Thursday, November 27, 2014

a thanksgiving lesson from Leah

The gemara (Brachos 7b) writes that there was no one since creation who gave thanks to Hashem until Leah said “hapa’am eodeh es Hashem” and named her son Yehudah (29:35).
Could it be that Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov never gave thanks to Hashem?  Impossible to believe.  Just turn back to parshas Chayei Sarah and you find that even Eliezer said “Baruch Hashem” at finding success in his search for a shidduch for Yitzchak.   So whaydo Chazal single out Leah and the one was mechadesh giving thanks?
Ksav Sofer writes that the Avos lived lives where the supernatural was the norm, and they of course reciprocated with thanks and appreciation.  Leah gave thanks for childbirth, something that you can see in a hospital any day of the week.  
This is why, he explains, Chazal were critical of the person who says hallel daily. Hallel is a prayer of thanks for supernatural deliverance.  Someone who says hallel daily is fixated on the miraculous at the expense of appreciating and giving thanks for the regular day to day.
Others explain (I saw this explained nicely in Toras HaAggadah by Ephraim Oveid, but the idea is already in the Ben Yehoyada) that what made Leah’s thanks special is the fact that she incorporated it into the name of her child.  For most people, a thank you comes and goes.  There may be gratitude today, but tomorrow it’s forgotten and replaced by “What have you done for me lately?”  Leah wanted to remember that thank you always, and she wanted that spirit of gratitude to become part of who her child was.  That’s a good lesson to take to heart even if you don’t name your child Yehudah.
Rashi explains that Leah gave thanks here because in having her fourth child she realized she had gotten more than her share.  She knew that Ya'akov would have 12 children, divided by 4 wives, means her share should have been only three, and now she already had a fourth child.  Maharasha writes that Leah was not speaking b’toras nevuah, i.e. she did not know through prophecy that there would be 12 children in total or that none of the other wives of Ya’akov would have more than three children, as we don’t find Leah listed (Megillah 14) among the seven women nevi’os.  This seems to contradict Rashi in our parsha (27:12) who writes that all the Imahos were nevi’os (the Sefas Emes brings citations from Midrashim that say the same).  The Targum Yonasan also writes that Leah chose the name Yehudah because she saw David haMelech in the future, who would extol Hashem with his praises of thanks – again, another proof that Leah had prophecy and used it specifically here.  The simple answer is that Midrashim need not be consistent with each other.  Maharal answers that there were many other people , like Leah, who had the gift of nevuah but who are not listed by Chazal because the list consists only of those people whose prophecy is quoted in the text of Tanach.
Coming back to the question of what made Leah's thanks special, I think there are two possible ways to understand the Targum Yonasan I mentioned above.  One way is that he is telling us a siman: the fact that a David haMelech, author of Tehillim, would come out of Yehudah proves that the midah of thanks and praise was in Yehudah's spiritual DNA; therefore, he deserved that name.  But one could understand it as a sibas as well: Leah named her child Yehudah because she wanted to already commemorate the thanks and praise that she saw her great...great grandchild singing.  If that's what the Targum means, then maybe what made Leah's thanks special is the fact that she was showing gratitude for something that would not happen until years later in the future.  We have enough trouble showing gratitude for the chessed done for us in the here and now; Leah showed us that you can have gratitude even for what is yet to come.  Does the fact that she was a nevi'ah and knew with a greater degree of certainty that it would happen change things?  Maybe.  But I still think the point stands.  "Shema yigrom hacheit" -- there is always uncertainty.  Leah still had to have a degree of trust and hope.  Leah shows us that you don't always experience all the rewards in the here and now, but you can certainly give thanks for them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

does G-d answer prayers if the recipient doesn't deserve it?

The Mishna (Brachos 4:4) quotes the view of R’ Yehoshua that if a person is in a dangerous place he can daven a “tefilah ketzara,” a very short tefilah.  The text of that tefilah includes the words, “… b’chol parashas ha’ibbur yehiyu tzorcheihem lifanecha.”  What is the “parashas ha’ibbur?”  The Rishonim explain that it means even when Bnei Yisrael are “porshim l’aveira.”  

If Bnei Yisrael are doing aveiros, then how can we ask or expect Hashem to show mercy?  They are not behaving in a way that deserves mercy!  In the Mishnayos Oholei Shem the author uses this as a proof that tefilah is a metziyus – it functions like a law of nature.  You don’t ask whether an object is deserving or not for the law of gravity to work -- it just works.  In that same way, tefilah can elicit rachamim irrespective of the merits of the request.

Proof from this past week’s parsha: Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma) write that because Eisav let out a cry when he found out the brachos were taken from him, Ya’akov’s great… great gransdson Mordechai midah k’neged midah was forced to cried in pain at Haman’s decrees.  Surely Ya’akov was deserving of the brachos that he received, and Eisav was undoubtedly a villain.  Nonetheless, a true cry, even if it comes from an Eisav, can produce tremendous results in shamayim.  (See Netziv in Harchev Davar 27:9 for a different approach.)

Another proof: In parshas Va’Eschanan, Hashem ordered Moshe to cease davening to go into Eretz Yisrael.  If Hashem did not want Moshe to go, then all the tefilos in the world shouldn’t have made a difference.  Why demand that he stop?  Just don't listen!  Again, we see that tefilah operates as a force within teva. Hashem didn’t want Moshe to go, but Hashem would not overturn teva to prevent Moshe from taking the law into his own hands.

Monday, November 24, 2014

living with the times

The Alter Rebbe had a motto of “living with the times,” meaning taking the parsha and applying it to the present day and your life.  It is not hard to read current events into this past week’s parsha: you have the conflict between Plishtim and Yitzchak; you have the ridiculous claim on the part of the Plishtim that they treated Yitzchak well when no such thing was true; you have Ya’akov being accused of duplicity by Eisav; you have Ya’akov forced for flee for his life and run from the fry pan of Eisav into the fire of Lavan’s home.  But of all the events in the parsha, the one line that I think most resonates with current events is, “V’tich’hena einav m’re’os.”  We, like Yitzchak, are blind.  We grope in the dark.  So much is unclear to us and the projects that we want to give our blessing to are often the wrong ones (yes, it could be that Yitzchak really knew the truth, but the plain reading of the text is not that way). We hope that like then, it all works out in the end.  

Why does Yitzchak return to the wells of his father only after being banished from the land of the Plishtim?  Is it, as the Netziv suggests, because it was only then that he found himself living again in proximity to those wells and could turn his attention to them?  The Ishbitzer says there is something deeper going on here. Even in the Rishonim (e.g. Ramban), we find that those wells of Avraham carry symbolic significance. Those wells were sources of spiritual nourishment, alluding to the future batei mikdash.  When Yitzchak was kicked out of the land of the Plishtim, he did not only think to himself, "What's wrong with those people?"  He thought to himself as well, "What's wrong with me?"  Yitzchak thought that if the world was not appreciating who he is and what he stood for, it meant that there was some spiritual defect within himself that needed correcting.  And so he returned to his father's wells, to the source of it all, to refortify himself.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

the one crime Eisav couldn't be forgiven for

My daughter e-mailed me from seminary (in Eretz Yisrael) that especially this week I should post something about Eretz Yisrael. I haven't thought much about the parsha yet, but I e-mailed her back a few quick ideas.  R’ Moshe Tzuriel in his Derishas Tzion points out the strange conversation between Yitzchak Avinu and G-d the gemara (Megillah 6) quotes. Yitzchak Avinu, the great melamed zechus (see Shabbos 89 – parenthetically, isn’t it ironic that the personality most associated with din musters the greatest arguments for mercy?), pleads with G-d to give Eisav a break, to which G-d replies that Eisav is a rasha. Yitzchak asks again, “But can’t anyone be melamed some zechus on him?” To which G-d replies that Eisav is the one who will destroy Eretz Yisrael. “In that case,” says Yitzchak, “There is nothing to talk about.”

We’re talking about Eisav, the guy who Chazal describe as a kofer, a murderer, guilty of arayos (Baba Basra 16). Not only that, but when Yitzchak asks Hashem to have mercy, he says [quoting a pasuk], “Yuchan rasha” – Yitzchak knew that Eisav was a rasha! Yet, despite Eisav’s sins, Yitzchak was still willing to ask for mercy on his behalf.  It’s only the revelation that Eisav would attack and destroy Eretz Yisrael that cut off the debate. This is a crime that Hashem is not willing to show any tolerance for.

The Kuzari (II:14 also quoted by R' Tzuriel) learns that the whole dispute between Ya’akov and  Eisav revolved around control of Eretz Yisrael.

Derech derush, R’ Moshe Avigdor Amiel in his Hegyonos El Ami writes that even though we have a general rule that 3 times makes a chazakah, we see from our parsha that this rule does not apply to the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Avraham dug wells that the Plishtim filled in; Yitchak dug wells called “Eisek” that were fought over; Yitzchak dug more wells called “Sitnah” that were fought over – 3 times failure. Yet Yitzchak didn’t give up and finally succeeded the next time around.  No matter how many setbacks there are, when it comes to yishuv ha'aretz, it’s never time to give up.

P.S. Someone was kind enough to send the following link: 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

did Rashbam think Rashi was written b'ruch hakodesh?

Earlier in the week I mentioned R’ Dessler’s letter (4:31(2)) in which he argues that Chazal’s pshat in pesukim is just as much part of the mesorah as anything else, just we have license where we cannot understand or accept that pshat to read and interpret the text differently.  Learning pshat against Chazal is in effect a b’dieved situation, a response to the needs of “nevochim.”  R’ Menashe Klein, in his Shu”T Mishneh Halachos 5:165-169 (link) discusses this same issue at length and takes a very different view.  In a nutshell (it's a kuntres that goes on for a few pages) R’ M. Klein does not think Chazal ever meant their pshat as THE interpretation of any pasuk – they simply offer ONE interpretation of many, all of which are latent in the pasuk.  When meforshim are critical of a pshat brought by Chazal, the point is not that the interpretation is false -- the point is that Chazal's reading should be taken as derash and not pshat.  The argument is often over what level of meaning an interpretation is operating on, not whether that interpretation is true or false, as multiple true interpretations of the text are possible on different levels.  Revealing other meanings in the text is a l’chatchila, as this serves l’hagdil Torah.  (Judging from the comments and e-mail in response to last post, most people intuitively side with R' Menashe Klein.)  Two things struck me in his kuntres: 1) his tolerance of contextualization - an interpretation in Chazal/Rishonim may have carried particular meaning in its time or place, but in other periods other readings may be preferred (Rashbam at the beginning of Vayeishev's refers to "pashtus hameshachdim b'chol yom"); 2) not only can one learn pesukim is ways that are different than Chazal, but he writes that so long as the halacha is not impacted, one can do the same for Mishnayos and gemara. 

Another question he raises is whether Chazal and/or the Rishonim wrote everything b'ruach hakodesh.  I recently heard a speaker claim that regardless of whether other people believe Rashi was written b’ruach hakodesh, the Rashbam certainly didn’t think so.  I respectfully beg to differ with that reasoning.  In the famous tanur shel achna’I story, R’ Eliezer calls down various miracles to occur to prove that he is correct.  Surely public miracles are even better proof of Heaven’s assent than a private voice of nevuah or spirit of ruach hakodesh.  Yet we don’t pasken like R’ Eliezer.  The reason why is not because we have doubts about whether R’ Eliezer’s words are inspired –  it’s because that has nothing to do with the matter.  Torah is given to us to puzzle over with our own brains.  There is no contradiction between thinking that Rashbam felt his grandfather’s interpretation of chumash was written b'ruach hakodesh and Rashbam thinking that given the chance to revise, his grandfather would have updated that interpretation to read more like Rashbam’s own.
M’inyan l’inyan on the topic of pshat and derash, the Sifsei Chachamim on last week’s parsha asks a question that is so fundamental that you have to wonder why it didn’t come up earlier.  Rashi (24:17) offers two interpretations of “Vayakam s’dei Ephron”:
תקומה הייתה לה שיצאה מיד הדיוט ליד מלך.
ופשוטו של מקרא: ויקם השדה והמערה אשר בו וכל העץ לאברהם למקנה וגו'
We think of Rashi’s interpretation as “pshat;” he cites Midrash only to the extent that it helps explicate the plain meaning of the text.  So m’mah nafshach: if the pasuk is understandable according to the “peshuto shel mikra” (Rashi’s second interpretation), why does Rashi bother to quote Midrash?  And if the pasuk is not understandable according to the “peshuto shel mikra,” then why does Rashi cite it at all? 
The Sifsei Chachamim’s answer addresses that particular Rashi, but as he notes in his question, whenever Rashi cites multiple interpretations (even where he doesn’t label one pshat and one derash), the same question can be asked, so we need a general rule.    The question sounds fancy, but the answer is I think simple: whether a pshat is good or bad is not something that can be evaluated in absolute terms.  It’s a relative judgment compared to some other possible reading.  Whenever Rashi cites multiple interpretations, it’s because each one is lacking when weighed against the other.  Yes, the pasuk can be read according to “peshuto shel mikra,” but that comes at some expense; yes, the pasuk’s meaning is clearer in some ways if interpreted using Midrash, but that comes at some other expense (see S.C. for the strenghts and weaknesses of each pshat brought by this Rashi).  Whenever Rashi offers multiple interpretations, Sifsei Chachamim always looks for a weakness in each that is counterbalanced by the other pshat.  (Contrast that with, for example, the Sefas Emes, who will often show that both interpretations in Rashi complement each other to bring out a single hashkafic point.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

two ways to say maybe

In his meeting with Lavan and Besuel, Eliezer recounts that he asked Avraham before leaving: “Maybe the girl won’t come with me?”  Rashi notes that the word, “ulai,” “maybe,” is written without the letter “vav,” so that if you didn’t know better you might read it as “eilai.”  The Midrash explains that Eliezer had a daughter that he thought might be a prospective match for Yitzchak.  Raising the question was Eliezer’s way of giving voice to his hidden hope that Yitzchak might marry “eilai,” into his own family.

The meforshei Rashi ask why this allusion appears only here, when Eliezer recounts the story, and not earlier, when he is speaking to Avraham directly.  The Kotzker famously explains that it’s only after the fact, after he found Rivka, that Eliezer realized his own hidden motives.  So long as he had a vested interest in the matter, he didn’t even realize how it tilted his perspective. 

Another clever answer: before he came to Lavan and Besuel’s home, Eliezer thought his hava amina that Yitzchak should marry his daughter was ridiculous.  But when he saw the mechutanim, Besuel, and he saw Lavan, he thought why not me?

The Ksav v’haKabbalah suggests that this Midrash is not based on the missing letter “vav” alone, but is based on the phrase used to pose the question.  There are two different words that can be used to talk about “maybe”: the word “ulai” and the word “pen.” The word “pen” is used when you don’t want the possibility being discussed to happen -- the equivalent of the English “lest.”  After Adam eats from the eitz hada’as, the Torah says, “pen yishlach yado v’achal gam m’eitz hachaim,” i.e. “lest he eat from the eitz hachaim.” The word “ulai,” on the other hand, is when you want the possibility being discussed to happen.  Ya’akov sends gifts to Eisav because “ulai yisah panai,” i.e. “maybe he will greet me in peace.”  Ya’akov wants Eisav to accept his gift, not to turn away.  When Eliezer raised the possibility of Rivka not wanting to come with him, he doesn’t use the word, “pen,” i.e. “lest she refuse to come,” but rather he uses “ulai” – it was something that secretly, he wanted to happen.

This pshat gives you a new perspective on a key pasuk in our parsha. Rivka tells Ya’akov to dress up as Eisav and go to get brachos from his father.  Ya’akov responds, “Ulai y’musheini avi,” i.e. “Perhaps my father will touch me [and feel my smooth skin].”  Ya’akov doesn’t use the word “pen,” i.e. “I can't do it lest my father feel that it is not me,” but rather he uses the word “ulai,” indicating it is something he wanted.  Despite his hesitancy to go into Yitzchak and deceive him, Ya’akov reveals in his question that he really desired for Yitzchak to place his hands on him, as that was the mechanism for the delivery of brachos.  

what can one say?

What can one say on a day such as this?  Rav Zalman Melamed perhaps put it best (link):

"We must remember that we are in the midst of a struggle for our right to all of Eretz Yisrael, to Jerusalem in particular, and even more, for the Temple Mount, site of our Holy Temples."

"I request, my beloved students, that you deflect all the pain, anger and trauma to the right channels: Study more Torah, do more good deeds, adding merits that will bring our Redemption closer."

I was in the kosher supermarket with my wife on Sunday and was standing by the checkout where they have a display of little candies and things and I remember thinking (and saying to her afterwards) that Jews are being persecuted all over the world, and here our minds are on kosher Tic-Tacs.  

I don't mean we should all take vows of prishus or anything like that.  That's not going to happen. But we can do our best to empathize and be mishtatef b'tza'aran shel Yisrael.  We can do our best to set aside more time for Torah, for tefilah, and for speaking out for the values we hold dear and for our people.

I can't find the link now, but there were two sites where you could contribute money that would go to the families of those killed.  If someone has the link, pls send it to me and I can add it to this post bl"n.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Did Ibn Ezra/Rashbam/Radak/other pashtanim believe what they wrote?

The footnote at the end of letter 31 - part 2 in vol 4 of Michtav has become well known these days because it deals with the issue of apparent contradictions between Chazal and  science, a topic widely discussed mei'Hodu v'ad Kush in the Jewish blogsphere.  I want to call your attention to the body of the letter, which raises a no less important issue, albeit less well known.   Rav Dessler in that letter distinguishes between two types of derashos of Chazal: 1) derash which is obviously not meant as a literal interpretation of the text, but rather adds a level of meaning above and beyond what the text says; 2) derash which serves to illuminate the plain meaning of the text by filling in lacuna, providing context, explaining obscure words, etc.  This second type of derash fills the same function as what, if it came from another source, we would call pshat.  Which brings us to the key question: if Chazal give us "pshat" in pesukim, asks Rav Dessler, why did the Rishonim nonetheless still engage in learning "pshat" in those very same pesukim, oftentimes in ways that contradict or ignore the interpretations of Chazal?  How can the Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, and others push aside Chazal in favor of their own reasoning?

I find Rav Dessler's answer striking.  He suggests that these Rishonim only wrote for the "nevochim," those poor confused souls who could not accept Chazal's interpretation of the text, but were willing to accept the text as true given some other more reasonable (in their eyes) interpretation.  The Rishonim wrote to demonstrate that 1) the text does lend itself to multiple interpretations, apart from the one given by Chazal, and 2) there is no inherent problem in accepting those other interpretations as pshat provided they do not contradict any fundamental theological principles.  Therefore, even if you have trouble digesting a pshat of Chazal, your spiritual goose is not cooked, so to speak.  By way of analogy, Rav Dessler compares the efforts of the pashtanim to the Rambam's Moreh -- a book intended to provide guidence to a specific audience with specific needs, not a book meant to provide the ideal of best answers to all philosophical problems.  So too, the Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam, the Radak, meant to address the needs of a specific audience, not to provide the "ideal" interpretation -- that is limited to the words of Chazal.

In other words: "pshat" is a b'dieved, a crutch for those not yet comfortable or not yet ready to accept the "gospel" (excuse my terminology) of Chazal's explication.

And so I ask the question which I used as the title for this post: did the Ibn Ezra believe what he wrote?  Did he think his interpretation -- where he differed from Chazal -- was correct?  Did the Rashbam?  Surely these giants were not "nevochim" themselves.  So when we read an Ibn Ezra that tosses aside a Midrash and suggests some other reading of a text, are we to think that in his heart the Ibn Ezra really believed the Midrash's interpretation to be the most plausible, and his critique is just a ruse, i.e. he is just going through the motions of presenting the text in a way that he thinks a "navoch" would be comfortable with? 

(I don't know if there is an online Michtav I can link to, otherwise I would.  If someone finds one, pls let me know.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

standing on the shoulders of giants

1) The Midrash writes that once when R’ Akiva was darshening his students started to doze off, and so he posed a question to wake them up: why did Esther merit to rule over 127 countries?   Answer: because Sarah lived 127 righteous years.
Why does the Midrash make a point of telling us the context – the students nodding off – in which R’ Akiva taught this derasha? I’m sure it must make teachers feel better to know that even R’ Akiva struggled to keep his student’s attention, and maybe it makes students feel better to know that dozing off in class is not a new phenomenon, but I doubt this is the message Chazal wanted to convey. And what exactly was it about R’ Akiva’s question that woke them up?
R’ Akiva lived in the period immediately following the churban of the bais hamikdrash – a time of great transition, from greatness to galus. It was not ordinary physical sleep that R’ Akiva’s students were overcome with, but rather it was a lack of spiritual and emotional energy to deal with what seemed to be the overwhelming challenges they faced. 
Esther’s name comes from the words, “hester panim.” Esther too lived in a time when G-d’s presence was hidden. Nonetheless, Esther rose to rule over the entire world. How? Because generations beforehand there was a Sarah Imeinu whose spiritual influence extended long into the future to protect her children even amidst that hester.
The Chiddushei haRI”M explains that R’ Akiva was telling his students that no matter how bleak things looked, they were standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, and could therefore still achieve great things.
2) Helping someone in need is not the gemilus chassadim that was Avraham Avinu's hallmark.  Providing help to someone in distress is basic human decency; to not do so would be callous.  You're not a tzadik for doing what should be the norm. 
So what made Avraham special?  Let's look at what Rivka did to prove that she shared that same midah.  Along comes a caravan of camels, led my a group of able bodied men, laden with "kol tuv" of Avraham, all kinds of goods and material.  Due to Eliezer having kefitzas haderech, these camels haven't even broken a sweat.  They could travel for miles more without a break.  Rivka is just three years old, barely old enough to be out alone.  What does she do?  She offers to draw water not just for Eliezer, but for all his camels.  Imagine the reaction of anyone seeing this scene - it's ludicrous!  They would laugh at her offer.  Surely Eliezer and his men were far more capable of caring for the camels than Rivka was, surely they had enough of their own provisions to tend to the camels if they needed food or drink, and surely there was no way Rivka's help (barring a miracla) could have made much of a difference.  But she offered anyway. 
R' Yitzchak Isaac Sher explains that what made Rivka (and Avraham) special is the desire to help even when there is no apparent need, even when it won't seem to make much difference, and even when others can get by without it.  So why help?  Because you want to do good. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

no reaction

Right after it says that the malachim left Avraham's home to go to Sdom, Hashem says, "Erdah na v'er'eh...," (18:21) let me go down and see what's going on in Sdom and judge whether they really deserve to be punished.

Shouldn't Hashem have judged Sdom *before* the malachim started off there?  After all, the malachim's mission was to destroy Sdom and save Lot.  If Hashem hadn't made up his mind yet, what were the malachim going for?

The Shem m'Shmiel explains that sending the malachim was part of Hashem's process of judging Sdom.  Experiencing something holy should cause a person to reflect and improve.  Hashem sent the malachim to Sdom as a test to see what would happen.  If Sdom would remain status quo, with no change and no reaction, that would prove that there was nothing left that could be saved.  If they reacted positively, then there was still a chance they could be spared.

Look at Lot's behavior in contrast to that of Sdom.  Lot ran away from Avraham to the spiritually worst place in the world, Sdom, because it was beautiful land that had plentiful pasture.  Lot did not seem like the type individual who would stick his neck out for Torah and mitzvos.  Yet we see in our parsha that Lot does a turnaround and does hachnasas orchim even at great risk to his life.  What happened?  The answer is that the visit of the malachim awakened something inside him that had long been dormant.  When exposed to the great of the malachim, Lot could not help but return to the good practices that he had learned once upon a time from Avraham.  The experience showed that there indeed was goodness still inside him, and therefore, he was saved.

The people of Sdom encountered those same malachim but failed to react.  For Lot, it was a turning point back to mitzvos.  

Thursday, November 06, 2014

too much knowledge

There is a nice vort of the Noam Elimelech on this week's parsha that I think is even sharper if you put it in the context of Avraham’s question of "Bameh eidah?" When Avraham is travelling to the akeidah, it says, "Va'yar es hamakom mei’rachok,” he saw the place from afar.  What did Avraham see?  How did he recognize the place he was supposed to go to?  Rashi explains that Avraham saw a cloud that hovered on Har HaMoriya.  But it’s still strange that the Torah tells us that he spotted the place even before he got there – of what consequence is that information?  The Noam Elimelech reads the pasuk figuratively and sees it as telling us something critical about the akeidah.  The word “makom” alludes to another pasuk later on in Braishis: when Ya’akov is travelling to Lavan’s house at it says, “Vayifga bamakom...” and there he dreams of the angels going up and down.  This is what Avraham saw --  Avraham knew that he would have a grandchild that would be Ya’akov Avinu, and therefore he also knew that there had to be a Yitzchak Avinu in between.   The greatness of Avraham is that he put that knowledge completely out of his mind so that the akeidah would be a real test.   He saw that “makom” of Ya'akov, but it was “rachok,” something that he distanced himself from, lest it interfere with the nisayon at hand.  My 2 cents: if Avraham’s sin of "bameh eidah" was in seeking too much knowledge, then what better tikun could there be than his forsaking knowledge, ignoring the knowledge of the “makom” of Ya’akov Avinu, in order to approach the challenge of the akeidah with simple emunah?  

emor m'at v'aseh harbei

Chazal say that Avraham exemplified the midah of “emor m’at v’aseh harbei” as we see from this week's parsha where he offered to serve the angels a bite of bread and then brought out a whole gourmet fleishig seudah.  Ephron, in next week’s parsha, exemplifies the opposite, as we see from his at first passing off Avraham’s offer to buy Me’aras haMachpeila as a trifling and then collecting full price for it.

Lichorah this idea of “emor m’at” is simply a hedge against getting caught in a lie.  Don’t promise too much, because in the end, you may not be able to deliver.  Circumstances arise… things happen. However, Avos D”R Nosson (ch 13) writes that even Hashem practices this midah: Avraham was told in last week’s parsha , “V’gam es hagoy asher ya’avodu dan anochi” – just 2 letters, daled-nun – and the Egyptians in the end were punished with miracles and miracles.  Hashem, according to the Avod D”R Nosson, deliberately did not mention the full measure of punishment that would be brought upon Egypt because Hashem is “omeir m’at.”  In the Shiurei Da’as, in a shiur written over by my wife’s grandfather, R’ Bloch asks: if “emor m’at v’aseh harbei” is just a hedge against not being able to fulfill your promise, then what sense does it make for Hashem to practice this midah?  Hashem is kol yachol and can do anything, and He knows in advance all the circumstances and obstacles that stand in the way of something being accomplished.  Surely he needs no hedge against not being able to carry out what he says!  

A strong question, no?  I don't think I can do justice to the answer.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

pig's milk

The Aruch haShulchan (Y.D. 115:6) writes that he heard that in America in particular many of the non-Jews are accustomed to drinking pig's milk (rather than milk from a kosher animal like a cow) because pigs are so commonly found.  I was just curious: is there any basis in fact for this being the case in 19th century America, or is this just a story that got passed around?  Anyone know?

Avraham -- the first centrist?

One more point on last week’s parsha before moving on: In every place the Torah mentions that Avraham stopped, something happened – Hashem appeared to him, he offered a korban, etc.  There is a reason specific places are mentioned.  The exception seems to be the statement (12:9) that Avraham was “haloch v’naso’a haNegba.”  What happened there?  Why did he head south? 

Seforno answers that Avraham had camped (see 12:8) right in between the cities of Beit El and the Ai.  His sphere of influence extended equally to both places.  Had he moved a little bit in one direction or the other, east or west, he would have been moving further away from one of these two locations and had influenced there would have been diminished.  Therefore, the Torah tells us that Avraham limited his travel to heading southward, maintaining the same longitudinal axis.

Does this mean Avraham was the first centrist?

Why the double language of “haloch v’naso’a?”  The Alshich explains that Avraham headed south to go to Har Sinai to experience the kedushas hamakom there. Avraham was “haloch.”  The word “naso’a,” explains the Alshich, is not referring to Avraham, but rather to the kedusha of Sinai.  When you travel towards kedusha, it comes out to greet you. 

We find the same thing in Parshas Zos haBracha: the pasuk doesn’t say, “Hashem l’Sinai ba…,” that the Shechina came to Sinai, but rather, “Hashem m’Sinai ba…,” Hashem came out from Sinai.  The Torah is telling us that when Bnei Yisrael came to receive the Torah, the Shechina came out from Sinai to greet them.

Don't worry about how you will complete your journey when you start on a trek to kedusha -- the kedusha will come out and meet you half way.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

remaining true to yourself

Avraham's refusal to accept anything from the King of Sdom lest the King of Sdom claim, "Ani he'esharti es Avraham," I have made Avraham rich, strikes some of the meforshim as difficult to fathom. It was only Avraham, acting independently, who was able to turn the tide of battle and rout the enemy where Sdom and others had failed.  The King of Sdom was stuck literally begging Avraham for his kingdom back. Surely for him to claim that he enriched Avraham would strike anyone as ludicrous.

I'm a cynical reader so this question doesn't really bother me thay much. Watch or read the news put out by any major media news outlet and you will see truth distorted into falsehood and falsehood peddled as truth on a nighly basis, and the gullible, ignorant public buys it hook, line, and sinker. But I'll take the question as is only to give you the Shem m'Shmuel's answer. There are two ways to win over an enemy: 1) crush them with brute strength and force; 2) overpower them with love and kindness so that they cannot help but give up their animosity. Avraham was the paragon of chessed. He won over those who disagreed with him through his generosity. Yet, in our parsha he was forced to go to war to save Lot.  Had he taken riches in the process, his image would have been forever tarnished. When people looked at Avraham they would no longer see a man who earned success through chessed, but rather they would see a man who earned success through warfare. "Ani he'esharti es Avraham": the King of Sdom would say that it was Avraham's becoming like him -- a warrior -- that brought Avraham true riches and success -- not Avraham's love and kindness.  Avraham preferred to give up the riches and spoils of war and remain true to his own identity rather than risk that identity for the sake of material possessions.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Avraham Avinu, founding father

Rabbi Ehrman already beat me to writing up an amazing Maharal on last week's parsha that says that Avraham only achieved greatness in Eretz Yisrael.  How can this be, asks R' Hartman in his footnotes?  Avraham was 75 years old when he came to Eretz Yisrael.  He already was a big tzadik, he already was being makareiv and megayeir people -- he had achieved all this starting from nothing while living in chutz la'aretz.  Was this not greatness?  Yet we see from the Maharal that Avraham's position as one of the Avos was not possible without Eretz Yisrael.

Why should this be the case?  I would like to suggest that the Avos had dual role: the Avos were not simply great tzadikim, but were also (as the name suggests) the founding fathers of our nation.  By definition, a nation must have a homeland.  Founding fathers must, in fulfilling that role, help establish that homeland.  George Washington could not be the founding father of the USA had he lived in England, even if he would have supported the Revolution more than any other patriot on Continental soil.  Avraham Avinu might have been among the greatest of tzadikim, but without coming to Eretz Yisrael he could not have been the father of our nation.

the greatest punishment a parent can receive

Chazal tell us that because Avraham asked "Ba’meh eidah…," for a sign that his children would inherit Eretz Yisrael, he was punished with "Yado’a teida…," Hashem telling him that Bnei Yisrael would be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. The Kli Yakar uses some very harsh language – "haseichel yema’ain l’kabeil dersush zeh" -- in questioning what Chazal mean by this. If indeed Avraham sinned, asks the Kli Yakar, then why did not G-d punish him directly? Why lash out at future generations while letting Avraham himself off scott-free?

Afar ani tachas raglav of the Kli Yakar, but I don't see the question. The greatest pain you can cause to a parent is to bring harm to his/her children. Whatever punishment Hashem would have brought upon Avraham directly would have been easier for him to bear than hearing that his children would be enslaved for centuries. (Maybe you can read that into the Kli Yakar's answer, but it sounds to me like his point is that seeking knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing; G-d responded to Avraham's improper quest to know "ba'meh eidah"  by revealing "yado'a teidah," bad news that he would otherwise have kept hidden.)