Thursday, November 28, 2019

the smell of gan eden

When Yitzchak smelled the clothes of Yaakov, now dressed as Eisav, he called out , “R’ei reiach bni k’reich sadeh asher beiracho Hashem.” The simple pshat I think is, like Ibn Ezra writes, that Eisav’s clothes had absorbed the smell of the outdoors -– not outdoors like the smog of NY City, but outdoors like the fragrant smell of country fields.  But that’s not how Rashi explains the pasuk.  Rashi writes that there is no more repulsive odor than that of the hairy hides that Eisav wore.  The sweet fragrance that Yitzchak smelled was not Eisav’s clothes, but rather was the odor of gan Eden that entered with Yaakov.

Sefas Emes (5647) asks: but the pasuk says that it was Eisav’s smelly clothes -– “bigadav” --  which Yitzchak sniffed, not some holy smell of gan eden.  How can Rashi ignore what the text says and substitute something else in its place? 

The Sefas Emes suggests an approach that puts together two ideas we've learned in the past.  Lets start with a gemara in Shabbos 152 that we spoke about a few years ago:

The rabbis taught: "Return the soul to the Lord as clean as He gave it to thee." This is illustrated by a parable of a king who once gave to his attendants suits of clothes. The wise among them took care of them, kept them clean and folded, and used them on special occasions only. The fools put them on and performed their work in them. Naturally, the clothes became dirty. All at once, the king demanded the clothes back again. The wise men returned them clean and whole, but the fools returned them in a dirty and dilapidated condition. The king was well pleased with the wise men, and told them to depart in peace, and had their clothes stored; but the clothes of the fools he ordered to be sent to the washers, and the fools were sent to prison.

Chazal are not interested in when or how we do laundry.  What Chazal are speaking of is how we treat our neshoma.  Sefas Emes quotes from the Zohar that when a person learns Torah his neshoma is dressed in the garb of the ruach of gan eden; when a person does mitzvos he dresses his neshoma in the levush of the nefesh of gan eden; when a person has holy thoughts and aspirations, he merits a suit of the neshoma of gan eden.  A person can also dress the neshoma in the shmutz of olam ha’zeh and make it filthy.   What kind of levush will the neshoma have on it when it comes time for it to return it its maker?

We learn from  “v’kibadito…” that one’s dress on Shabbos has to be different than the way one dresses during the week.  (In certain locales that seems to mean that you wear a suit and tie to work during the week in order to look professional, but come to shul Shabbos morning in Dockers and a casual shirt because it’s the weekend. I don't think that's what Chazal meant...)  Chazal here too are speaking about the neshoma: if you want to absorb the me’ein olam ha’ba of Shabbos then the neshoma needs the appropriate levush. 

In contrast, Rav Ben Tzion Mutzafi writes in his derashos that it was only because Yaakov put on the garments of his brother Eisav that he  was able to utter the words “Anochi Eisav bechorecha.”  Even if, as Rashi explains, this was not a direct lie (Anochi = I am who am I, and “Eisav bichorecha” = Eisav is the bechor), Yaakov would still not have done it if not for his having slipped on the levushim of Eisav.

Anyone who has heard the Carlebach story “Shvartze Wolf” knows that a person’s neshoma can have an exalted levush in the next world, but in this world we don’t see it and don’t sense it.  Someone who is one of the 36 tzadikim can look like just a simple woodchopper or beggar.  It’s hard for a levush that is so holy to make an appearance down here in olam ha’zeh. 

To again borrow from an idea in an old post, when you walk in the door late Friday afternoon and you smell the cholent on the stove, you smell the fresh challah, the kugel, etc. it’s like it’s Shabbos already even though the candles have not been lit -– the whiff of what’s coming makes the Shabbos a reality.  When Shabbos departs we comfort ourselves with besamim –- we want to keep a whiff of Shabbos, of aliya, with us, even though the day itself is gone.  So too, even though the levush of a great person may not really visible in this world, we are still able to pick up a whiff that there is something special there. 

Va’yarach es rei’ach begadav” –- Yitzchak did smell the scent of the hides, the smell of Eisav, a foul smelling odor, exactly as the words say.  This was the levush of a man of the fields, not a yosheiv ohalim.  This is the pshat, the surface meaning of what happened.  But along with that, Yitzchak got a whiff of something else, of gan eden.   Yitzchak detected that there was something more here, something below the surface, something that is beyond pshat, beyond the olam ha'zeh appearance of things.   Therefore, he gave his bracha. 

korban pesach and the bracha of the Avos

1) My wife pointed out that it's only natural that Yitzchak, about whom we read last week "Vayeitzei Yitzchak la'suach ba'sadeh," should have an affinity for Eisav, the "ish sadeh."  See her post here for (among other things) another interesting diyuk: Eisav is an "ish sadeh," but Yaakov is not called an "ish ohalim" -- he is an "ish tam," which also connects with Yitzchak, but you have to read her post for more on that.

2) Rashi writes that the two sheep which Rivka prepared for Yaakov to serve to Yitzchak  were the korban pesach and korban chagigah.  Malbi”m explains that Pesach is the time when we reach l’ma’alah min ha’teva.  There is no way barring supernatural intervention that Klal Yisrael could have escaped the bondage of Mitzrayim and there was no way based purely on merit that we deserved to escape.  “Halalu ovzei avodah zarah v’halalu ovdei avodah zarah.”  Pesach means destiny trumps zechuyus/chiyuvim.  The bracha of the Avos that Yitzchak was going to pass on was a bracha that transcended any and all obstacles. 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Avraham the CEO?

1) Many meforshim see the pasuk “v’Avraham zakein… v’Hashem beirach es Avhraham ba’kol,” (24:1) which prefaces the parsha of Eliezer’s quest to find a bride for Yitzchak, as a justification of Avraham’s actions.   Why did Avraham Avraham send Eliezer and not take charge of things himself?  Why the need to administer an oath to Eliezer?  And why send him far away to find a bride for Yitzchak –- was there no local girl who wanted to marry Yitzchak? 

Avraham was blessed “ba’kol” – he had it all.  Surely a rich and powerful man, a CEO, cannot ignore managing his enterprise in order to personally make a long journey that can be delegated to others (Netziv).  And surely someone rich and powerful needs to take precautions lest his delegate be pressured, bribed, coerced –- hence the oath administered to Eliezer to not succumb to any impediments (Seforno).  And surely anyone would gladly marry into such a powerful family. Sending Elizer to look elsewhere was not for want of shidduch offers, but was Avraham’s deliberate choice (Rashbam).

All this would be true of any rich and powerful man.  But truthfully, it's hard to think of Avraham in those terms.  Sefas Emes writes that what motivated Avraham was not really protecting his wealth and power.  The focus of the pasuk is not WHAT Avraham had -– fame, riches, etc. -- but rather HOW Avraham got all that: “HASHEM beirach es Avraham ba'kol"  Avraham is not merely a powerful CEO -– Avraham is G-d’s CEO.  It's not his personal business that Avraham is out to protect, but rather G-d's business -- the mission of bringing kvod shamayim into the world.  Therefore, it was critical for Eliezer to find the right girl.

No one can really argue with a straight face that since "Hashem beirach" therefore they will only date a girl who wears size 2 or less.  That's not an argument of an Avraham Avinu.  If you really think "Hashem beirach" and gave you whatever talent, whatever mission you have, and you need a mate to match those she'ifos, then dress size is not on the list of what you are looking for.  "Hashem beirach" means it's not about me -- I'm just a kli for some higher purpose.  That's the hakdamah to Eliezer's mission and the hakdamah to what to look for in a shidduch. 
2) Simple pshat in (25:5) “vayitein Avraham es KOL asher lo l’Yitzchak” is that Avraham gave everything in his possession to Yitzchak.  However, the very next pasuk  (25:6) tells us that he gave gifts to the bnei ha’pilagshim as well.  So what does it mean when it says “KOL asher lo?”

Instead of emphasizing the first word, Sefas Emes puts the emphasis on the last: “kol asher LO.”  What really belongs to a person?  What does a person really want to give over -- what can a person really give over -- to their kids?  It’s not the bank account, or the house, or the new car.  Hashem told Avraham at the start his journey: “Lech LECHA…  el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.”  This mission is “LECHA” –- it belongs to you Avraham; you own it.  When it comes time to leave the world, that's what Avraham passes on to Yitzchak, and that mission is what has been continuously passed on through the generations until it has reached us.   

Thursday, November 14, 2019

blind to the truth

1. “Ain ha’Shechina shurah elah m’toch simcha” -– simcha is a prerequisite to receiving nevuah.  Shem m'Shmuel (last piece in 5671) points out that since Avraham received a revelation of a malach who told him to stop what he was doing even as he had the knife in his hand ready to shecht Yitzchak, it must mean that he was b'simcha to fulfill the dvar Hashem even at that moment!
The nisayon of the akeidah was not whether Avraham would do what Hashem asked or not.  Disobeying a direct tzivuy from Hashem was not an option.  The nisayon was whether he would obey b’zerizus and b’simcha or not.  We all want to do mitzvos.  But how are we doing them?  Are they a burden, or are they something we approach b'simcha, even when it is hard?

2. Last week I circled back to a question from an old post: once the sons-in-law of Lot saw the angels smite the people of Sdom with blindness, why did they laugh when Lot told them that these same angels would destroy the city?  They just saw an open miracle –- wouldn’t they at least want to hedge their bets and run?

Kli Yakar answers that when Lot spoke to his sons-in-law he told them that Hashem -– the name associated with midas ha’rachamim -– is going to destroy the city.  This they thought impossible.  Surely the midas ha’rachamim could not be used for an act of destruction.

To me this answer seems overly technical.  If you hear that the city is going to be wiped out, is it really the time to quibble over whether the right shem Hashem was used in the announcement? 

Shem m’Shmuel (5680) here too says something insightful: The sons-in-law of Lot may not have suffered physical blindness like those who attacked Lot’s home, but they nonetheless were afflicted with spiritual blindness.  A person who wants to shut out the dvar Hashem can literally see miracles, but due to their own stubbornness, or their lack of mindfulness to the message, it will make no impression.  Seeing requires not just open eyes, but an open heart and mind as well.

yashrus of the Avos

Chazal call sefer Braishes “Sefer haYesharim,” the Book of the Just.  A “yashar” is someone who doesn’t cheat, doesn’t steal, doesn’t act with malice – a straight shooter, a mentch.  While I would take it as a compliment if someone described me as a yashar, when we are speaking about the Avos, points out the Netziv, it’s a bit of an understatement.  Why don’t Chazal call it the Book of Tzadikim?  The Book of Avos? 

There is a collection of talks given by R’ Eli Sadan after the Rabin assassination in which he repeatedly quotes the answer of the Netziv: the Avos lived surrounded by idolaters and evil doers whose lifestyle and beliefs were diametrically opposed to everything the Avos stood for.  The lifestyle of Sdom was an anathema to Avraham.  Nonetheless, the Avos never lashed out with hatred and/or violence.  To the contrary, we find Avraham praying for G-d to spare Sdom, Avraham extending hospitality to wandering idol worshippers, Avraham making a treaty with Avimelech, etc.  They Avos treated everyone they came in contact with -- even those with whom they had profound disagreements -- with respect and dignity, with yashrus.  That's an even harder challenge than having tzidkus in avodah. 

When Bilam saw Klal Yisrael camped in the desert, he exclaimed, “Tamos nafshi mos yesharim” –- I want to be able to go to the grave like the yesharim of that nation.  Bilam was “s’sum ha’ayin,” he certainly knew that he was not a real navi and did not have even a small percentage of the tzidkus of the Avos.  He did not even have a hava amina that he could be like them in that way.  But he thought al kol panim that at least he is a yashar, a mentch – he has derech eretz.  However, when he saw Klal Yisrael and the mesorah of the Avos,  he realized that even in this regard he was wrong.  His conception of derech eretz was no match for the true yashrus that the Avos embodied. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

you don't have to be orthodox to appreciate shabbos

In light of this week being the Shabbos Project I wanted to mention two books I recently read, neither of which is by someone who identifies as Orthodox, but both of which have something to say about Shabbos.  Braided – A Journey of a Thousand Challahs by Dr. Beth Ricanati is not really about challah, but rather is about time.  In today’s world the demands of one’s job can easily prove overwhelming and crowd out the important things in life.  Faced with the problem, Dr Ricanati has for years now made a point of taking time out every Friday to bake her own challah.  This simple weekly ritual helped her reconnect with her values, with her children, with herself, not to mention that it made Friday night dinner with her family more delicious and nutritious.
24/6 The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shane, the creator of the “webby awards,” talks about the need to disconnect.  She and her family do a “tech Shabbos” every week.  They shut off their iphones and devices and keep the world at bay for a day.  She is not shomer Shabbos in the way we think of it, but she recognizes the need for a day of quiet to escape.

You don’t have to be Orthodox to recognize that in our day and age Shabbos is more important than ever.

Avos == there have to be tolados

Ayei ha’seh l’olah?” Yitzchak asks Avraham Avinu.  Where is the sheep for the offering?  The Alshich quotes a Midrash Rabbah (ch 96) that Yaakov did not want to be buried in Mitzrayim because Yisrael is called a “seh,” a sheep –- “seh pezurah Yisrael” (Yirmiyahu 50) –- and Egyptians worship the seh.   What Yitzchak was asking is if he is schechted, then how will there ever be a Yaakov Avinu, the seh?  How will the mesorah of the Avos continue?

Forget how will there be a Yaakov Avinu – if Yitzchak is shechted, how will there be a Yitzchak Avinu?!

What makes the Avos into Avos is that there is no concern for self.  The concern is always for the future, for the continuity of Klal Yisrael.  “Avos – m’chlal d’ika tolados.”

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"yesod gadol b'avodas Hashem" from the Chiddushei haRI"M

Rashi writes that there were people who did not believe the story we learn in Midrash that Avraham had been miraculously saved from the burning furnace that Nimrod had thrown him into.  Maybe they thought Avraham had great PR, great marketing, and this was all an exaggeration.  G-d therefore made a miracle in our parsha and enabled the King of Sdom to miraculously escape from a lime pit during the war of 4 kings against 5.  Once people saw that miracle, they retroactively had faith in Avraham's escape as well.
Ramban asks: if anything, the fact that the king of Sdom was saved should weaken people's emunah, not strengthen it.  If even the King of the most wicked city on the planet can have an escape that defies natural explanation, then how is Avraham's escape a proof of his tzidkus, his philosophy, his vision?  

Mizrachi gives the answer that probably is pashut pshat in Rashi: people had no belief in the concept of a miracle occurring until they saw it happen to the King of Sdom.  Once they grasped that such a concept was real, they could believe something similar happened to Avraham.
Maharal in Gur Aryeh explains that had it not been for Avraham's intervention, "team Sdom" would have been routed in the war.  These kingdoms had been subjugated for years and their attempt at rebellion was a failure.  Had G-d wanted to help Sdom, the time for it to happen was long before the lime pit episode.  The only reason for the miracle, the only reason for King Sdom being saved, was because Avraham was now fighting on his side. 
The Chidushei haRI"M uses this question of Ramban to teach us something fundamental about faith.  If all that was in the news was the miracle of Avraham being saved from a furnace, something extraordinary that no one could help but marvel at, then accepting the truth of Avraham's message would be a no-brainer.  For faith to be real, there has to be a possibility to choose not to believe. 

For people to have "faith" / emunah in the miracle of Avraham's escape, there had to be a similar miracle that occurred to the King of Sdom in order to level the playing field.  Counter intuitively, there had to be something that would give people a reason not to believe in order for their faith in Avraham to be real. 
We find a similar idea in Ramban in sefer Shmos.  G-d did not remove Pharoah's bechira by hardening his heart, explains Ramban, but rather he restored his bechira.  If all you see is miraculous plagues, then choosing to obey G-d is a no-brainer.  G-d muted the influence the plagues had on Pharaoh by hardening his heart in order to give him the option to disobey, so that he would have a true choice.
Ch haRI"m ends with an interesting historical observation.  He writes that the "olam" says that when the Besh"T revealed himself to the world there was a big tumult on high because the scales had been massively tilted in favor of greater avodas Hashem.  Therefore, a certain "lamdan" (the word he uses) had to come on the scene to take the opposing side to the BesH"T to balance things out.  Wow.
Now for my 2 cents: you need look no further than next week's parsha to find an example which seems to undermine the whole basis of the Ch haRI"m's argument.  Is it really true that given the example of an undeniable miracle people have no choice other than to believe?  The sons-in-law of Lot witnessed masses of people who ganged up against Lot being stricken with blindness by the angels, yet they still mocked the idea that Sdom would be destroyed.  They were so confident that they did not even leave town just as a matter of hedging their bets.  Why didn't the overt miracle convince them?
You have a whole week to think about that (or read this post from a decade ago).  Maybe I'll come back to it next week.
On to another point regarding emunah, also from the Ch haR"M, a point which he calls "ikar gadol b'avodas Hashem," and which puts the previous idea in a different light.
Hashem promised Avraham that he will be the father of a great nation.  Avraham responds (15:6), "V'he'emin b'Hashem va'yachshiveha lo tzedaka."  Who is the "lo" referred to in the pasuk?  Rashi interprets the pasuk to mean that Hashem gave credit to "lo" = Avraham for his unquestioning belief in Hashem's promise.  Ramban disagrees with Rashi's pshat.  Does a great navi like Avraham get credit simply for belief?  Ramban instead argues that the pasuk means that Avraham gave "lo" = to Hashem credit for promising him children independent of his merit -- it was a pure act of love and benevolence.
Ch haRI"m combines elements of both peshatim to arrive at a third approach.  He reads "lo" as referring to Hashem, like Ramban, but he reads "va'yichashveha" as referring not to the promise of children, but rather to Avraham's faith in G-d, like Rashi. 
What comes out of this peshara is an amazing reading of the pasuk: Avraham was thanking Hashem and giving Him credit for giving him the strength to believe in Hashem's words. 
The first Ch haR"IM we learned gave the impression that belief is a product of free choice of the individual.  This Ch haRI"M sends us in a completely different direction and teaches that ultimately, belief is a gift bestowed by Hashem. 
I don't think there is a contradiction here.  In its initial stage a person feels that he/she is choosing to believe, to accept G-d.  At some point the person progresses in their faith to the point that they see everything as the product of yad Hashem, even their initial choice to accept G-d in the first place.  It seems paradoxical -- I don't know if I've done justice to the idea.  It's striking that both yesodos appear in the same parsha.

Monday, November 04, 2019

what can be accomplished in a week

This idea is relevant to aseres ymei teshuvah, but what can I do -- the idea only came up here in parshas Noach.
Subtract Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur and aseres ymei teshuvah amounts to one week.  One week to correct a year, a lifetime's work of mistakes!  How is that possible?
Rashi observes that at the beginning of the parsha Noach is called a "tzadik tamim," yet when Hashem appears to Noach to tell him to enter the ark he tells him that "oscha ra'isi tzadik lifanei," he is a tzadik -- Hashem leaves out the word "tamim."
Ksav Sofer offers an original explanation (see Rashi for a different explanation) for the discrepancy: Rashi writes that Hashem delayed the command to enter the ark until the after the seven days of mourning for Mesushelach were completed.  Mesushelach was a tzadik, so long as he was alive, the flood was held off.  Ksav Sofer adds that so long as Mesushelach was alive, Noach was also not held accountable for failing to rebuke the people or for failing to daven on their behalf.  Why should he have that responsibility when there was a tzadik like Mesushelach around?  However, once Mesushelach died, the world rested on Noach's shoulders.  Since Noach at that point still remained passive and did nothing, some of the shine of his tzidkus was lost.  He was no longer a "tzadik tamim," but merely a "tzadik."
Mesushelach lived 969 years -- he literally had hundreds of years to try to make an impression on the people around him, to arouse them to teshuvah.  When he died, Noach had one week to step in and fill his shoes before the flood hit.  Imagine a shul where the Rabbi has held the pulpit for decades and has not made a dent in raising the religious observance of the community, not for lack of effort, but for lack of a receptive audience.  The Rabbi passes away, and the assistant Rabbi must now step in.  Are you going to hold the assistant accountable for failing to reach the community mamesh during the week of shiva of his predecessor when his predecessor couldn't reach them in the decades he served?!  Here too, what kind of knock it is on Noach's tzidkus when he couldn't do anything in only a week when Mesushelach was no more successful in centuries?!
Yet the Torah doesn't see things that way.  Who knows what you can accomplish is a week of dedicated effort?  Remember, Hashem would have saved Sdom had there only been a minyan of tzadikim there.  Noach didn't have to reach the entire world -- he could have focused on one, on a handful, of people and that might have tilted the balance to prevent the flood.