Thursday, November 26, 2015

what the people of Shchem did wrong

Our parsha opens with Ya’akov worried about his upcoming encounter with Eisav.  He says to G-d, “Atah amarta heiteiv eitiv eimach v’samti es zaracha k’chol ha’yam…”  You promised, G-d, that things would be good!  Flip back a few parshiyos to the akeidah, and you won’t find there a similar pasuk – you won’t find Avraham saying to G-d, “You promised ‘ki b’Yitzchak yikarei lecha zarah’ and now I have to kill him?!”  Why the difference? 

I haven’t really seen anyone ask this question.  Maybe it’s not a good question -- what do you think?  (See Sefas Emes at the end of 5637)

In past years I think I’ve written a lot about the opening of the parsha but never got around to discussing the episode with Shechem.  The story presents a few problems, chief of which is m'mah nafshach: can it be that Shimon and Levi are guilty of duplicitousness, or worse, unjustly killing the inhabitants of Shchem?  If not, why is Ya'akov critical of their behavior?  The stronger your answer to question #1 and your defense of Shimon and Levi, the harder the second question is to answer, and vica versa.

Rambam famously writes that the residents of Shchem were guilty of violating the ben noach obligation of dinim because they had no court to bring Shchem to justice.  Ramban rejects this view.  Why focus on dinim, asks Ramban, when the Canaanite societies were guilty of so many other ben noach violations -- e.g. idolatry, arayos, etc.  Secondly, and this brings us back to the point above, if they were indeed guilty of some issur ben noach, why did Ya'akov himself not mete out justice?  Thirdly, writes Ramban, a ben noach is chasyav misah only for violating a negative commandment, but not for failure to fulfill a positive commandment like dinim. 

Ramban disagrees fundamentally with the Rambam’s whole definition of the mitzvah of dinim.  The mitzvah, writes Ramban, is not about creating a court system to enforce law, but rather is about creating the system of law.  I imagine Rambam might argue that laws sans a mechanism of enforcement are essentially meaningless.

Ramban offers a different, simpler reason to justify killing the inhabitants to Shchem: it was a wicked place.  Idolatry, arayos, and more -- it was a corrupt society, much like the rest of Canaan.  Ya’akov protested only because the people of Shehem had committed to doing milah, which, in his estimation, raised enough of a doubt in his mind that perhaps they were on the road to teshuvah.  I think this particular point in the Ramban is significant.  Achronim debate whether there is a concept of teshuvah for an aku”m, or whether Yonah’s message to Ninveh was a propehtic hora’as sha’ah.  It would seem from the Ramban that teshuvah is possible.

Later meforshim point out a few linguistic nuances in the story that they use to address these same issues:

When Chamor speaks with Ya’akov, he reports that his son “chashkah nafsho,” for Dinah (34:8).  However, when Shchem actually does the milah, the Torah says “ki chafeitz b’bas Ya’akov.” (34:19) Malbim explains that “cheshek” is a personal desire, a lust; “cheifetz” is a utilitarian want.  Shchem’s desire had cooled off, but he realized that hooking up with Ya’akov’s family was a good idea for pragmatic reasons – wealth, prominence, etc.  There was no “lishma” to his actions; it was a superficial and false conversion.

It’s worth nothing that the Bnei Ya’akov did not just ask the people of Shechem to do milah.  What they asked is, “Im ti’hiyu kamonu l’himol lachem.” (34:15) Become like us -- milah is a symbol of their willingness to adopt the culture of Bnei Ya’akov as their own, not just a surgical operation.  Rashi comments on the word “b’himol – l’hiyos nimol.”  Sefas Emes explains that Rashi is shifting our focus from the act of milah, the operation, to the state of being after the milah, this attitudinal and cultural shift that Shchem would have had to undergo.  That is what the people of Shchem failed to accept.

Rashi explains that the Bnei Ya’akov attacked specifically on the third day after milah, “b’heyosam koavim,” because on that day the pain was most intense and the people would be unable to fight back.  The Rishonim (e.g. see the Tur) prove from sugyos in Mes. Shabbos that the pain on the first two days is no less intense than on the third day (nafka minah for chilul Shabbos).  So why did Shimon and Levi wait?  The Ksav v’Kabbalah answers that the key word is “koavim.”  What kind of pain are we talking about?  Yosif da’as yosif machov” – the same root as “koavim.”  A person doesn’t feel physical pain from too much knowledge -- what he/she feels is psychological pain, worry.  On the third day after the milah the people of Shechem were in no more pain than on the first two days, but their attitude, their psychology, changed.  They were now “koavim” because they had buyer’s remorse and regretted the whole deal.  Shimon and Levi were attuned to this shift in attitude that proved the whole conversion was false, and therefore they attacked.

The common denominator to all these ideas: the people of Shchem were not serious in their commitment to the culture of morality required by the Bnei Ya’akov.

One final point: The She’eiris Menachem quotes that the Rebbe of Biala asked what Ya’akov was thinking when he heard his sons tell Shchem that they would have to do milah.  Did he not realize that this was a ruse, that there was no way his sons would turn over Dinah to Shchem after what he had done?  Did he have a hava amina himself of turning her over?  The Rebbe explained that of course Ya’akov was not prepared to do that.  The Ibn Ezra famously gives a mashal to explain the mitzvah of “lo tachmod”: a pauper entertains no illusions of being able to marry the king’s daughter; in reality, the beast knows he will never marry the princess.  The knowledge that it can never happen curbs any desire.  The same is true of all desires and wants – they can be controlled.  Ya’akov thought that this concept is true for his children, but what could one expect from the people of Shchem, who lived in an immoral, debased society?  How could they be expected to realize that in ruchniyus, his daugther is like a princess and they are on a different level entirely?  The answer is through the mitzvah of milah.  Ya’akov’s intent was that through the mitzvah of milah, Shchem would come to taste just enough spirituality so that he would realize who Dina was, who he was, and how impossible and ridiculous the suggestion that they remain together was.  Such is the power of milah, of just one mitzvah, to awaken a person and cause him/her to see the world in a different way!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

ain somchin al ha'nes -- praying for a miracle

Rashi quotes from Chazal that Leah was supposed to have another son, but given that there were going to be only 12 shevatim, she realized that if she has a baby boy, it would mean that Rachel would be the mother of even fewer shevatim than the shefachos. Leah therefore davened that her baby be switched to become a girl, and Dinah was born.

The gemara asks how such a thing is possible. The Mishna in Brachos writes that a person who says a ye’hi ratzon and asks for his pregnant wife to give birth to a boy is wasting his breath. Once the fetus’ sex is fixed, there is no going back. The gemara gives two answers: 1) what happened to Leah was a miracle; 2) the sex of the fetus is fixed only after 40 days from conception and Leah davened within the 40 day window.

The Midrash Tanchuma raises the same issue but gives a very different answer. Nothing is impossible for G-d, says the Midrash (a very frum answer!) – even changing the sex of the fetus in utero.

Some of the meforshei Rashi understand that the gemara and Tanchuma are at odds. The Mishna holds that what Leah asked for was impossible; the Midrash holds that G-d can do anything. There must be some braysa or other Tanna out there that the Tanchuma relies on in contradiction to the Mishna. (It would be interesting to speculate what the nekudas hamachlokes here might be. Is this like the question of whether G-d can make a square circle? It doesn't sound like the same question.)

The Taz (here), however, writes that there is no contradiction. The gemara in Brachos, explains the Taz, is addressing the question of how it is possible for the sex of a baby to change – a practical question. To that, the gemara answers that it must have been a miracle (or before 40 days). But there is another question that the gemara does not address: given that what Leah was asking for could only come about through a miracle, how could she ask for it? Why was it not a tefilas shav, a waste of breath, like the case in the Mishna? It must be, says the Taz, that there is a difference between saying a ye'hi ratzon for the baby to be born a boy when you know the fetus is a girl vs. asking Hashem to change the sex of the fetus. One is a request for a square circle -- a girl that is a boy. The other is a request for the circle to be transformed into a square -- a different metziyus. True, that would take a miracle -- but, explains the Tanchuma, there is nothing that says you can't pray for a miracle.   

Ain somchin al ha'nes, says the Taz, only applies to the realm of action. When it comes to tefilah, you can shoot for the stars, even if it would take a miracle to get what you want. (See Maharasha in Kidushin 29b as well).

One other point on tefilah: "Vayizkor Elokim es Rachel vayishma eileha Elokim..." (30:22) At first glance you would expect the two clauses to be reversed, i.e. first "vayishma," Hashem would hear Rachel's tefilah, and then "vayizkor," he would remember to do something for her. But that's not how it works. The Ohr haChaim explains that first there is the "vayizkor," Hashem "remembering" that he wants to do something for Rachel. But, as we discussed back here also from the Ohr haChaim, even when Hashem wants to give a person something, it's not a freebie -- the person still has to earn the gift. Hashem helps out by providing the opportunity to do so. Rachel still had to do her part, in this case davening, so that "vayishma eileha..."

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rachel stealing the terafim: afrushei m'siursa by a ben noach

I ended off before Shabbos with the following question: the Meshech Chochma (and the Ohr haChaim learns this way as well) explains that when Ya’akov said that whoever stole Lavan’s terafim should die, it was not just a kelala, but it was a psak din -- a ben noach is chayav misa for gezel.  If so, how could Rachel have done it?

My initial thought was that that Rachel was acting to prevent Lavan from doing an issur of avodah zarah (this assumes that terafim were an avodah zarah, but not all the meforshim accept that) and therefore she had license to do what she could l’afrushei m’isura.  What I wasn't sure about was whether there is a concept of afrushei m’isura by a ben noach.  The gemara says explicitly that that there is an issur of lifnei iveir to trip up a ben noach and cause him/her to violate an issur, but lifnei iveir only applies where you are the sole means by which the individual in question has the means to do the issur, e.g. you are the only avodah zarah salesman in town.  If the aku"m has other means of getting his idols, your selling him one is not lifnei iveir.  It would, however, pose a problem of the issur derabbanan that says you should try l'afrushei m'isura.  Shach in Y.D. 151:6 says that there is no requirement of being afrushei m'isura by an aku"m, but the Gilyon Maharasha on the spot sends you to a MG”A that disagrees.  (I don't know whether this hinges on whether the derabbanan of afrushei m'isura is an extension of lifnei iveir or a separate din.)

That being said, I’m not sure the cases are comparable.  The Shach is speaking about avoiding doing something which would enable an aku”m to do issurim, like selling him an idol.  The case of Rachel stealing the terafim is a case of her violating an issur misa to prevent another ben noach from a different issur misa.

I saw the following quoted in the name or R’ Chaim: when Ya’akov originally paskened that whoever stole the terafim was chayav misa, he assumed that one of the servants, a ben noach, was the thief.  The pasuk continues and tells us that Ya'akov got it wrong because, “V’lo yada ki Rachel ganavasam,” and Rachel has a din of a yisrael, not ben noach, and therefore there is no chiyuv misa.
Yes, saying it was an aveira lishma solves everything, but you can use that to explain away any apparent misdeed on the part of on of the Avos or Imahos.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

v'haya Hashem li l'Elokim --- ain v'haya elah lashon simcha

Apologies, this is going to ramble a bit : (  Too long a week and too little time, yet again. If you get bored, skip to the question at the end.

At the end of last week’s parsha Rivka realized that Ya’akov needed to escape from Eisav, so she told Yitzchak to send him off to Lavan’s house to find a wife.  Ohr haChaim explains that she did not tell Yitzchak directly about Eisav because of the issur rechilus (is there an issur rechilus on a rasha?), and instead used wanting to get Ya’akov married as an excuse to send him off.  How long was Ya’akov supposed to stay away?  Rivka first says “ad asher tashuv chamas achicha” (27:44) and then adds “ad shuv af achicha mimcha…” (27:45)  Why the double-language?   R’ Yitzchak m’Volozhin explains that the barometer that reveals whether someone is mad at you is your own feelings about that person.  He suggests derech derush that Rivka was telling Ya’akov to look inside himself and see whether “shuv af achicha *mimcha,*” mimcha=from within you, and then you will know whether the anger has passed from Eisav.

So Ya’akov departs and on the way (after a 14 year pit stop) he dreams and sees “hinei Hashem nitzav alav” and angels are going up and down.  Ya’akov is the focal point of the universe – everything going on in shamayim, all the malachim, revolve around him; they go up from him and come back down to him, because where he is the Shechina is (Netziv).  “V’hinei Hashem nitzav alav” is not an introduction to the bracha that will follow, explains the Ishbitzer, but is itself a bracha.  "Nitzav,"as opposed to "omeid," implies permanence – always there and always will be there.  Omeid means to arise at that moment (homework assignment: does this fit other pesukim where nitzav vs omeid is used?  I honestly don’t see how this fits in other contexts.)  The kedusha of Ya’akov, like the kedusha of Shabbos, is “keviya v’kayma”– it is always present, irrespective of what was done or what will be done.  Yom Tov requires sanctification (of the month) by Beis Din.  Shabbos happens, whether you prepare for it or not, whether you are ready and accept it or not.  Beis Din doesn’t make it happen.  We don’t forge or create a relationship with Hashem; the relationship is “nitzav” and already there – we just discover and reveal it (hopefully).

"Ha'aretz asher atah shocheiv aleha..."  Do we need a reminder that Ya'akov was sleeping there on that piece of land?  Why not just say, "ha'aretz...?"  Because the pasuk is not just speaking to Ya'akov -- it's speaking to us.  We are asleep!  Oblivious most of the time to what our chovos b'olamo are, what we need to do and should be doing. Daughter #1 bought me a sefer by R' Chaim Kohen, the "chalban," called "Hakitzu v'Ranenu," based on the pasuk "hakitzu v'ranenu shochnei afar."  We are only slowly waking up from galus.  And yet, even though we are asleep, Hashem has given us Eretz Yisrael.       

Hashem promises to keep Ya’akov safe, and in turn Ya’akov makes a neder that if he indeed has food to eat and clothes to wear and returns home safely, “v’haya Hashem li l’Elokim.”  It sound c”v like Ya’akov is making a pledge of faith contingent on G-d doing stuff for him, which is impossible.  Faith has to be an unconditional commitment.  There are two basic approaches in the Rishonim: Rashi interprets what Ya’akov is saying not as a pledge on his part, but as part of the condition he is setting up, part of what G-d will do for him.  Rashi brings a derush that Ya’akov was asking for his offspring to not have a psul (it’s hard to see how the words lend itself to this reading).  Ramban does read the phrase as a pledge on Ya’akov’s part, but not as a commitment to faith, but rather to a higher form of avodah, the avodah that can only be done in Eretz Yisrael and not chutz la’aretz.  Seforno interprets the sheimos of Hashem in the phrase in their technical sense: at the end of the journey, Hashem, the midas ha’rachamim, would be able to act as Elokim, the midas ha’din, because Ya’akov would have earned the rewards promised and given.  See Netziv who tries to have his cake and eat it and interpret the phrase both as a pledge by Ya’akov and a promise by Hashem – it is about creating a relationship, which needs two to tango.

The Midrash writes that the statement, “V’haya Hashem li l’Elokim,” is the key to geulah.  The promises of geulah  all start with “v’haya,” e.g. “v’haya bayom ha’hu yitaka b’shofar gadol,” and these all come as a reward for this phrase of "v'haya Hashem li l'Elokim."  This seems to only makes sense if you read the phrase as a pledge on the part of Ya’akov, like Ramban and Seforno.  If it is part of what G-d was promising to do, like Rashi understands, why would Ya’akov receive reward for using these words?    

Putting aside the pshat in the phrase, what are Chazal in the Midrash trying to tell us?  Obviously saying the word “v’haya” is not a magic spell that triggers geulah.  So what is it about Ya’akov’s words that are significant?

R’ Shimon Sofer, the Ksav Sofer’s son, writes that Hashem had promised Ya’akov that he would be protected in his journey and would make it home safely.  Had Ya’akov just been echoing Hashem’s words and pledging in return to take ma’aser and establish a “beis Elokim,” he would have mentioned food and clothing and safety and stopped there.  But Ya’akov chose to add something additional – “v’haya Hashem li l’Elokim.”  What worried Ya’akov perhaps more, and certainly not less, than concern for his physical living conditions -- his food, clothes, and shelter -- was his ruchniyus.  How would that remain intact during his stay with Lavan?  Therefore, he asked Hashem in addition to physical wellbeing to help him with ruchniyus wellbeing.  Chazal are telling us that when we are in galus, if above and beyond thinking about our physical wellbeing, which is so often in danger,  we also are show concern for our ruchniyus, which is so often in danger and we don’t even realize it, then we will be worthy of redemption. 

It’s a nice pshat that takes the phrase as a whole into account, but the focus of the Midrash seems to be on that one word, “v’haya,” as all the geulah pesukim quoted share that common phrase.  What is it about that one word that is so key?  The Shem m’Shmuel reminds us of the rule of thumb that “ain v’haya elah lashon simcha.”  Galus, whether in Lavan’s home or elsewhere, is tough.  We are tough too, and that’s why so many of us remain committed despite all the challenges.  But commitment to avodas Hashem and joy in avodas Hashem are two different things.  Take a look at your average high school kid going to yeshiva – he or she goes, but it’s like a jail sentence that can’t end soon enough.  Ya’akov was asking Hashem for help not just to remain committed, but to remain b’simcha in his commitment.  That’s the key to survival in galus and ultimately to geulah.

Jumping to the end of the parsha, I have a question but no answer yet.  Ya’akov, not realizing that Rachel was the thief, tells Lavan that whoever stole his terafiim should die.  Meshech Chochma points out that this is not just a kelala-curse by Ya’akov, but it’s a halachic statement.  A ben Noach is chayav misah for theft.  So I don’t understand.  Even if Rachel’s motives were pure and she wanted to take these avodah zarah tools away from her father, still, how could she violate an issur gezel, an issur misah? 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yitzchak's blindness

The parsha tells us that Yitzchak could not see who he was giving a bracha to because “va’tichena einav mei’re’os,” his eyes were dim and he could not see.  Seforno points out that Avraham and Ya’akov did not suffer the same loss of vitality in old age, but we find that Eli haKohen grew blind because he did not admonish his children properly.  Seforno seems to be suggesting that Yitzchak had too soft a hand in dealing with Eisav and therefore suffered blindness as a punishment -- interesting that he would attribute guilt to Yitzchak where, as far as I know, Chazal do not.  Netziv suggests that Yitzchak’s blindness was b’hashgacha so that Ya’akov would be able to take the brachos meant for Eisav.  Similarly, the Midrash suggests that the blindness was not a punishment, but was for Yitzchak’s benefit.  The word “mei’re’os” in the pasuk is extra – obviously someone with dim vision cannot see.  The Midrash darshens that the pasuk is alluding to the reason for Yitzchak’s blindness: so that he would not be able to see and be disappointed by the bad deeds of Eisav.  According to another view Yitzchak’s blindness prevented him from going out of his home – from being seen in public – sparing him the embarrassment of hearing people remark that this was the father of that rasha Eisav.  (I guess it’s human nature for that people remark on his being the father of Eisav the rasha while ignoring the fact that he was also the father of Ya’akov the tzadik.  It's much more fun to focus on the negative.)   

Assuming that Yitzchak’s blindness is not a punishment for any wrongdoing on his part, then I think we have to assume the benefit of his not being the subject of public gossip or the benefit of his not seeing Eisav doing wrong outweighed the cost of his suffering blindness.  Sometimes bad things happen and the reason why is because they are better than the alternative, which the person suffering may not even imagine.  What bothers me is that Chazal tell us “suma chashuv k’meis,” blindness is equivalent to death.  Is being the focus of gossip or feeling bad because your kid is OTD a fate worse than death?  How can anything outweigh death in the cost/benefit analysis?

Let me suggest an answer (and I hope someone has a better one).  When Chazal equate being blind with death, it is metaphorical.  Built in to the nature of a Jew is the desire to show chessed and rachmanus.  What Chazal are telling us (as R’ Eliezer Eisenberg summarizes from R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz here) is that when a person is blind and cannot see the pain of others and cannot react and respond, he has lost something of his humanity.  It’s much harder to do chessed under those circumstances, and without the ability to do chessed, something essential is lacking from life.  Perhaps what the Midrash means is that when you have to deal with an Eisav ha’rasha, showing rachmanus may make things worse (see the Seforno above).  When people you are the subject of gossip in the street, maybe it’s not worth going out and doing chessed for those people.  The eyes are a kli for doing kindness.  The removal of Yitzchak’s sight so he would not have to see Eisav, or not have to go out and be exposed to slander, is a “ptur,” so to speak, granted by Hashem, so that Yitzchak would not be able to or required to extend chessed to those who were not deserving of it.

the enormous power of even one good deed

1) “Vayirarcheihu vayomar re’eih reiach b’ni k’reiach sadeh asher beiracho Hashem…”  It first glance it would seem that the bracha given to Ya’akov begins with the words “v’yiten lecha…” and the description of the fragrance (which Rashi explains to mean the fragrance of gan eden) of Ya’akov’s clothing is background information.  Yet that’s not what the text says.  The word “vayivarcheihu” comes before the description of that fragrance, not after it, indicating that it too is part of the bracha. 

Seforno explains that a field provides food for animals, maybe a place for them to live.  The beautiful fragrance of the field is not strictly a functional necessity – it’s an added gift for the neshoma to enjoy (the gemara learns the obligation to make a bracha on smells from the pasuk of “kol haneshoma te’hallel K-h).  The same is true of everything else – there is a pnimiyus to the world that is there for the neshoma to enjoy in addition to what is there for the guf to use.  The ability to see and appreciate that is the starting point for bracha (see Bad Kodesh by R’ Povarsky who elaborates on this Seforno further).

2) Yitzchak tells Eisav, “Sa na keilecha teliycha v’kashtecha v’tzuda li… v’aseh li matamim…”  He doesn’t just say, “Prepare a nice steak for me,” but rather he walks Eisav through every step of the process – gathering his tools, his bow, going out to hunt, preparing the food, etc.  I was once asked on an interview how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I replied that you put the peanut butter on the bread, etc.  The interviewer then asked whether my hands would get all dirty doing that – I never said anything about using a knife.  The point he was creatively trying to make is that when communicating, it's best not to make assumptions.  If you are a trying to explain something technical to a non-technical person (I work in IT), best to be explicit and take nothing for granted.  I think in this case it’s fair to assume Eisav could figure out what to do without being told every detail.  Why did Yitzchak waste so many words? 
Netziv answers (see Seforno as well) that Yitzchak wanted to maximize Eisav’s reward for kibud av.  Yitzchak was about to give (or so he thought) Eisav a bracha and brachos have to be earned.  Had Yitzchak just said to bring him a meal, Eisav could have gone to the fridge and with little effort pulled out a steak and prepared it.  All Eisav would have gotten credit in that case is the end result.  By telling Eisav to go out and hunt game and prepare it, Eisav got credit for the whole process along the way – everything he did, from the hunting through the cooking, was a kiyum mitzvah of kibud av and earned reward. 
Tosfos (Yevamos 6a) interprets the gemara’s statement that kibuv av is a “hecsher mitzvah” to mean that all that’s important is the outcome.  If a parent says “Get me a glass of water,” filling the pitcher and pouring a cup is not the mitzvah – that’s just preparation for the mitzvah.  What matters for the mitzvah is simply that the parent’s needs are met.  The Netziv I think follows this view (Rashi in Yevamos learns the gemara differently and may disagree with this assumption) and is arguing that where the parent makes clear that he/she is concerned with the steps in the process, with how things are done, and not just the outcome, then the process becomes a true mitzvah and not just a hechsher.

From the fact that Yitzchak had to offer Eisav this chance to earn the bracha, Seforno sees evidence that Yitzchak knew that Eisav was not really worthy.  If not for this opportunity for the zechus of kibud av, the bracha would not work.  If that’s the case, I think it’s pretty amazing that this one act of kibuv av was all Eisav needed.  No matter how hard or involved the chore might have been, it's still just one mitzvah!  The Rambam in his Peirsh haMishnayos famously writes that in fact if a person does even one mitzvah lishma, he/she earns olam ha’ba.  “Ratzah Hashem l’zakos es Yisrael l’fikach hirbah lahem Torah u’mitzvos” – Hashem have us 613 mitzvos because each one is like a lottery ticket; you just need one ticket to win, so the more tickets you have, the better your odds.  Maharal at the end of Avos rejects this chiddush completely.  If someone is generally a bad person, argues Maharal, it doesn’t make sense that he/she should get olam ha’ba just for doing one thing right.  Maharal amazingly goes so far as to suggest that the Rambam wrote this for public consumption in order to inspire people to try to do mitzvos properly, but didn’t actually believe it -- this despite the Rambam calling it “m’ikarei emumah ba’Torah!”  Modern academics debate whether the Rambam concealed his true beliefs behind what he revealed in his writings; Maharal beat them by a few hundred years. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

role models

When my son is home for Shabbos he almost always insists on our singing K-h Echsof, which is by far his favorite zemer.  It’s interesting that K-h Ecshof seems to have such a broad appeal, from the chassidic world of Karlin to the intellectual halls of Gush:

I mention it this week because of the remez in the parsha.  Avraham is called “NASI Elokim” by the Bnei Cheis.  The letters of NASI, says the Viznitzer – nun, aleph, s(h)in, yud -- are the same letters as K (with a yud)-h Echsof Noam Shabbos.  Avraham was a prince because he carried with him the niggun of K-h Echsof, the dveikus of Shabbos.

Coming back down to earth : ), in last week’s parsha, when Avraham davens on behalf of Sdom, he cries to G-d that he is “afar v’eifer,” dust and ashes, and therefore his prayers should be heard.  I think the simple pshat is that Avraham stressed his own nothingness because of the gemara (Sotah 5) that G-d does not reject the prayers of an anav.  Maharal (Nesiv ha’Anavah 1) explains that tefilah is like a korban.  The point of sacrificing an animal as a korban is to show that everything is bateil before G-d – the animal is destroyed and becomes nothing.  Being an anav is even greater because instead of just a symbolic act of bittul, the anav’s whole life is one of bittul before Hashem.  That creates a special relationship.

Chasam Sofer has a different approach.  People learn by example.  Liberals have rachmanus for those who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and were deprived of solid role models and a good home environment and as a result become what they become.  No one has the same rachmanus if they hear that a criminal had a wonderful home, the best education, etc.  The people of Sdom lived in the same area as the greatest exemplar of chessed, Avraham Avinu.  They had the best role model in the world!  Still, they didn’t get the message.  Under those circumstances, how could Avraham ask for rachmanus on their behalf?   Avraham therefore prefaced his tefilos by saying he is afar v’eifer.  Avraham wanted to minimize his own reputation and influence.  What he was saying is “Don’t blame Sdom for not learning from me.  What am I?  I’m a nothing.”

The same idea comes up at the end of last week’s parsha as well.  When travelling toward the site of the akeidah, the Torah says that Avraham saw the place from a distance.  Rashi writes that he perceived a cloud that enveloped the mountain.  Yishmael and Eliezer failed to see the same cloud, and Avraham therefore told them, “Shvu... im ha’chamor,”which Rashi interprets based on Chazal to be an allusion to the fact that they are like the donkey they rode on.  Obviously this was some type of spiritual cloud, not a rain cloud that anyone could see.  But that begs the question – just because they couldn’t see this special spiritual cloud they deserve to be equated with the chamor?

In the sichot of R’ Ya’akov Shapira he explains that when you grow up and live in the house of an Avraham Avinu, then not being able to perceive that spiritual cloud is in fact indicative of a major defect.  Even Hagar, as we read in last week’s parsha, was so used to seeing angels that it made no impression on her; she had no fear of them.   When you have the right role models and/or the right environment, then there is no excuse for not growing.

When Avraham charges Eliezer with the shlichus to find a shidduch for Yitzchak, he tells him not to take from the “Bnos Canaan asher anochi yosheiv b’kirbo.”  We know Avraham lived in Canaan – why repeat that fact here?  To rehash a Ksav Sofer that we discussed once before, Avraham was telling Eliezer *why* he should avoid the Bnos Canaan.  Like Sdom, the Bnos Canaan lived in Avraham Avinu’s neighborhood.  If even with Avraham Avinu, the paragon of tzidkus, living among them, these Bnos Canaan were still lacking in midos, still ovdei avodah zarah, then that indicates that something was very wrong with them. 

The regular day job has been too mind numbing lately to do more with these posts than discuss parsha once a week.  Chaval. 

A question to work on: Eliezer asks Lavan and Besuel to do "chessed v'emes" for Avraham and let Rivka leave to marry Yitzchak (24:49).  In Parhas vaYechi, Ya'akov Avinu asks Yosef to do for him "chessed v'emes" and not bury him in Egypt.  Rashi there explains that "chessed v'emes" refers in particular to burial because it is a kindness that will never be repaid. If so, how does the term make sense in the context of Eliezer's conversation? 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

derech eretz is implicit

In the story of the destruction of Sdom Lot seems to bargain with the angels and win a reprieve for the city of Tzo'ar.  My wife was bothered by this give and take - do angels have agency?  Was it their call to make? 

Ramban address this point:

. והנה זכותו של לוט היה מציל בנים ובנות וחתנים, לא כאשר חשב אברהם שימית צדיק עם רשע. וברור הוא שהיו המלאכים יודעים דעת עליון בזה, כי גם צוער בתפלתו נמלטה:

Even if the text doesn't say that this was G-d's plan or that the angels stopped to consult Hashem, you have to assume they did so.  Ramban then adds:

ויתכן שהיה זה לכבוד האכסניא, כי דרך מוסר לשלוחים להציל בעל ביתם וכל אשר לו, כאשר עשו שלוחי יהושע (יהושע ו כג): שהצילו גם כל משפחת בעלת ביתם

Since derech eretz demands that you can't sleep in someone's home and then blow it up the next day, implicit in G-d's command to destroy Sdom was a built-in exclusion for Lot's home.  I think the ba'alei musar refer to this idea in other places as well.  G-d doesn't have to spell out to leave Lot's house alone.  Even if G-d explicitly said to destroy the ENTIRE city (which Avraham assumed meant tzadik im rasha), derech eretz delimits the command and allows the angels to interpret it she'lo k'peshuto.   It's like a built-in override.

On a totally different note: is there a shul out there that was considering hiring a YCT musmach that will now not do so because the Moetezes of Agudah rejects the institution?  Why do I have a lot of trouble believing that.  So can someone explain to me what exactly was accomplished with their declaration?