feel small when such an overwhelming debt of gratitude is owed!  This is what Ya'akov Avinu asked for.  "Katonti" -- Hashem, remind me of my smallness, keep that ego in check -- but do it "M'kol hachassdim u'mkol ha'emes," through giving and giving, through boundless chessed, so that we are overwhelmed not by pain, but by feelings of gratitude. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ezri mei'im Hashem

1. The Midrash reads the word "harim," mountains, in "Esa einai el he'harim" as "horim," parents.  As Ya'akov approached the home of Lavan, where he would find his shidduch, he reflected on the fact that Eliezer had made a similar journey at Avraham's behest to find a wife for Yitzchak, his father.  However, what a great difference there was between the two journeys!  Eliezer had come bearing gifts of gold and jewels.  Ya'akov was empty handed.  Catching himself thinking such thoughts Ya'akov wondered, "Am I losing my trust in Hashem?" He immediately responded, "Chas v'shalom -- Ezri mei'im Hashem," he trusted in Hashem to make his shidduch ("ezri" hints to a wife, "eizer k'negdo").

The simple reading of the Midrash leads one to believe that Ya'akov was so disheartened by the dire situation in which he found himself that he suffered a momentary crisis of faith.  He quickly rallied his bitachon and moved on.  

The Chiddushei HaRI"M, however, learns the Midrash differently. It's not possible that Ya'akov Avinu, the "bechir" of the Avos, should have a crisis of faith.  Ya'akov's question was rhetorical -- "Am I losing my faith in Hashem?! -- obviously not.  Chas v'shalom, such a thing is not impossible.  So, wondered Ya'akov, why am I having such thoughts?  Why is my mind filled with the notion that I am somehow in desperate straits?

The answer is "Ezri m'im Hashem," these thoughts of despair are only there to raise me to an ever greater level of bitachon and an even deeper appreciation of what trust in Hashem means.  Faith that proves itself against challenges and hardship is even deeper and more meaningful than an untested trust.  

The focus of the Midrash is not on the development of Ya'akov from a person with doubts (c"v) to a person of greater faith.  The focus is on the concept of faith itself, redefining it not as an absence of doubt, but as the ability to overcome doubt.  

2. Whether you agree with the Ch. haRI"M's pshat or not, the question that begs asking is why the Midrash needed to introduce the point with the derash on "Esa einai el ha'harim" = "horim."  Why not just cut to the chase and say that Ya'akov was worried because he was going to Lavan'm home and did not have a penny in his pocket?  He was looking for a shidduch and couldn't even pay for a cup of coffee on a date.  What Eliezer brought along when he made the same journey is beside the point.

Apparently the money itself was in fact not Ya'akov's concern.  What bothered him more than the fact that he had not a penny -- Hashem could work out a shidduch even if he had no money -- was the fact that he was navigating uncharted waters.  He was not following in the footsteps, the "mesorah" of how to make a shidduch, setup by his father and grandfather. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

tefilah is required even when the outcome is guaranteed

After Avraham takes leave of Avimelech and forgives him for having taken Sarah, he davens on Avimelech's behalf.  The Torah in Parshas VaYeira then tells us that Hashem remembered Sarah and she gave birth to Yitzchak. Chazal see a causal connection between these two parshiyos. It was because Avraham davened on Avimelech's behalf so that Avimelech should have children that Avraham in turn was blessed with children himself. From here we learn the principle that one who davens for someone else's needs will in turn have his own needs provided for by Hashem.

R' Yechiel Michel Feinstein is bothered by this reading of causality into the parsha. The opening of Parshas Vayeira tells the story of the angels who visited Sarah and told her that she would give birth to a son one year later. Hashem had previously made the same promise to Avraham. Yitzchak's birth was preordained -- whether or not Avraham davened for Avimelech seems irrelevant.

From the fact that Chazal do see Avraham's tefilah as crucial, we see a tremendous yesod: Even though something may be promised and preordained, it still requires the added ingredient of tefilah to bring it to fruition.

We see this in Parshas Toldos as well. "Va'ye'etar Yitzchak," Yitzchak davened with great intensity that he and Rivka should have children. Wasn't Yitzchak the recipient of the bracha given to Avraham Avinu that guaranteed that Klal Yisrael would emerge from his progeny? "Why the need for such intense tefilah?" asks the Seforno -- Yitzchak's having children was a sure thing?! The answer once again is that brachos and nevuah are not sufficient so long as tefilah is missing (I read the Seforno as making two points -- Yitzchak was davening for children and for those children to come through Rivka, not just the latter point).

Commenting on, "V'Yitein lecha Elokim m'tal hashamayim," Rashi writes that the bracha should be given to Ya'akov "b'din," i.e. it should be something Ya'akov deserved based on merit. The Shem m'Shmuel asks: If Ya'akov deserved the rewards based on his own merit, what does he need the bracha for? I think the answer yet again is that even if Ya'akov deserved to receive "m'tal ha'shamayim u'mishmanrei ha'aretz," without Yitzchak's tefilah/bracha that reward might not become a reality.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

tefilah and emunah that all is for the best -- a contradiction in terms?

1. In the previous post I mentioned the Radomsker's suggestion that Eliezer merited kefitzas ha'derech and was able to complete his journey to Avraham's birthplace in one day because he had such a love of Avraham's torah that Hashem arranged for him to not miss a single shiur from his rebbe, Avraham Avinu.  From here we see that Hashem will do the miraculous to bring a person's desire for torah to fruition.

I want to follow that thought up with a Chasam Sofer in this week's parsha.  We know that a person receives reward not only for the actual performance of a mitzvah, but for the preparation and travel time as well.  For example, the gemara tells us that a person gets reward for the walk to shul -- the longer the walk, the more the reward.  When Ya'akov Avinu, disguised as Eisav, came to serve his father a meal just a short while after Yitzchak had sent Eisav out to hunt, Yitzchak asked his son, "Mah zeh miharta limtzo b'ni?"  "Why are you back so early?" Given that Hashem rewards a person for every step and every effort done in the performance of a mitzvah, Yitzchak wondered why Hashem would allow Eisav to return so quickly from the hunt.  Why the mini-kefitzas derech here?

A few pesukim later the Torah reveals the answer.  Yitzchak recognized that the voice he heard was, "Ha'kol kol Ya'akov," which Chazal explain is a reference to the voice of Torah learning coming from batei midrashos.  The value of schar halicha is more significant than anything else you might otherwise put time and effort into, with one exception: talmud torah.  If the additional travel time it takes to go to the further shul, to stay out hunting a little longer to fulfill kibud av, means that time is taken away from learning, then the loss exceeds the gain.  "Ha'kol kol Ya'akov" -- Yitzchak recognized that his son was engaged in learning, and understood that Hashem would therefore arrange for his hunt to be concluded as fast as possible so Ya'akov could get back to the beis medrash.

2. I want to focus again on the theme of tefilah, as I really think the many problems we face communally demand that we intensify our efforts and dedication to davening.

A few weeks ago we discussed Rashi's comment that Sarah was angry at Avraham when Yishmael was born to Hagar because she felt Avraham had failed to daven on her behalf.  In contrast, Yitzchak made sure Rivka was aware that he was davening on her behalf, as the Torah tells us, "VaYe'etar Yitzchak l'nochach ishto." In fact, from the stress on "l'nochach ishto" it seems that Yitzchak davened only for his wife without regard for his own feelings.  R' Shlomo Kluger (in Imrei Shefer) explains that Yitzchak was raised in the home of the gadol ha'dor, Avraham Avinu, and internalized the lesson that whatever Hashem dished out could only be for his own good.  If Hashem chose for him to not have children, who was he to protest?  Yitzchak, after all, was willing to go to the akeidah with no questions asked!  Rivka on the other hand did not come from this same type of background.  As the Torah reminds us just a few pesukim earlier, she was "Bas Besuel... achos Lavan," the daughter of Besuel and sister of Lavan (see Rashi).  Rivka's expectations would have been very different than that of her husband Yitzchak's.  Therefore, in deference to her feelings, Yitzchak davened on her behalf that they be blessed with children.

I am not sure what to make of this vort in light of the gemara (Yevamos 65) that the Imahos all had difficulty having children because Hashem desired their tefilos.  Rav Dessler writes that the greatest chessed Hashem can give us is the ability to come close to him.  What the gemara means is that Hashem withheld the chessed of allowing the Imahos to bring children into the world in order to provide them with the greater chessed of bringing them even closer to him through their tefilos.   I am not bothered by there being competing explanations as to why Rivka more so than Yitzchak felt pressed to daven or to have Yitzchak daven on her behalf, as in many areas there often are multiple competing explanations in pshat and derash.  I am bothered by the underlying philosophical contradiction between the two approaches.  According to Chazal, Hashem did not want the Imahos to be complacent in the face of difficulty -- He wanted them to respond by calling out in tefilah.  Tefilah is an ideal to aspire to, not a b'dieved.  Yet according to R' Shlomo Kluger, tefilah seems to reflect a lack of the highest level of emunah, which is complete acceptance of any and all situations, no questions asked.

Does it make sense to pose the same question outside the context of the parsha?  If a person really feels "kol mah d'avid Rachmana l'tav avid," that whatever Hashem does is for the absolute good, meaning that any pain and suffering he/she may experience is really the best situation he/she could possibly be in, then why should a person even daven?  Ironically, the mitzvah of tefilah as it appears in the Torah is precisely a response to "batzar lecha,,,,," a request for relief from pain and suffering -- not tefilah of shevach v'hoda'ah.  Isn't every request from Hashem to change the situation for the "better" a reflection of a lack of emunah that Hashem has already put the person in a situation that is best -- there is no "better"?  

I don't think the question gets off the ground if framed in that way, as it fails to take into account our ability to exercise free choice.  "Kol d'avid *Rachamana* l'tav avid" -- whatever Hashem does to us is for the best, but what we do to ourselves because of our frailties, our shortcomings, our tendency to succumb to temptation, is to our own detriment.  If a person chooses to put him/herself in a situation of spiritual harm, Hashem will do what is best for the person given the circumstance, but things might have turned out better had that circumstance never arisen to begin with.  Tefilah reflects our desire to change the situation, to adjust the circumstances.  It's the recognition that we have created a problem and the hope that by coming closer to Hashem we can undo it. 

That answer provides little satisfaction in the context of our parsha.  The Imahos did not choose to be barren -- they were thrust into that situation willy-nilly.  How then do we square the gemara's statement that Hashem did so to ellicit their tefilos with the Imrei Shefer's idea that acceptance of the situation is the highest level of emunah?  I don't have a good answer -- what do you think?

3. There is another Midrash that teaches the reason why Rivka was barren for so many years is so people should not say the tefilah of Lavan and Besuel that we read in last week's parsha, "At he'yei l'alfei revava," is what caused Rivka to have children.  (Yes, this does seem to contradict the gemara in Yevamos 65 -- see Rinas Yitzchak).  I assume the Torah does not need to teach us a silly hava amina is wrong -- it's only a hava amina that might have some legitimacy that would warrant a counter-argument.  Apparently in spite of Rivka's own tzidkus, in spite of her being married to the gadol ha'dor Yitzchak Avinu, we might have thought that without the addition of the tefilos of the wicked Besuel and Lavan they would not have merited to have children.  Kah mashma lan the Midrash that this would be a factual error, but I don't think the Midrash means to say it would be a philosophical error.  In truth so potent is the power of tefilah that even the prayers of such absolute resha'im as Besuel and Lavan can theoretically impact and influence events even beyond what tzadikim might otherwise accomplish through their good deeds alone.

We are not a community of Lavans and Besuels.  Surely our tefilos, as meager as they are, can make a difference. 

More to say on this maybe another time.  I apologize for being more and more pressed for time and having to push blogging to the side, but such is life.   

Thursday, November 08, 2012

the hurricane, the snow, and the tent of the Imahos

There is still no power in much of Far Rockaway and Bayswater (and other neighborhoods -- I mention these in particular because they are closest to where I live), homes have been ruined, gas is in short supply all over NY, and people desperately need help.  To top it off, we got hit with a no'reaster yesterday that knocked out some of the power that had been restored.  There are a number of organizations working to provide relief that you can reach out to if you want to provide assistance or need assistance, among them Achiezer and Five Towns Chabad.   

When our power came on I reminded my kids of the story of R' Chaim not wanting to sleep in his bed after Brisk was hit with a fire because he could not bear to have any pleasure while others were suffering.  My son's Rosh Yeshiva quoted a Rav in another community who suggested that they skip putting sugar in their coffee so that they would be mishtatef b'tzar'as hatzibur, even if in some small way.  I would suggest that even if you can't provide physical support or contribute financially, you can still do something -- you can be mispallel for the well being of those in need.  My gut tells me that davening with a real feeling of empathy for others qualifies as being mishtatef b'tzarasam as well.

I heard one Rav remark on all the Torah learning lost because of lack of power, schools being forced to close, etc.  Last week my son's yeshiva transformed the lunchroom of a neighboring girls school which had a backup generator into a beis medrash.  (The girls stayed home, as there was not enough power for the whole building).  It was heartening to see the mesirus nefesh of the bachurim to show up to a cold building (lights were on but heat was in short supply) to keep normal sedorim amidst the chaos. The yeshiva has since gotten some backup generators for its own building, but let's hope they get real power soon.

Chazal tell us that Eliezer experienced a miracle and made it from Avraham's home to Rivka's town in one day.  Why did such miracle happen?  Eliezer was "doleh u'mashkeh torah rabbo," he cherished every word of torah, every lesson he could learn from Avraham.  The Radomsker explains that Eliezer could not bear to be away from his Rebbi for a single day.  Therefore, Hashem gave him the bracha of a speedy one day trip.  Hopefully our love of the warmth and light of Torah will make an impression in shamayim and bring us light and warmth in gashmiyus as well. 

I was thinking this past Shabbos of YaVeira that the parsha was appropriate in more ways than one.  The bright side, for you glass-is-half-full folks, was the outpouring of hachnasas orchim and chessed to those who had been displaced by the storm.  Avraham would be proud of his children.  And then there is the other side, for us glass-is-half-empty realists.  It was not as cataclysmic as the destruction of Sdom, but the storm was in some ways far more tragic, as we are not speaking of Sdom -- we are speaking of frum communities hit with tremendous loss.  The Rambam writes (Hil Ta'anis perek 1):

אבל אם לא יזעקו ולא יריעו אלא יאמרו דבר זה ממנהג העולם אירע לנו וצרה זו נקרה נקרית. הרי זו דרך אכזריות וגורמת להם להדבק במעשיהם הרעים. ותוסיף הצרה צרות אחרות. הוא שכתוב בתורה והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי גם אני עמכם חמת קרי. כלומר כשאביא עליכם צרה כדי שתשובו אם תאמרו שהיא קרי אוסיף לכם חמת אותו קרי:
We have to think about what we can do better and why such events happen.  I'm not a navi -- you can make your own cheshbon hanefesh.   I am just encouraging that it be done, maybe not now, when we are all suffering, but in the weeks and months ahead when we have time to reflect.  Right now, there is too much suffering that yet needs to be alleviated.

As if the storm wasn't enough, there was the election  this past week.  Let me keep it simple: We are on a road to economic and social doom.  The only question is how long or short the road is.  That's all I want to say.  I also fear (as I have said before) that our bretheren in the Holy Land cannot rely in any way on the support of the current administration.  Why frum Jews would ignore that obvious fact is beyond me

Havolim already beat me to discussing the miracles of the light that burned from Shabbos to Shabbos in the tent of the Imahos, the bracha in the dough, and the cloud which enveloped their tent.  These miracles find their parallel in the Ohel Moed: the ner ma'aravi of the menorah which burned continuously, the lechem ha'panim that was as hot as the moment it was taken from the oven even after sitting out on the shulchan for a week, and the clouds which enveloped the camp and protected Bnei Yisrael.  The Ohel Moed that we shared as a community was a model of the personal ohel of the Imahos.  

What are we supposed to take away from these miracles?  

Hopefully each Shabbos we celebrate gives us a burst of spiritual energy and uplift.  We all know, however, that that spiritual booster shot wears off.  For some people it's gone by the time they get to the movie theater motzei Shabbos, for other people, it lasts a little longer into the week.  In the tent of the Imahos, the Shabbos candles never burned out -- the spirit of Shabbos, the booster shot of ruchniyus, never wore off as the week progressed.  

After you've been sitting in a cold house living by candlelight for a few days, you really appreciate a hot meal in a warm, well lit environment.  You can bet the bracha before that meal and the birchas hamazon afterwards has more meaning.  The dough of the Imahos gave that feeling all the time.  The warmth of the lechem hapanim, the spiritual energy that radiated within, never wore off.  

And finally, there were the clouds.  To tell you the truth, most of us living in the Northeast of the US are pretty sick of seeing and hearing about clouds and probably don't see them as a bracha right now : )   I know it's not pshat at all, but you can allow me a little license for derush. Perhaps the idea of "anan kashur al ha'ohel," the cloud "tied" to the tent, means that the clouds of adversity and challenge faced by the Imahos were always were "tied" to and placed in the context of the ner and bracha of the bread that were also part of the ohel.
  If adversity exists in a vacuum, without a spiritual anchor to help a person get through the storm, the consequences can be permanently damaging.  In such a case it is the hurricane storm clouds that uproot the ohel.   The spiritual ohel that the Imahos bequeathed to us  enables us to corral challenges and adversity and overcome them with bracha.