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. 

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