Thursday, October 30, 2014

defeating armies with a handful of dirt

1. This Shabbos may be one of the most important Shabbosos of the year. 

“Huh?” you say.  “Doesn’t he know that the Shabbos Project was last week?”

Yes, I do, even though I’ve been out of it.  And that’s exactly why this Shabbos is so important. It’s relatively easy to feel the importance of Shabbos when there is a so much fanfare surrounding it.  People love to be part of movements, crowds, happenings.  But what happens when you take away all that fanfare and are left with just plain vanilla Shabbos (as if Shabbos was something plain and vanilla!)?  Will there be the same enthusiasm for Shabbos, the same kavod and oneg Shabbos, the same sense of unity on Shabbos?  Will that the Shabbos Project have been just a flash in the pan, or will it have been an impetus for real change in people’s attitude toward and respect for Shabbos?  

2. The gemara (Ta’anis 21) tells the story of Nachum Ish Gamzu whose motto in life was “gam zu l’tovah,” everything is for the good.  One time Klal Yisrael needed to send a gift to appease the authorities and Nachum Ish Gamzu was elected to go.  Since he was accustomed to having miracles done for him, they figured he would be a safe choice.  Along the way a duplicitous innkeeper substituted a chest filled with dirt for the chest filled with gems and precious stones that Nachum was carrying. When the chest was brought to the king and the “gift” revealed, the king was outraged.  Just as all looked lost, Eliyahu haNavi appeared in the guise of an officer of the court and suggested that perhaps things were not as they seemed – perhaps this dirt was not ordinary dirt, but was the dirt Avraham Avinu used in the war in this week’s parsha.  When thrown at the enemy, the dirt turned into arrows and spears.  They tested the dirt in battle against the one enemy that the king could never conquer, and sure enough, it worked.  Nachum was rewarded with the same chest refilled with gold and jewels.  When he passed through the same inn on the way home and related what happened, the unscrupulous innkeeper figured that since it was his dirt, he could profit.  He brought his own chest of dirt to the king, but it was revealed to be plain old dirt, and so he got the punishment he deserved.

Why did this miracle occur to Nachum Ish Gamzu davka through the dirt used by Avraham Avinu?  And why was Avraham zocheh to specifically that form of siyata d'shemaya?

The Ostrovtza explains that there is a midah k’neged midah at work here.  If you think that you are in control of your life and have such great kochos and abilities, then Hashem will treat you like the speck of dust that you really are.  But if you put aside your ego and acknowledge that you are not such a big deal, that Hashem is the one who is really in charge and you are but a speck of dust, then not only will Hashem lift you up and give you even more kochos, but even the specks of dust you trample on will be found to have tremendous kochos.  Avraham said of himself, “Anochi afar v’eifar” – despite his great kochos, he considered himself like dirt.  Midah k’neged midah, Hashem took the actual dirt Avraham tossed at his enemies and invested it with the power to crush armies.  

If you think power comes from your own abilities, then you will discover just how little power you have.  If you realize only Hashem as power, then you will discover how generous he is in giving that power over to you as a reward.
Nachum Ish Gamzu followed in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu.  His motto of “gam zu l’tovah” showed that he accepted that everything was from Hashem, and therefore could only be for the good.  In the merit of that hisbatlus, acknowledging his own lack of power,Hashem rewarded Nachum by investing even the dirt he walked on with real power.                  

3. The gemara (B.B. 16) tells us that Avraham Avinu had a precious jewel that he wore around his neck that would heal anyone that looked at it.  When Avraham died, Hashem took that precious stone and put it in the sun. 
R’ Reuvain Katz, in his Duda’ei Reuvain, on this week’s parsha explains that the jewel Avraham Avinu wore around his neck was his ability to teach others about emunah.  (Speech comes from the throat = the neck).  When Avraham passed away, Hashem took that power to learn about emunah and put it in the sun: “Hashamayim misaprim kvod K-l.”

Monday, October 27, 2014

it takes zechuyos to be able to leave the ark

The Midrash recounts that Avraham met Shem and asked him in what zechus his family merited leaving the ark.  Shem responded that it was in the merit of their care of the animals.  Avraham thought to himself, “If this is the merit one can accrue by caring for animals, kal v’chomer caring for people!”  Inspired by this encounter, Avraham opened his “eishel” and devoted himself to chessed.

Why did Avraham think that Noach and family needed a special zechus to exit the ark?  And the Midrash means just that – exiting, not being saved -- because the zechus of feeding the animals is something that Noach accrued only once safely aboard, not beforehand.  It would seem to be a given that once the rain stopped and the land was dry Noach could exit.  It’s something that should be m’meila, not a privilege that has to be earned. 

Rav Chaim Ya’akov Goldvict z”l, the R”Y of Kerem B’Yavneh, explained that when the Midrash speaks of leaving the ark, it doesn’t just mean the physical act of stepping outside the door onto dry land.  What the Midrash is referring to is the process of rebuilding the world.  Avraham wanted to know how Noach and his family went from living for months in isolation to building a flourishing society.  The answer, in a word, is chessed.  The 12 months spent on the teivah was an intensive crash course in caring for others.  Without a commitment to chessed, you can be walking on the same dry land as everyone else, but still be locked inside a teivah.  

My wife noticed that when chaplains from the u’mos ha’olam come to visit patients in the hospital, they always ask whether the patient would like them to pray with them (we still haven’t figured this out – can’t the person pray by themselves?)  When a Rabbi sees a Jewish family in the hospital, the first question they ask is, “Do you need food?”  Avraham made an eishel – achila, shtiya, levi’ya.  (Yes, there is another interpretation of what eishel means, but it seems to me that the practice of Klal Yisrael as well as the lashon of the Midrash above is more in concert with this idea.)  It's not that they emphasize the relationship with G-d more than we do -- it's that we recognize that a relationship with G-d is built around a foundation of chessed.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

when map skills are critical

The gemara (Brachos 58) quotes Shmuel as saying that he is as familiar with the paths of the stars in heaven as he is with the streets of Naharda’ah [his home town].  The gemara could have told us simply that Shmuel was an expert astronomer – why did Shmuel use this particular expression to convey that point?  The Nishmas Avraham (p 376, intro to siman 328, 6:1) quotes R’ Shlomo Zalman as explaing that the gemara is not juat using an empty cliche, like we might say "knowing something like the back of your hand." Rather, the gemara' expression is meant to be taken literally and tell us something important agav uracha: Shmuel took the time to become an expert in every street and byway in Naharada’ah.  The reason Shmuel did so is because he was a doctor (B.M. 107) and might be called on to deal with pikuach nefesh situations.  With no GPS system to rely on, Shmuel had to know the fastest way to get to a patient when minutes could mean the difference between life and death.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

bringing the fig tree onboard

Commenting on the words, “Vayita kerem…,” Rashi writes that Noach was able to plant a vineyard immediately after exiting the ark because he had brought grape vines and shoots from a fig tree onboard with him before the flood.  Since the text of the Torah only mentions Noach's planting a vineyard, why does Rashi need to mention anything about fig trees?

The Ne’os Desheh, the son of the Ishbitzer, explains that Noach’s spiritual reach exceeded his grasp.  Noach had been privileged to learn Torah, he was chosen to be the sole survivor of the flood, he was the recipient of a bris with Hashem symbolized by the rainbow, and he was the one whom Hashem selected to restart humanity with.  An impressive resume – one that led Noach to shoot for even greater things.  Noach thought that by restarting human history through him, the world could be wiped completely clean from the sin of Adam.  Noach is called “ish ha’adamah” – a man who aspired to bring tikun to the earth, which had been cursed after Adam’s sin.  The vineyard Noach intended to plant was the vineyard of, “Ki kerem Hashem Tzivakos Beis Yisrael” --  Noach thought that he could even the founding father of Klal Yisrael.

Yet as great as Noach was, he was not Avraham Avinu.  The leaves of the fig tree that Noach took with him are a metaphor for the sin of Adam.  It was the leaves of the fig tree that Adam used to try to cover himself after eating from the eitz hada’as.  Noach did not and could not rise above the defects and imperfections that were part of Adam haRishon’’s makeup.  Even as he entered the teivah, what was on his mind was not planning mankind's spiritual future, but rather the enjoyment of a good glass of wine, the pleasure of olam ha’zeh.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

aiyei vs aifoh (and some other thoughts on Braishis)

Sorry for not writing much lately -- I have a bunch of things going on occupying my attention.  Have to keep things brief for now.

1. The Ksav v’Kabbalah always has interesting insights into language.  Both "ayei" and "aifoh" can be used to ask where someone is; however, there is a major difference in connotation.  “Aifoh” is used when the question “Where are you?” means “What is your location?”  Yosef was sent to find his brothers and figure out, “Aifoh heim ro’im” – he did not know where they were.  “Ayei” is used when the “Where are you?” is meant to imply “Why are you not here?”  When Avraham is asked “Ayei Sarah ishtecha?” the meaning was, “Why is Sarah not here with you serving us like you are?”   G-d asks Adam, “Ayeka?”  G-d certainly knew where Adam was -- it was an "ayei," not an "aifoh" question -- but he wanted to know how Adam had gotten to such a spiritually distant place.  “Why are you no longer here with me?” is teh question G-d addresses to man.  The Ksav v’Kabbalah doesn’t say it, but in light of his distinction I think the question of the malachim, “Ayei mekom k’vodo?” does not mean that the melachim don’t know where G-d’s presence is.  What the malachim are wondering is why G-d is not immanent, why he seems so distant and transcendent. 

2. How did the nachash convince Adam to eat from the eitz hada’as?  “Ki yode’a Elokim ki b’yom achalchem mimenu v'nifkechu eineichem…” (3:5)   The Alshich explains that the nachash argued that if G-d knows ("yodei Elokim") that something will occur, then the outcome is predetermined.  Without bechirah, there can be no punishment.   

3. The Midrash on the parsha of “vayechulu” compares the world to a bath that had beautiful fixtures submerged below the water.  It was only once the water was removed that they became visible and could be admired.  So too, the tohu va’vohu had to be removed for the beauty of creation to be seen. 

Why is this derush given on the parsha of Shabbos?   Tohu va’vohu was removed already on the first day of creation! 

What Chazal are telling us is that the physical tohu va’vohu may have already receded, but the real beauty of the world shines only when the spiritual tohu va’vohu is removed as well.  That happens only once there is Shabbos.  “Vayechulu” is like the word klal – a general rule.  Each day of creation and each item created is like a piece from a puzzle – by itself, it has little meaning.   It’s only once you finish the puzzle that you see how each piece fits together with the others to create the larger picture.  So too, Shabbos is the klal that gives meaning and context to each individual prat in creation.

4. The Torah gives us very little clue as to why Lemech suddenly pleaded with his wives that he is innocent of wrongdoing and would not be punished as Kayin was.  Rashi fills in the gaps with a Midrash that says that Lemech was blind and accidentally committed murder while out hunting with his son (my wife was wondering why a blind person would be out hunting to begin with.)   Ramban sticks closer to the text and connects Lemech’s plea with the previous information the parsha gives us:  Lemech’s children were the first musicians and the first metalsmiths.  It was a short jump from learning to work with metal to learning to fashion spears and swords.  Lemech’s wives blamed him for training his children in a craft that would bring more bloodshed into the world.  Lemech rejected their argument.  Spears and swords don’t kill people; people kill people.  And thus the gun debate started...

5. I noticed that the format used for each successive generation in the genealogy list at the end of Braishis is basically identical, ending with “Vayihiyu [plural] kol y’mei Ploni…” some number of years.  The exception is Chanoch, where it says, “Vayehi [singular]kol y'mei.”  (5:3) I don’t have a clue as to why the syntax is changed. Any ideas?

Monday, October 06, 2014

bikur cholim - hakaras hatov for a resource that makes a huge difference

A family member recently had to spend time in the hospital and I to the extent that this is a public blog I want to publicly express my hakaras hatov to the folks who stock and maintain the hospital bikur cholim rooms and provide resources for frum patients and their families during their times of need.  I don't want to go into particulars here of the what and the where, but the truth is that it doesn't matter -- I think at almost every hospital now in NY there is some form of bikur cholim room or organization that provides food, comfort, and in many cases hospitality for Shabbos should the need arise.  Believe me, it makes a huge difference.  Not having to worry about where to find a kosher meal or how you will make Shabbos when there are so many other things on your mind to worry about is a huge relief. Just being able to grab a cup of coffee and look at a sefer or book in quiet for a few minutes is invaluable. It's also a community chessed that flies under the radar.  Especially this time of year, we are all hit with tzedaka appeals for yeshivos, for tomche shabbos, for shuls, etc. but I can't recall ever even getting an appeal for bikur cholim.  One reason reason why is because (at least in the two cases I am now familiar with) local restaurants and supermarkets step up to stock refrigerators with meals and snacks and the wonderful Satmar Bikur Cholim also pitch in to ensure that resources are available. I know in other communities there are other similar organizations that do the same.  It's a resource you never want to have to use, but one which you cannot give enough thanks for should you need it.  My thanks and appreciation m'umka d'liba.

now is the time for teshuvah

Chazal explain that the Torah put the parsha of nazir right next to the parsha of sotah to teach us that .  someone who sees a sotah fall into disgrace should respond by taking a vow of nezirus.  Everybody asks: it’s the person who doesn’t see the downfall and disgrace of the sotah and who needs to be extra careful and maybe take a vow of nezirus.  The person who sees the sotah sees with his own eyes the effect too much wine can have and knows the danger!  

The Akeidah gives a brilliant answer: it’s davka the person who sees the miraculous power of the sotah water and the whole process of her punishment and therefore thinks that he/she has learned the lesson and is immune from danger who needs the extra reminder.  

Machisi k’av pesha’echa v’k’anan chatosecha shuvu eilai ki g’altich.” (Yeshayahu 44:22).  The simple pshat in the pasuk is that because Hashem has forgiven all our sins therefore we should return to him.  The Shem m’Shmuel, however, reads the word “ki” not as meaning "because," but rather as meaning af al pi, "even though."  Another example of the same use: Moshe Rabeinu asked Hashem to forgive Bnei Yisrael after the cheit ha'eigel, "Ki am k'shei oref hu..." -- not because they are a stubborn people, but despite/even though they are a stubborn people (see Ibn Ezra). 

We've gone through a Yom Kippur and Hashem has forgiven all our sins.  For some people, that means it's time to breathe a sigh of relief -- it's all over and I made it!  I got by spiritual flu shot for the year and can now get back to business as usual.  So the Navi tells us, "Shuvi eili ki g'altich" -- even though you spent the day properly and were forgiven, you need to focus on teshuvah.  Davka because you had such a wonderful Yom Kippur, there is a danger of spiritual complacency setting in, of thinking you've done your part and that's all there is.  Yom Kippur has to be a beginning, not an end. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

gmar chasima tovah

Chazal tell us that since Hashem is “rav chessed” he tilts the scales in a person’s favor.  If it’s a 50/50 toss up, you win.  So what are all the beinonim worried about these 10 days?  A tie goes in our favor!  One of the answers given in Rishonim is that these 10 days are the chance to prove that we deserve it.  Sure, Hashem would give us a break anyway, but there is a difference between getting off due to G-d’s good graces, due to his being “rav chessed,” and getting off because you’ve earned that right to a chasimah tovah. 

I think the more popular answer to that question is that given by R’ Yitzchak Blazer.  Hashem is so accessible this time of year that to not take advantage of the opportunity to do teshuvah, to simply remain sitting on the fence as a beinoni without making a resolution to do better and to be better, is a tremendous strike against a person. 

In slicha 93, which we said this morning, the author of the slicha bemoans “B’reosi kol ir al tilah benuya v’ir ha’Elokim mushpeles…”  The Shem m’Shmuel homiletically interprets the word “ir” not as city, but rather from the same root as “u’ru yesheinim,” wake up.  When it comes to other areas of life, we don’t need any his’orerus to get us excited.  Whether it’s the Jets or the Giants that you root for, comes Sunday afternoon, “ir al tilah benuya.”  But when it comes to avodas Hashem, our ability to be “ir,” to be awake and enthusiastic, is too often “mushpeles.

I'm confident that we are all in fact awake this time of year and we are all striving to do what's right and hopefully we will all merit a gmar chasima tovah, not just because Hashem is "rav chessed," but because we have truly earned it.