Tuesday, October 29, 2013

one year since Hurricane Sandy -- hallel and hoda'ah

Today is the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy.  The Chayei Adam (155) writes that a person who experiences a miracle, and certainly an entire city that experiences a miracle, may institute a celebration of that day as a personal holiday of Purim.  A seudah made to thank Hashem on that occassion is considered a seudas mitzvah.  The Chayei Adam relates ma’aseh rav how in his town a fire broke out, and despite the tragic loss of life, the damage could have been much worse -- people who might have been harmed escaped.  Therefore, he instituted that the anniversary of the fire be dedicated  as a day of teshuvah, and the day afterwards as a day of celebration.

Chazal tell us that Chanukah was instituted as a day of both hallel and hoda’ah.  The Sefas Emes asks: don't these two expressions mean the same thing – giving thanks to G-d.  Why do Chazal use both expressions when one would suffice?

Sefas Emes answers that hallel and hoda’ah in fact mean different things.  Hallel is praise for what everyone recognizes immediately as a miraculous, wonderful outcome; hoda’ah is what you realize to be good only upon reflection and the passage of time.  In the story of Chanukah, the defeat of the Greeks and the miracle of the menorah were immediately appreciated as great events that required the recitation of hallel.  But that’s only half of the picture.  Chazal are telling us that  the subjugation by the Greeks, which at the time seemed to be a horrible gezeirah, is something that also needs to be appreciated as chasdei Hashem.  That perspective only comes with time and reflection; that perspective gives rise to hoda'ah (more in the Sefas Emes here, and see this post on the relationship between viduy and hoda’ah that he alludes to.)

For some, the storm passed with little damage and it was possible to say hallel immediately afterwards.  For others, hopefully this is a day of hoda’ah, of coming to grips with the loss incurred and being able to see chasdei Hashem in retrospect.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

a shidduch for Yitzchak Avinu

1) It seems that Eliezer went out of his way to stress that his encounter with Rivka was guided by hashgacha pratis, and Lavan and family even remarked “mei’Hashem yatzah ha’davar.”  Why did they care?  Yitzchak had wealth, his family was famous and well respected -- in short, it looked like an ideal shidduch, with or without the miracles that affirmed this to be the case.

The Netziv writes that the area of zivugim is “kavshei Rachamana,” among G-d’s secrets.  We might look at Ploni and Plonis and wonder what such different people ever saw in each other, yet despite our preconceptions and misconceptions they remain happily married for years.  We might look at another Ploni and Plonis and think they would make the perfect couple, yet after one date they don’t even want to hear each other’s voice.  In short, G-d in his infinite wisdom works things out in ways that we sometimes cannot anticipate.  Where Ploni and Plonis come from different families and live in different places, the hand of hashgacha is more obvious.  A guy from Australia is assigned a roommate in yeshiva who happens to have a sister in Chicago whose friend from Detrot ends up being his bashert – only hashgacha pratis could pull strands from all over the globe together to make such a match.  But when Ploni and Plonis come from the same family, like Rivka and Yitzchak, the hand of hashgacha is not obvious.  The family already has a connection, the match already looks like one that is appropriate, it’s no surprise for the two to come together.  Yet, even Lavan and family knew that what looks like the perfect match is not always the right thing.  Even they understood that it’s the yad Hashem that is the true confirmation that the match will work.

2) The Derashos haRan famously explains that the reason Avraham look for a bride for Yitzchak from his family instead of from Canaan, even though both were idolators, is because the Cannanites had corrupt midos while his family just were misguided in their deyos, their beliefs.  A philosophy or belief system can be changed; midos, however, are genetic, and the corruption would inevitably pass to the next generation.  Taken at face value it’s a hard sevara to understand.  Midos, like beliefs, are not inherited characteristics.  That being said, I think most people would agree that there is a distinction between the two.  R' Yisrael Salanter's remark about it being easier to learn shas than to fix a midah points to the truth that ideas are far less fixed than behaviors are.

The Ksav Sofer offers a different reason based on a diyuk in Avraham's command to Eliezer not to take “m’bnos Canaan asher anochi yosheiv b’kirbo,” “a girl from the Canaanites among whom I am living.”  Why did Avraham need to mention that he lived among the Canaanites -- we know this is true?  Ksav Sofer writes that Avraham was justifying his rejection of a Canaanite girl.  For decades Avraham had lived among the people of Canaan and tried to teach them Hashem echad, not to worship idols, etc., yet, despite all his efforts, they remained who they were – idol worshippers.  If after all those years lving among them his teaching and his example had no effect, there was no reason to think a girl from a Canaanite background would make a good shidduch.  Avraham therefore had to look elsewhere.

Friday, October 25, 2013

marriage = yismach lev m'vakshei Hashem

1) Though the Ishbitzer on this week’s parsha uses this pasuk to define a different relationship, I want to borrow his thought and apply it to marriage.  The pasuk (it’s actually the end of a pasuk) is, “Yismach lev mivakshei Hashem” (Teh 105:3).  Notice that “lev” is in the singular, but “mevakshei” is in the plural.  There are two people, each being “mevakeish Hashem” in their own way, but the lev is one. 

2) “V’hinei Rivka yotzeis asher yuldah l’Besuel…” (24:15)

The word “hinei” signals a deviation from the norm.  In last week’s parsha when the malachim came to Avraham’s home and asked where Sarah was Avraham answered, “hinei ba’ohel,” because normally she was out serving the guests herself (Netziv) – her being inside out of view was out of the norm.  Here, R’ Shteinman in his Ayeles haShachar quotes the Malbi”m who suggests that there were servants who usually went out to draw water.  It was completely out of the norm for Rivka to go out herself.
3) I want to discuss a second question R’ Shteinman asks: why does the pasuk uses the circuitous verbiage of “asher yadlah l’Besuel” instead of just saying “bas Besuel?”  R’ Shteinman does not offer an answer, but the Kedushas Levi discusses this point a few times in this week’s parsha and gives it enormous significance.  I’ve been struggling with understanding the concept and finding a way to present it and don’t know if I will have any success, but I’ll try:
Just like in the material world we know a rising tide lifts all boats, the same is true in spiritual worlds as well.  When a person does a mitzvah, it doesn’t just effect his personal bank account of zechuyos, but it brings more spiritual energy into the world as a whole and makes it a better place (better = closer to Hashem). 

L’havdil, if a movie star is seen wearing a green dress, suddenly everyone wants to wear a green dress or a green shirt.  All the designers start making green clothes; all the stores feature green in their windows.  The world becomes a different world.

In a similar way, if someone is a great ba’al chessed, he releases chessed energy into the world.  We don’t see it like we see the green dress, but the energy is out there and our neshomos are tuned into it.  As a result of someone’s hachna’sa orchim in New York, someone helps a friend with grocery shopping in Yerushalayim, someone helps an old lady across the street in Australia, someone smiles at his neighbor is Hong Kong.  The world is a different place; it has more chessed energy in it.

The Midrash writes about Avraham that “b’shvilo misgalgel chessed ba’olam.”  The Sefas Emes writes that “b’shvilo” here does not mean “because of him,” but rather comes from the word “shvil,” path.  There has to be a path for the shefa, the energy, upstairs to get down here.  If we want chessed to flow down to us from upstairs, then we need to become ba’alei chessed, and midah k’neged midah we will get the same in return.  Avraham’s practice of chessed opened a path, or in his case, a superhighway, for chessed to come down into the world. 

Rivka may have been the biological daughter of Besuel, but her spiritual father was Avraham Avinu.  A neshoma like hers that is so instilled with the trait of chessed could only come into the world on that superhighway that Avraham Avinu opened.  Rivka was “yuldah l’Besuel,” she happened to be born biologically to him, but she was really a daughter of Avraham.
(And for those thinking ahead to next week, that phrases "Yizchak ben Avraham" and "Avraham holid es Yitzchak" based on this approach are clearly not synonomous.

4) Rashi (24:7) notes that when Avraham administers his oath to Eliezer not to take a Canaanite wife for Yitzchak, he refers to G-d as "Elokei hashamayim v'Elokei ha'aretz," but when he refers to G-d who took him out of his homeland, he uses the expression "Elokei hashamayim" alone.  Avraham was telling Eliezer, explains Rashi, that because of his teaching efforts everyone now knows that G-d is king over both heaven and earth, but originally, when Avraham first came on the scene, G-d was king in heaven but unknown by people on earth. 

Why does Avraham choose this moment to make this point to Eliezer?  Does he need to boast of his accomplishments, does he need to tell Eliezer, his faithful servant, that he is the one who taught the world about G-d?

The idea here (see Shem m'Shmuel) perhaps is that without an Avraham Avinu, the realms of heaven and earth, material and spritual, would be worlds apart.  Avraham was the first shadchan; he brought them together.  It was that koach that he had brought into the world that he was giving over to Eliezer to help him bring together Yitzchak and Rivka.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

when less tzidkus counts for more

The Midrash (48:9) writes that Hashem countered Avraham’s argument to spare the reshaim of Sdom on account of the tzadikim by saying halevai the tzadikim should be spared themselves, as such tzadikim as Avraham was davening for were poor examples of tzidkus.  The word “tzadikim” is therefore written chaseir to underscore the point. 

We understand why “tzadikim” is written chaseir in Hashem’s response, but why does it appear that way in the entire parsha, even in Avraham’s pleading? 

The gemara (Ta’anis 21b) writes that there was once a plague that affected all the towns except for that of Rav.  The townsfolk had a dream in which it was revealed that the miracle of the town being spared was not due to Rav’s merit, but rather due to a certain person who would lend out shovels to help in burial.  The gemara says further that there was a fire that harmed a bunch of towns except for that of R’ Huna.  Again, the townsfolk had a dream in which it was revealed that the town was not spared in Rav Huna’s merit, but rather in the merit of a certain lady who would light the stove in the morning from which her neighbors then lit their own fires.

The Maharasha asks: isn’t bichlal masayim manah?  If the merit of small acts of kindness was enough to save these towns, they certainly would have been spared in Rav or Rav Huna’s merit!  Why do Chazal seem to go out of their way not only to credit the little people, but also to stress that it was not Rav or Rav Huna’s merit that caused the miracle?

The Sefas Emes on that gemara has an incredible hesber.  We know that sometimes punishment can be so harsh that it strikes indiscriminately at both  tzadikim and reshaim. “Keivan she’nitan reshus l’mashchis aino mavchin…” – once the power of destruction is unleashed, anyone in its path gets harmed, even tzadikim.  There is, however, an exception for what I am going to call super tzadikim.  These righteous-of-the-righteous are so outside the bounds of reality that even when the mashchis is on the prowl, even when destruction is wreaking havoc on all, they are spared.  The upside is clear, but there is also a downside.  Because these super-tzadikim stand as individuals outside of any relation to what is happening around them, their zechuyos cannot  help spare anyone other than themselves.

Rav and Rav Huna were outside the boundaries of the world; they were on a different plane than anyone else living around them.  They would not be harmed by a plague or a fire, but their zechuyos would not help those who surrounded them either.  Davka those smaller acts of kindness, davka tzadikim who lived on the same plane as everyone else, amidst their brethren, and still managed to still maintain a certain degree of righteousness, were the ones whose merit could be counted among the deeds of their brethren to tip the scale in favor of their all being saved.

This, writes the Sefas Emes, explains Avraham's tefilos.  Avraham was not looking for super-tzadikim in Sdom – individual merit of that kind was so outside the plane of reality the rest of Sdom was living on that it would serve only to spare those isolated individuals.  Avraham was looking for the little tzadikim, people whose small acts of kindness and goodness, even as they lived the same day to day struggle as their peers, made them stand out as worthy.  Such people, tzadikim who were “b’toch ha’ir” (see the Meshech Chochma), were the ones whose merit might have tipped the balance in favor of the entire city being spared.

the gathering storm clouds

An article on PJ Media here discusses the exodus of Jews from France, who have begun to wonder, “…whether classic anti-Semitism is not back with a vengeance all over Europe, after several decades of post-Holocaust toleration.”  The National Interest also asks in a headline, “Is Antisemitism Back in Europe?” and goes on to note that a quarter of European Jews surveyed avoid doing things or wearing symbols that allow others to identify them as Jewish.  A non-Jewish reporter in Sweden wore a kippah for a day to see what reactions he would get.  His conclusion: “Jews who visit Malmo, at least those who identity is visible, should be prepared for stares at least and violence at worst.”  And here in the US, we have the Onion, which is admittedly satire, publishing an article with the headline, “Redskins Kike Ownr Refuses to Change the Team’s Offensive name.” The article goes on to refer to the “hook-nosed” and “shifty-eyed” owner as kike multiple times in the story.  It’s just humor, right?  But ask yourself this: would they run a similar article with the word “nigger” in the title, or an anti-gay slur?  You know the answer as well as I do.

As I’ve written before, I no longer wonder how the Jews of Europe in the ‘30s could be so unaware of the impending disaster that awaited them.  Call me a pessimist for thinking that the storm clouds are gathering.  I wonder how many articles and how many incidents it will take before the average American Jew wakes up. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

family and friends

1) At the end of the parsha, after the akeidah, the Torah tells us that Avraham got news about the growth of Nachor’s family and his many wives and children.  This is the first mention of Avraham’s family back home since "lech lecha."  It is the first renewal of contact Avraham has had with them.  You would have thought that Avraham, the man who attracted followers from all over, the man who taught so many others about belief in Hashem, would have at some point reached out to his family in Charan and tried to be mekareiv them.  Yet, apparently this was not the case. 

The Netziv suggests that the command of “lech lecha” forced Avraham to stay away.  It wasn’t until after the akeidah, until Avraham passed this final test and reached the pinnacle of tzidkus, that he was able to re-establish his relationship with Nachor and family.

Perhaps this is not just a technical din – the issur of “lech lecha” needed the matir of the akeidah – but rather is a psychological truth.  It’s sometimes easier to deal with strangers than to deal with one’s own.  While others saw greatness in Avraham, his family back home, whose recollection of Avraham may have been colored by their memory of little “Avi” in diapers, may not have been able to see him in quite that same way.  Perhaps Avraham’s family in Charan would and could push his buttons and influence him in ways that outsiders could not, creating enormous difficulties.  There are plenty of real world example of people who are called “HaRav haGaon” and accorded tremendous respect by outsiders, but whose words don't carry the same weight by those who can simply call them Aba/Tatte/Dad.  This is the way of the world.  Avraham faced the same difficulty (albeit with further removed family).  The fact that it was only after he passed the akeidah that he was able to go back shows just how difficult this challenge is.
2) Rashi explains that the purpose of this long list of children born to Avraham's family is to introduce us to Rivka, the future bride of Yitzchak.  The akeidah brought Avraham to the stark realization that had Yitzchak been killed, he would have been left with no lineage to carry on his message --Yitzchak was unmarried and had no children of his own, and therefore Avraham had no grandchildren either. 
The Shem m'Shmuel asks: what's the point of looking back at what might have been?  There was not going to be another command to do an akeidah -- the test was over and we know Yitzchak's life was never really in danger.  It sounds like Avraham was moved by regret over not having married off Yitzchak earlier to have grandchildren, but post-akeidah the point was moot. 
The Shem m'Shmuel reads Rashi as follows: Avraham thought to himself that it was the promise that he would be blessed with descendents that prevented the akeidah from actually taking place.  Had Yitzchak been married and had he had children, meaning, had there been descendents to carry on Avraham's legacy, then Hashem would not have had a reason to stop the akeidah from actually being completed  b'poel.  This was Avraham's regret -- that his choice to not marry off Yitzchak caused the akeidah to be stopped short. 
If it was anyone else, they would have been breathing a sigh of relief and dancing with joy at having been spared completing such an enormous test.  Avraham Avinu, however, so desired to carry out Hashem's will that he was filled with regret thinking that something he had done caused the test to be aborted before being fully completed.

healing Avraham and saving Lot: one mission

Rashi writes that each of the three malachim that visited Avraham was on a different mission.  One had come to heal Avraham, one had come to tell Sarah that Yitzchak would be born, and one had come to destroy Sdom.  A malach, writes Rashi, can only do the one task it was created for and no other, so a separate angel had to be sent for each job.  Then Rashi adds that the angel which came to heal Avraham also went on to Sdom to save Lot.  The obvious question: Rashi just told us that an angel can do only one job and no more.  How could the same malach that came to heal Avraham also do the job of saving Lot?

Our community had the zechus of hosting the Nikolsberger Rebbe for Shabbos and in his tish he dealt with this question.  He answered using a yesod found in the Bnei Yisaschar.  Chazal tell us that someone who is sick should ask a chacham (or tzadik) to daven on his behalf.   Why should the sick person go specifically to a chacham?  Tefilah is something everyone can do -- the choleh can ask a relative to daven for him, he can ask a friend to daven for him, he can daven for himself!  The Bn”Y answers that sickness and suffering are caused by a person’s sins.  When a person comes to the chacham, the chacham doesn’t just listen to the person's story – the chacham has empathy and feels that individual's pain.   The chacham suffers along with the person.  When that happens, it arouses mercy in Shamayim.  The chacham does not deserve to suffer; he has done nothing wrong and is not guilty of sin.  In Shamayim they are forced to lift the decree on the sick person and allow him to recover so that the chacham does not suffer undeserved pain.

Avraham, who had risked his life once already to rescue Lot, would surely have been sick and despondent had Lot not been spared from Sdom.  Lot's pain was Avraham's pain.  Therefore, the malach sent to heal Avraham and see to his well being could only accomplish that mission by saving Lot as well.  This was not a seperate mission, but was part and parcel of the same task.

The obvious lesson here (which the Rebbe elaborated further on) is the need to feel empathy for another's plight, whether it be physical pain or emotional pain, whether it be a need for a job or a shidduch or some other problem. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

can we learn halachos from sefer Braishis (ain l'meidin m'kodem mattan Torah)?

I want to come back to the Meshech Chochma I ended off lastweek with.  Summary: the Meshech Chochma writes that the pasuk “ki yidativ l’ma’an asher yitzaveh es beiso acharav” is new din d’oraysa that teaches us there is a mitzvah of chinuch.  I asked how we can use this as a makor when the Rambam in Peirush haMishnayos in Chulin writes that the reason we observe milah is not because Avraham was commanded to do milah, and the reason we observe gid ha’naseh has nothing to do with Ya’akov – mitzvos are done only because they were commanded at Sinai.  So Shouldn’t you need a source post-Sinai – not just the behavior of the Avos – to establish a mitzvah of chinuch?

Before getting to what I think the answer might be, a few other side issues.  My son and others objected that we see from many gemaras that chinuch is only a din derabbaban, e.g. a katan she’higiya l’chinuch cannot be motzi a gadol who has a chiyuv d’oraysa because the katan’s chiyuv is only derabbanan.   I don’t think this is a problem.  The Meshech Chochma is not talking about the *katan’s* chiyuv – he is talking about the *father’s* chiyuv to educate his children.  Different thing entirely. 

Secondly, the Ms”C is halacha, not derush, as there are real nafka minos involved.  The Meshech Chochma holds that chinuch applies to both boys and girls since the pasuk uses the word “beiso,” which is inclusive of all members of the family.  See Nazir 29 and the Achronim on OC 343 for a discussion of whether this is true.

As far as my question goes, kushya m’ikara leisa, the question is not really a question.  What I have to say is completely based on ch 6 of Rav Kopperman’s introduction (“Pninei Meshech Chochma) to the new edition of the Meshech Chochma and you are better off seeing his words than mine if you have access to it.  The issue I raised is based on my confusing a question of history with a question of textual meaning.  The Rambam in the Peirush haMishnayos is dealing with a historical question: when did bris milah or gid ha’nasheh become a mitzvah – when it was commanded to Avraham or Ya’akov, or later, at Sinai?  The Rambam answers that historically, there were no binding commandments until Sinai.  However, once the historical event of mattan Torah happened and we were given Torah and mitzvos, that entire corpus of Torah text that we were given, from Braishis to the very end, is fair game to be used as halachic source material, with one caveat: the text had to be written for that purpose.  Rules like “ain lemeidim m’kodem mattan Torah,” (Tos Moed Mattan 20a d"h "mah") the principle that halacha cannot be learned from pre-mattan Torah episodes, have nothing to do with the historical causality of mitzvos (the Rambam’s issue).  That principle is a textual rule of thumb – since the majority of the Torah text in Braishis is meant as narrative, it is generally not good source material for law -- it was not written for the purpose of teaching us law.  However, even in sefer Braishis, where the text drops the narrative mode, switches gears and uses legal mitzvah terminology, e.g. the parsha of milah by Avraham, those sections are fair game for deriving halacha.  Furthermore, even in a narrative section, where the pesukim use irregular expressions that suggest diyukim that have halachic import, even these pesukim are fair game for deriving halacha. 

So to answer my question, the Rambam is telling us that until the historical event of mattan Torah, there was no mitzvah of chinuch, of bris milah, of gid ha’nasheh.  The Meshech Chochma is telling us that now that post-Sinai we have a text of Torah, under the right conditions even pesukim that appear in narrative sections, pesukim like “ki yidativ…,” can have halachic import.

Friday, October 18, 2013

the mitzvah of chinuch

1) The Meshech Chochma writes that in addition to the mitzvah of “v’limadtem osam,” to teach Torah to one’s sons, there is an additional mitzvah d’oraysa of chinuch to train them to do mitzvos.  The source he gives is a pasuk in our parsha.  Hashem says that he will tell Avraham about the impending destruction of Sdom because he knows Avraham, “Yitzaveh es banav v’es beiso acharav v’shamru derech Hashem,” (18:19) he will teach his children to follow Hashem’s ways.

I don’t understand.  The Rambam in Peirush haMishnayos in Chulin writes that we don’t observe milah because Avraham did milah, we don’t observe gid h’anasheh because Ya’akov did not eat gid ha’naseh.  The only reason we observe mitzvos is because they were given at Sinai.  How can a description of Avraham’s behavior serve as the source for the mitzvah of chinuch?  Where is the mitzvah given at Sinai?  (Hat tip to Doleh U’mashkeh’s post here that made me think of this.)
2) Our parsha gives us an insight into how to do chinuch.  Avraham welcomed guests into his home and rushed to prepare a meal for them.  Instead of shechting the cows himself, he delegated the job to Yishmael because Avraham wanted to be mechanech Yishmael in mitzvos. 
Chazal tell us whatever Avraham personally did for his guests, Bnei Yisrael received in return directly from Hashem when they needed food and water in the midbar.  Whatever Avraham delegated to others, Hashem gave to Bnei Yisrael indirectly as well.  Why should Bnei Yisrael have gotten a less than ideal reward just because Avraham delegated a job to Yishmael -- he deliberately did it that way for the sake of the mitzvah of chinuch?!
Many answer that chinuch is not done by delegating, by telling a child what to do.  Chinuch is done by setting an example.  Yishmael witnessing Avraham personally tending to his guests would impress the lesson of chessed upon him far more than Avraham telling him to shecht the cows on the guests behalf.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Did Sarah laugh? Did Sarah deny it? The approach of the Netziv

The opening of our parsha raises a host of questions.

1)      Sarah asks, “Can I have a child with such an old husband?”  Was Sarah questioning G-d’s ability to do a miracle?

2)      G-d asks Avraham why Sarah questioned whether she can give birth at such an old age.  Sarah, however, was speaking about Avraham's age, not about herself.  True, Chazal say that G-d changed Sarah’s words for the sake of peace, i.e. so that Avraham would not be offended, but still – how could G-d utter a complete falsehood?

3)      Sarah responded by denying that she laughed.  How could Sarah make such a denial when G-d obviously knew the truth?

Here’s the approach of the Netziv:

At the end of last week’s parsha Avraham was given a prophecy that he would have a son.  Undoubtedly he shared the news with Sarah, and she accepted it -- there is no question that Sarah believed that a miracle could happen and that she and Avraham could conceive in old age.  As the Netziv puts it, Hashem could make a rock give birth if he desired!

At the beginning of our parsha, when the angels came, Sarah suddenly resumed menstruation and returned physiologically to her youth.  She was forced to re-interpret the prophecy given to Avraham.  It did not mean that miraculously she would give birth in old age, but rather it meant she would have an unremarkable natural childbirth as a physiologically young woman.    

There was one catch to her re-interpretation.  “After I have aged, I returned to my youth,” Sarah said, “But my husband is still an old man!”  If Yitzchak’s birth was to be natural event accomplished by a reset of Avraham and Sarah’s biological clocks, then Avraham should have exhibited signs of a return to youth as well.  That had not happened, leaving Sarah with questions.

Hashem’s paraphrase of Sarah’s remark was a deliberate double entendre.  In truth, Sarah’s words were a confident expression of belief, and G-d's rephrasing captured exactly what Sarah meant (G-d does not lie).  “Will I give birth at such an advanced age!” was a rhetorical question – of course not, because I am now a young woman.  However, those same words implied that Avraham’s lack of return to youth presented an obstacle.  G-d’s rephrasing, for the sake of hamony between Avraham and Sarah, caused Avraham to miss that implication.  Instead of hearing Sarah’s words as a rhetorical question, a boast of her natural ability to conceive in contrast to his own apparent lack of youth, Avraham understood her words as a real question – “Can I conceive at such an advanced age?” 

Avraham was told to confront Sarah and in his mind G-d was being critical of Sarah for questioning her own ability to conceive.  Sarah, however, never doubted that she could have a child, given her return to youth.  She therefore completely denied the charge made by Avraham.  It was not her own ability to conceive, but rather Avraham's which troubled her.  Since G-d had left Avraham in the dark as to her true meaning, Sarah chose to not elaborate further and perhaps hurt Avraham.  A simple denial was all she made, and she left it at that.

Let me end off with one other observation the Netziv makes, and this is probably the most important take-away for us.  In the pasuk (18:15) that tells us of Sarah’s denial and Avraham's insistence that she had in fact laughed, there are two “psik”s.  A psik, Rashi later (18:21) explains, signals a pause.  Sarah was faced with her husband, in G-d’s name, putting words in her mouth.  Avraham was faced with his wife denying what G-d had told him to be true.  A marital thunderstorm was brewing!  Sarah could have defended her words and revealed her true meaning at the expense of making Avraham feel inadequate.  Avraham could certainly have lashed out at Sarah for her denial.  But that’s not how either one responded.  Before either one spoke, the Torah sticks in a psik – a pause.  Time to take a breath and think.  Time to consider the impact before speaking.  Avraham and Sarah each tried to soften the blow and defuse the situation with calm.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

chessed is not just a response to need

1) Rav Gifter points out that many people mistakenly believe that the "mechayeiv" of chessed is the needs of the recipient. Not so. We see that Avraham went to the doorway of his tent to look for strangers in need -- he didn't assume that since there was no obvious need, that since no one was knocking on his door and asking for his help, that he was exempt. Chessed has to be a proactive impetus to do good, not a reaction to demand.

2) The Netziv writes that although Avraham was legally entitled to the spoils of war gotten in the battle against the kings, it would smack of a lack of yashrus to benefit from monies obtained in that way and so he would not take a penny.

Let's contrast that with current events: The system that manages EBT transactions (food stamps) went down this weekend and for a short time there was no limit on purchases.   Hundreds of shoppers literally cleaned out two Walmart stores, almost starting a riot.  A news story reports, “Shoppers gave mixed reactions to the incident, with one man in the Springhill store told KSLA it was simply "human reaction" to stock-up when given the opportunity.”  In other words, it’s “human nature” to be a ganav.  

3) A vort from the Radomsker: “Motza sefasecha tishmor ka’asher nadarta…” Sometimes a person takes an appeal to heart and makes a promise to help or a commitment to do something. However, as time passes, enthusiasm wanes; it becomes hard to write that check or make the time to take action for the cause one was once so passionate about. The Torah is telling us, “Motzah sefasecha tishmor,” fulfill your promises, “Ka’asher nadarta,” with the enthusiasm and zeal you had when you made the initial commitment.

That’s what characterized the behavior of Avraham Avinu.  “Vayeilech Avram,” (12:4) Avraham’s journey on day 100 was carried out, “Ka’asher dibeir eilav Hashem,” exactly with the same excitement as on day #1 when G-d first spoke with him.  Vayamal Avraham es Yitzchak b’no… ka’asher tzivah o’so Elokim.” (21:4)  Avraham had the same enthusiasm and zeal when doing milah on Yitzchak as he had when he first got the commandment.  (See here ("Va'yar" in the second column) for how the Radomsker uses this to explain the first pasuk/Rashi on our parsha.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

who will daven for us?

1) The Belzer Rebbe made a point (link) in his hesped for R’ Ovadya Yosef that I think few others touched on.  We all know of R’ Ovadya Yosef’s unparalleled command of shas and poskim and we all mourn the loss of his Torah knowledge.  But R’ Ovadya was also a leader who was sensitive to the needs of Klal Yisrael and who davened for all of us, for the entire generation.  “Who will daven for us now?” asked the Belzer Rebbe.  “We are surrounded by enemies like a lamb among seventy wolves.  We are surrounded by enemies without and enemies within.  Who will daven for us?” 

2) Avraham asked Sarah to tell the Egyptians that he is her brother “l'ma’an yitav li ba’avureiach v’chaysa nafshi biglaleiach.”  Although the Abrabanel reads the tovah anticipated by “l'ma’an yitav li” as no more than Avraham’s life being spared, the fact that these words are added on top of “v’chaysa nafshi” supports Rashi’s reading that it refers to presents and riches. How could Avraham, the man who refused to take any of the spoils of war in the battle he fought against the four kings, justify his taking money from the Egyptians?    

There are lots of answers to this one.  The Netziv notes that “yitav” is in the singular, not the plural.  It is not the Egyptians [plural] who will give Avraham wealth, but rather G-d [singular] who will bless him on account of his actions.  Others suggest that the Egyptians, thinking Avraham was Sarah’s brother, would compete with each other in trying to buy his favor so he would acquiesce to Sarah’s marriage.  Avraham never intended to take the money offered, but rather intended to keep the competition going back and forth as a delaying tactic until he could escape. 

The Ta”z writes that Avraham’s plan had a fatal flaw.  If the Egyptians asked, then Sarah could respond and tell them that Avraham was her brother.  But what if no one asked?  What if they just assumed Avraham was her husband?  It would certainly sound strange for Sarah, out of the blue, to start telling people that Avraham was her brother.  She needed an excuse to broach the subject.  Therefore, Avraham told her to concoct a story of her brother fallen on hard times who needed some help and support, some ”tovah” to get back on his feet.  By ostensibly trying to find funds for him, Sarah would be spreading the story that Avraham was her brother.

While not pshat, the Maor vaShemech has an interesting insight that raises an important moral question.  Avraham preached Torah, mussar, midos, wherever he went and he undoubtedly saw an opportunity to give mussar to an Egyptian society steeped in the sin of having illicit relations.  Yet, Avraham realized that to speak about arayos to others while his own wife was obviously a beautiful woman would look bad.  The Egyptians would never understand that he did not  give Sarah's beauty a moment's thought.  Therefore, he told Sarah to pretend to be his sister.  The "tovah" Avraham hoped to get out of the journey was finding a receptive audience for the dvar Hashem among the Egyptians.  It's remez/derush -- by re-reading "tovah" as spiritual riches (which is what we would expect to be on the mind of a tzadik like Avraham anyway), the question is rendered moot.  My wife objected to this idea on the grounds that Avraham should have known that if discovered, he would look like an even bigger hypocrite and lose his credibility entirely.  A valid criticism, but I still think the idea is creative.  Question this approach raises: Is using a little spin OK to help advance the message? 

3) A local Jewish newspaper just a few days before R’ Ovadya’s passing touted in its headline the “miracle” of R’ Ovadya’s apparent recovery.  Last week the same newspaper had a front page article on agunos and gittin.  One of the Rabbis whose views were quoted was arrested that same week by the FBI for having people beaten up to force them to give gittin.  I can’t wait to see this week’s headline. 
Another newspaper has an opinion piece saying Israel should take a softer line in dealing with Iran because, after all, the new Iranian president acknowledged [though there is actually some debate about how to parse his words] that the Holocaust happened.  Why do some Jews set such a low bar for peace talks?  Our enemies come to the table with a laundry list of demands that would essentially destroy us.  On our side, however the attitude is, "Hey, you acknowledge that a Holocaust happened (even if you deny the number of dead was 6 million, etc.), we’re ready to embrace you with open arms."  Accepting the facts of history is not a starting point for negotiation -- it's a starting point to being a human being.
Moral of both stories here: do not read newspapers.

4) After Avraham’s refusal to take money from the King of Sdom, Hashem appears to him and tells Avraham that his potential reward remains undiminished.  That reassurance would seem to fit better had it come immediately after the battle, when Avraham was perhaps looking back on the miracle of his victory and the potential cost in zechuyos it might have had.  What is it doing here after the conversation with the King of Sdom?

There is an old joke about a guy who refuses to leave his home despite an impending flood and instead trusts in G-d to save him.  The neighbors offer him a ride out of town in their car, but he insists G-d will save him.  He is forced by the rising water to his second floor, but he still refuses a lift in a passing boat because he trusts that G-d will save him.  He is now standing on the roof, but he still refuses a ride in the police helicopter because he trusts that G-d will save him.  Finally he drowns.  When he gets upstairs, he asks G-d, “Nu, I trusted in you – why didn’t you save me?!”  To which G-d answers, “I sent the car, I sent the boat, I sent the helicopter… what were you expecting?”

Avraham refused to take a penny from the King of Sdom because he trusted in Hashem's promise given to him at the beginning of the parsha that Hashem would make him rich and famous.  But then, writes the Ksav Sofer, it dawned on Avraham that perhaps the offer by the King of Sdom was the means by which Hashem was fulfilling that promise – it was the boat, the helicopter, etc. meant to help him!  Therefore, Hashem came to Avraham and reassured him that his instincts were right.  In this case, there was no reason to rely on the means offered by the King of Sdom; his riches would come from elsewhere. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"toras rabbo" vs. personal development

(If you only want to read one point here, I would say jump to #4.)

1) Rashi comments on “Eileh toldos Noach” that the toldos, the offspring or fruits of a tzadik, are his torah and good deeds.  Now we understand, writes the Shem m’Shmuel, what we mean in our musaf for Rosh Chodesh when we say it is “zman kaparah l’chol toldosam.”  We need a kaparah even for our toldos, our good deeds and Torah, that may have been done in a rushed, careless way.  (I meant to post this earlier in the week around Rosh Chodesh, but better later than never.)

2) I wrote earlier in the week that sometimes an individual may find that a specific mitzvah resonates with him/her.  By “coincidence” this week my daughter’s H.S. distributed an information packet about various seminaries and I noticed that R’ Copperman from Michlala refers to this idea in his letter.  He quotes the Netziv’s Harchev Davar at the end of P’ Shelach who explains the Mishna in Avos, “Eizehu derech yeshasah she’yavor lo ha’adam,” as meaning that an individual has to choose their own direction in avodas Hashem.  Aside from that path being “tiferes lo min Shamayim,” pleasing in G-d’s eyes, it also has to be “tiferes lo min ha’adam,” something that appeals to him/her as an individual, something that resonates with his/her neshoma.  Some people are drawn to chessed; some people are drawn to learning; some people are drawn to other good deeds.  We each have our own task to fulfill.

3) In our parsha we read that Hashem struck Pharoah “al dvar Sarai eishes Avram.” (12:17)  From the emphasis placed on Sarah’s being “eishes Avram” it sounds like Sarah was spared from harm only because she was Avraham’s wife.  The Netziv asks: did Sarah not have zechuyos of her own ?  Is it only her being Avraham’s wife  -- Avraham’s merits -- that earned Hashem’s intervention?

The Netziv answers by setting down a yesod that runs though his commentary in many places and something worth keeping in mind in looking at the upcoming parshiyos.  Just as each of us has our own path in avodas Hashem, the same was true of the Avos, each of whom excelled at a particular aspect of avodah: for Avraham it was Torah, for Yitzchak it was avodah/tefilah, for Ya’akov it was gemilus chassadim.  In turn, each of the Avos received a different type of reward/merit and faced different types of challenges.  The reward for Ya’akov’s chessed was shalom; that’s where he ran into challenges and that’s where he would ultimately find the greatest success.  The reward for avodah is wealth, and we that Yitzchak instituted ma’asros as a means of thanking Hashem for his enormous fortune.  Torah is compared to a sword, and Avraham’s success was in waging war against anything that stood in his path, whether it be an internal or an external enemy, e.g. Avraham’s war against the kings mentioned later in our parsha. 

The miracle of Avraham being saved from the furnace of Nimrod is never mentioned in the Torah (a question raised by the Rishonim) according to Netziv because at the time that miracle happened Avraham was not yet the master of Torah that he would later become.  Avraham was saved from Nimrod, but Nimrod was not defeated – which is what would have happened had Avraham been able to invoke the sword of Torah that would later characterize his behavior.  The Torah is not a story book, it’s not a history of the Avos, it’s not a book of miracles that happened to tzadikim.  The Torah relates events that help portray the Avos as archetypes, not every biographical detail of their lives. (We need to look at the later parshiyos and see how this thesis fits – I am sure questions spring to mind.)  

Sarah certainly could have been saved from Pharoah in her own merit, independent of Avraham’s zechuyos.  However, the Torah calls our attention to Avraham’s merits because Sarah was not only saved, but Pharoah was struck down in the process.  That’s the sword at work, the merit of Torah – that was Avraham’s unique hallmark.
4) All this talk about individuality is warm up for an amazing Maor vaShemesh: Avraham beseeches Hashem for a son (15:2) and complains that the only one who he has to pass his legacy on to is “Damesek Eliezer.” Chazal interpret the word Damesek not as the place Eliezer came from – why would that be relevant to mention here? – but rather as an abbreviation for “doleh u’mashkeh toras rabbo l’acheirim.”  Eliezer faithfully passed the teachings of Avraham to others like a person drawing from a well so others could drink.  It’s a wonderful description of Eliezer, but, asks the Maor v’Shemesh, doesn’t it undermine Avraham’s point?  Doesn’t Avraham weaken his case for needing a worthy heir by mentioning that Eliezer is such a faithful student, someone who spreads his Torah everywhere? 
We have to read Chazal carefully.  Eliezer was “doleh u’mashkeh toras rabbo,” he spread his rebbi’s Torah to others – Eliezer was a duplicating machine who saw his mission as getting others to be little Avraham Avinus.  It’s like the story of the Rosh Yeshiva who moved the broom away from his doorway to get to his Chanukah menorah and made sure to tell his students that it’s not a minhag, only to see them year after year move brooms away from their doorways and say it’s not a minhag.  Avodas Hashem is not about being a mimic.  It’s not about copying “toras rabbo,” but about taking its lessons to heart and developing **your** torah.  Avraham wanted an heir that would internalize his teachings and make them into something of their own, not simply copy them and force themselves to conform to his model. 
Hashem’s response to Avraham is to lift him above the Heavens to see the stars, each of which is its own source of energy and light.  So too, each one of us brings our own light, our own unique, individual perspective, into the world.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

is life graded on a curve?

I'm enjoying doing a few shorter points rather than a long post:

1) Rashi quotes a debate as to whether “tzadik… b’dorosav” is meant as a praise of Noach, that he was a tzadik despite those around him, or qualifier, telling us that Noach was a tzadik only when measured against those around him, but not in comparison to Avraham Avinu.  R’ Yerucham Lebovitz writes that the machlokes here is not about whether Noach would have measured up to Avraham or not.  Everyone agrees to the facts on the ground of who Noach was -- his tzidkus stood out as exceptional compared with those around him, but he would fall short in comparison to Avraham.  The question is how, given those facts, do we assess Noach’s accomplishments?  Do we measure achievement in subjective terms, with a curve or handicap based on the challenges or opportunities an individual is given, or is achievement judged against an objective standard, irrespective of other factors?  Should Noach be considered wanting if he did not measure up to Avraham's achievements even though he lived in a different time and place with different challenges?

Let's apply the idea: let’s say a guy is raised in the home of a boor who knows nothing of Torah and mitzvos.  At some point this individual becomes aware of what Torah is all about, he becomes a shomer Shabbos, studies chumash and rashi, gives tzedaka, and does his best to keep whatever he learns.  Had he grown up in a different community, with different opportunities, he would have become an even bigger talmid chacham and yarei shamayim, but he did his best given the cards he was dealt.  How much credit does such a person deserve?  Is it fair to compare him to someone (of similar intelligence and ability) raised next door to a yeshiva who goes on to finish shas 10 times in his life?  And if you do make such a comparison, is it fair to say the person who only learned chumash and mishnayos fell short? 

R’ Yerucham is asserting that if Avraham earned a 100% on the test of tzidkus and Noach only earned an 85%, the fact that Noach lived in a time and place that may have posed greater challenges to his growth does not change his overall grade.  There is no curve on the test of life.  The fact that an individual may have to work much harder to achieve greateness (assuming he has that potential) does not excuse him from failing to do so or earn him any more credit should he fall short. 

I find this idea frightening and something inside of me protests that it’s not just.  R’ Yerucham makes no attempt to soften or temper the message.  Aderaba, the point of the mussar is to portray Divine justice in all its harshness and scare a person into shaping up.  Still, I’m troubled by the whole idea. 

2) The EU has declared circumcision “a violation of the physical integrity of children.”  A writer for the Telegraph comments, “What these fashionable loathers of circumcision don't seem to realise is that if you ban circumcision, you ban Jewish boys; you make it impossible for Jewish boys to exist.”  I don’t know about that – I would guess that they do fully realize the effect of their actions.  After all, it's not like Europe has a very good track record when it comes to treating Jews fairly.

Just to make sure I understand modern liberalism: a mother has the right to choose to terminate the life of a fetus without any consideration for the child’s “physical integrity,” but a parent has no right to choose to have a piece of foreskin cut off the child when it is 8 days old? 

3) Noach is called a “tzadik tamim” at the beginning of the parsha, but then later, when Hashem tells him to enter the ark, he is just called a “tzadik.”  It sounds like Noach underwent a change for the worse!  Rashi addresses the problem and tells us that when speaking to a person you sing some of their praises, but not all (R’ Soloveitchik understood this Chazal not just as a restriction on how much praise to lavish, but as a chiyuv to make sure to sing some of a person’s praises in their presence!)  Therefore, Hashem omitted some of Noach’s accolades.   
The Maor VaShemech takes a contrarian view and rather than explain away Noach's loss of temimus, he accepts it as a positive.  The purity of a tamim can sometimes only be maintained by withdrawal from contact with a sullied society.  A childlike innocence is admirable, but it’s not a good survival mechanism in a world of cheats and con artists.  Noach's mission demanded that he not withdraw, but rather that he try to engage those around him.  Building the ark wasn’t just a construction project – it was an outreach project, the last chance for Noach to tell his generation that they needed to change their ways or face destruction.  He could only do that by sacrificing a bit of his being a tamim, but as a result, he was perhaps a bigger tzadik.

Monday, October 07, 2013

some assorted thoughts

1) Over the past year my son has started really delving into learning halacha (aside from his regular gemara sedorim) and I like to joke with him that he deserves to be made an honorary sefardi because he usually has a Chazon Ovadya with him.  The wealth of mareh mekomos those seforim make so easily accessible is wonderful.  R’ Ovadya was literally a walking encyclopedia of Torah – no other way to put it.  A tremendous loss for Klal Yisrael.  What ean be said?

2) Noah Feldman had a nice piece in Bloomberg on BMG/Lakewood (link):
Graduates of institutions such as BMG won’t solve the demographic challenges to American Jewry highlighted by the Pew study. Moreover, the American Jewish community will not be fundamentally transformed by an Orthodox population that hovers near 10 percent. But BMG matters. It matters for the future of Jews in America precisely because it matters for the future of Judaism in America. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly stakes out a position of genuine durability.
3) When the number of Jews who view having a sense of humor as essential to their Jewishness far exceeds the number who report that adherence to Jewish law matters, as reported in the Pew study, is there any hope left?

4) A few thoughts on past/present parshiyos:

  Vayehi Hevel ro’eh tzon v’Kayin haya oveid adamah.”  What was the difference between Kayin and Hevel that led to one bringing an offering that was accepted and the other taking a path that was rejected?  Is being a shepherd so much more of an elevating experience than being a farmer?

The Tiferes Shlomo reminds us of a rule Chazal give us: “Vayehi” usually portends something bad happening; “haya” usually portends simcha (this is actually a hava amina in Midrash, but many meforshim take it as a rule that words in most places.) 

Man was not in Gan Eden any more, and Kayin and Hevel therefore had to choose professions to work at.  The Torah introduces Hevel’s choice with the word “vayehi” because Hevel felt sadness at being pushed into a life tending to sheep as opposed to a life of working on his relationship with G-d.   Kayin’s choice, however, “haya,” had a feeling of joy at being let loose in the world. 

It's not so much what you do for a living that is important, as what your attitude is.  When you leave the beis medrash to pursue your parnasa or tikun olam, is it with a sense of "haya" or a sense of "vayehi?"

5)   The Torah tells us that about Noach building the ark “va'ya'as Noach k’chol asher tzivah oso Elokim kein asah” like all he was commanded by G-d.  The Ksav Sofer suggests that the pasuk does not simply mean to tell us that Noach followed all the instructions he had been given with respect to the ark – were that the case, why repeat "va'ya'as" and then again "kein asah.  Rather, what the pasuk is telling us is that Noach observed the command to build the ark (kein asah) just as he observed all the other commandments which G-d had given to mankind (va'ya'as...), meaning the seven Noahide laws (which had actually been given to Adam.  The term “Noahide” is a misnomer.)

The Ksav Sofer suggests that this pasuk is a tremendous criticism of Noach.  Everyone had/has to follow the commandments of not stealing, of not killing, etc., but only Noach was addressed directly by G-d and given a special command to build the ark.  It was a special mission assigned only to him.  He should have approached it as such.  Instead, he treated it as any other task that he was obligated to perform. 

The Noam Elimelech on this week’s parsha speaks of each generation having a specific mitzvah that becomes its focus.  Perhaps the same is true for individuals.  We all have to observe as many mitzvos as we can, but sometimes a specific mitzvah captures our individual attention and has special meaning for us.  Rav Scheinberg, for example, was known for the many, many pairs of tzitzis he wore; Rav Neubert, the author of Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchisa, made hilchos Shabbos his special area of expertise.  Do any of us really feel tefilas neilah on Yom Kippur is the same as a weekday mincha because, after all, both are just mitzvos of tefilah?  Of course not.  Not all mitzvos command the same attention, and each of us perhaps feels drawn to some more than others.  I don't think that's a defect in our thinking -- I think it's our neshomos speaking to us about what our own special mission might be.  To dismiss that special pull and treat all acts the same may be throwing out the hisore’us Hashem gives each of us to help us discover our own unique mission.
To be continued, bl"n.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

when the foxes and lambs came together -- coexistence in Noach's ark

“When the nations of the world heard the thunder that accompanied mattan Torah, they came to Bilam, their prophet, and asked whether Hashem was bringing another mabul.” (Zevachim 116).

The messianic prophecy of wolves lying down with lambs strikes us as incredible, but we don’t give a moment’s thought to the fact it already happened once in history.  For a full year the wolves and lambs, the lions and sheep, and all the other animals managed to coexist peacefully in the very confined space of Noach’s ark.  Given how well known Yishayahu’s words are, you would think this miracle would catch our attention, yet somehow it slides right under the radar screen.  Why?

R’ Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner Rav, whose 80th yahrzeit is next week (see here), explained that there is a fundamental difference between Yishayahu’s prophecy and what took place in the ark.  At the time of the mabul, all the animals faced the threat of extinction.  When there is a forest fire, for example, all animals in the forest start running out – they don’t stop to eat each other because to do so would endanger their own lives.  The same was true at the time of the mabul.  The animals had no choice other than to coexist, contrary to their nature, because to not do so in the cramped space of the ark would have endangered their own lives.  Yishayahu’s prophecy is that animals will coexist even in a time of peace, even when there is no threat to their own existence and nothing to run from.  That miracle will have to wait for moshiach.

Now we understand what the gemara in Zevachim is telling us.  The nations of the world did not understand how Klal Yisrael came together to accept the Torah “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” with total unity.  “Is there a mabul coming?”– is there some existential threat forcing people to exist in harmony, contrary to their nature?  Where’s the forest fire that is causing people to stop trying to each other alive?  Bilam answered that there is no fire and no existential threat.  There is kabbalas haTorah, the best unifier of them all.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

when leishev ba'sukkah is a hefsek

I know – yesterday’s post was about Simchas Torah and today I’m writing about Sukkos; it seems I’m going backwards.  I want to jot this down because it may help me remember it for next year.  R’ Shlomo Zalman (quoted in the Shemiras Shabbos vol 2 in a footnote in ch 48) has an interesting chiddush that we need two points to introduction to understand:

1) The M.B. (643) quotes a machlokes haposkim whether one should say leishev ba’sukkah after the borei pri hageffen of kiddush on Shabbos or Yom Tov morning.  Since just drinking a cup of wine does not ordinarily constitute a keviyus seudah that would require sukkah, there are those who argue that introducing a leishev ba’sukkah between borei pri hagefen and drinking constitutes a hefsek.  Better to say the leishev ba’sukkah after the motzi, which does make for real keviyus. 

2) B’pashtus, a piece of cake is just a snack and not something eaten with any sense of kviyus; therefore, it would not require a sukkah.  If you do eat it in the sukkah, making a bracha of leishev b’sukkah would be problematic.  The M.B. (639:16) suggests that you can avoid the problem with a tziruf: eat the cake and linger in the sukkah afterwards for some time.  Since there are poskim who hold you can say a leishev ba’sukkah just for remaining in the sukkah (even without eating), and there are poskim who have a minimalist view of what eating constitutes keviyus, you can put 2 and 2 together and have enough to rely on to make a bracha.

R’ Shlomo Zalman comes up with the following: just like the leishev ba’sukkah, if not necessary, may be a hefsek between kiddush and drinking, so too, the leishev ba'sukkah, if not necessary, may be a hefsek between the bracha of mezonos and the cake.  True, you will linger in the sukkah afterwards, but at the moment you are eating the cake that is not going to help.  Therefore, suggests R’ Shlomo Zalman, the best course of action would be to say the mezonos and eat some cake and only afterwards, once you have taken a bite and avoided any hefsek, say the leishev ba'sukkah.  

By the same token, when a women sits down to eat in the sukkah, since she has no chiyuv, she has no real reason to recite a leishev ba’sukkah.  True, minhag Ashkenaz is to do so, but it comes at the expense of creating a hefsek between the birchas ha'ne’henin (the mezonos or hamotzi or whatever) and her eating.  Therefore, just like in the above case, it may be best for a woman to take a bite of her food first after the birchas ha'ne’henin and only then recite the leishev ba’sukkah.