Thursday, November 23, 2006

Toldos by Reb Jay

Of the three Avos--Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov--least mention is made of Yitzchok.

Who was Yitzchok? Was he merely a bridge between Avrohom and Yaakov? Or was he as much of a “founding father” of Judaism as Avrohom and Yaakov.

What does it mean to be a “founding father” or “mother” (Sorah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah)? When a tree is planted and the owner of the tree realizes the tree will grow in an undesirable direction, it is very simple to rectify the problem in the first couple of years of the tree’s life.

So too in Judaism. When Avrohom discovered Hashem and started the process of the Jewish nation any act he did would have consequences for thousands of years. Any test which he and the other “fathers” and “mothers” were given was something that was neccessary to ensure our survival as a people.

Avrohom’s primary characteristic was Chesed—lovingkindness. This was expressed by the expansion of his message. Thousands of people followed Avrohom and Sorah to hear their message of belief in Hashem and the idea that life has purpose.

Yitzchok’s primary character trait was Gevura—strength of conviction; discipline. While the role of Avrohom was in building, Yitzchok’s role was in strengthening the building—internalizing the message of his parents.

Hashem’s communication with Avrohom was totally different from the way it was with Yitzchok. For example, while Hashem told Avrohom to bring Yitzchok up as an offering, He never directly told Yitzchok—Yitzchok only heard it from his father. But Yitzchok’s strong conviction allowed him to impicitly trust Hashem.

Over the course of his life Avrohom dug many wells. In the time of Yitzchok most of these wells were filled in by the Phillistines. Yitzchok redug these same wells. Thus we see his reaction was never to lose hope, but to see adversity only as a temporary setback. This is metaphorical of the Jewish role after destruction of our Temples and other setbacks we have suffered as a nation.

Just as Avrohom’s quality—willingness to sacrifice all that is dear for Hashem—enabled so many Jews throughout the generations togive their lives for Judaism, similarly Yitzchok’s strong conviction has enabled us to come back from so many setbacks.

What happenned to the thousands of followers Avrohom and Sorah attracted? When these people heard the message of Avrohom and Sorah, it struck a chord in them. However, when they saw what Yitzchok had to go through, they decided they would “keep” what they had learned from Avrohom and Sorah, but the next step was too much for them. This is why Avraham is considered “father of all nations”, while Yitzchok is exclusively a Jewish father.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vayera by Reb Jay

In this week’s parsha, the Torah records the incident of the Akeidah, the binding of Yitzchok. This story holds a place of paramount importance in Judaism. It is the truest act of devotion to Hashem that indicates that, even in circumstances that appear to be beyond our understanding, we should still place our trust in Hashem.

Every aspect of this narrative has many lessons and ramifications for future generations. It is no exaggeration to say that from these verses, we can understand our destiny.

Let us focus on the latter part of the story, after Avraham had already been told by Hashem to lay down his knife and not to slaughter Yitzchok.

The Torah tells us: “And Avraham raised his eyes and saw a ram afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horns” (Bereshis 22:13).

There a few obvious questions on this verse. What does it mean by “afterwards”? Furthermore, what is the significance of the ram being caught in the thicket?

The Midrash tells us (Bereshis Rabbah) that the word “afterwards” contains a hint to the future. When the Children of Israel sin, they can repair their fractured relationship with Hashem afterwards by blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara (Yerushalmi Ta’anis Chapter 4 Law 2) explains that when we are entangled by our sins, and get caught in the web of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans (the four exiles we are to endure), we will be redeemed with the sound of the ram’s horn.

Similarly on an individual level, just as the ram was entangled in the thicket, when we are entangled by our sins, we free ourselves through offering ourselves up to Hashem (in a figurative, not literal manner) just as this ram was offered up to Hashem.

The ram seen by Avraham and ultimately sacrificed is listed in Pirkei Avos (Chapter 5 Mishna 6) as being one of the things created at dusk between the sixth and seventh day of creation.

The Midrash tells us that Hashem always creates the antidote before He creates the sickness. The reason this ram was created, then, is because the ram’s horn, the Shofar, is used not only on Rosh Hashanah, as a tool to accept the Kingship of Hashem, but also to herald the receiving of the Torah, and to announce the coming of the Moshiach. Even as mankind may suffer personal exiles due to their sins, or when the Jewish people are undergoing a national exile, the antidote — the Shofar and the subservience to Hashem it represents — has already been created.

When Avraham saw the ram caught in the thicket, this ram had been waiting for him for two thousand years. Why didn’t Avraham see it immediately? The Midrash tells us that the Soton hid it from Avraham. But when Avraham performed the will of Hashem, he was no longer able to hide it. The Soton, especially in his role as our evil inclination, is the master of obfuscation, but as long as we do the will of Hashem, his tricks are unable to deceive us.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Lech - Lecho by Oizer

Parshas Lech Lecha

Compiled by Oizer Alport

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים

אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך (15:5)

After Avrohom Avinu miraculously defeated the armies of the four kings and rescued the captured people and possessions, he feared that the miracles Hashem performed on his behalf had detracted from the reward awaiting him in the World to Come. Hashem reassured him and promised that his reward would indeed be very great. Avrohom then expressed his worry that he had no children to inherit him, to which Hashem replied by promising that he would indeed merit to have children.

Hashem then took Avrohom outside and instructed him to gaze toward the Heavens. Hashem challenged him to attempt to count the number of stars and cryptically added, “so shall your offspring be.” Why did Hashem present Avrohom with such an impossible task, and what did He mean with His blessing, “so will your offspring be?”

Rav Meir Shapiro beautifully explains that although finite, the number of stars is clearly so great as to be beyond human comprehension and certainly uncountable with the naked eye. An intelligent person who is challenged to do so will likely decline the impossible task. Knowing that he will be unable to successfully finish the project, he will choose not to even begin. Avrohom Avinu was also aware of this reality. Nevertheless, when Hashem suggested that he attempt to count the stars, he quickly went outside, looked up in the sky, and began counting, “One, two, three.”

Avrohom was undaunted by apparent restrictions and natural limitations, recognizing that the power of one’s will and commitment to a project can allow him to succeed where others foresaw only failure. Upon recognizing Avrohom’s contagious enthusiasm and willingness to disregard naysayers, Hashem quickly blessed him that so should his offspring be a nation known for their dedication and perseverance against all odds.

Not surprisingly, Rav Meir Shapiro – whose yahrtzeit (7 Cheshvan) traditionally falls in the week of Parshas Lech Lecha – lived by his own teachings. More than any other single figure in the 20th century, he singlehandedly revolutionized Torah study as we know it today through his development of the concept of Daf Yomi – learning one page of Gemora daily. The odds of his program spreading and taking off were clearly stacked against him. The potential for any of a number of obstacles to derail his plan before it got off the ground was great. Yet like his forefather Avrohom before him, he ignored the probability of not succeeding, realizing that with the aid of the fire which burned within him, he would be able to reach the stars, and beyond!

ויאמר אד-ני ד' במה אדע כי אירשנה (15:8) ׁ

The Gemora in Berachos (7b) derives from our verse that Avrohom Avinu was the first person in history to call Hashem אדון – Master. The story is told (see introduction to Shu”t Kanfei Yonah) that the author of a new commentary on the Siddur (prayer-book) brought his manuscript to the great Vilna Gaon to receive his comments and request a letter of approbation. The Gaon began to examine the work and noticed that the author suggested an original insight explaining why the morning prayers begin with Adon Olam (Master of the World).

The Gemora in Berachos (26b) states that each of the forefathers instituted one of the three daily prayers: Avrohom enacted Shacharis, Yitzchok originated Mincha, and Yaakov introduced Maariv. As the morning prayers were instituted by Avrohom Avinu, who was the first person to refer to Hashem as אדון, we therefore begin Shacharis with Adon Olam. Upon reading this, the Gaon was overcome with joy and remarked that if only for the beauty and truth of this one insight, the publication of the entire work is justified!

In a similar vein, the Meshech Chochmah notes that although the mitzvos of wearing a Tallis and Tefillin are applicable the entire day, we are accustomed to wear them only during the morning prayers. After miraculously defeating the armies of the four kings, Avrohom brought back all of the people and possessions which had been taken captive. The King of Sodom suggested that Avrohom return to him the people while keeping the possessions for himself. Lest the wicked king of Sodom take credit for making him rich, Avrohom refused to accept any gifts, emphatically swearing (14:23) that he wouldn’t accept even a thread or a shoestrap. The Gemora in Sotah (17a) states that in the merit of this statement, Avrohom’s descendants received the mitzvos of Tallis and Tefillin. Although they may be worn the entire day, because we merited to receive them through the actions of Avrohom, we are accustomed to commemorate this by wearing them during the morning prayers which he instituted!

ותקח שרי אשת אברם את הגר המצרית שפחתה מקץ עשר שנים

לשבת אברם בארץ כנען ותתן אתה לאברם אישה לו לאשה (16:3)

ותקח שרי - לקחתה בדברים אשריך שזכית לידבק בגוף קדוש כזה (רש"י)

After ten years of not bearing any children to Avrohom, Sorah suggested that perhaps she would merit to give birth if she allowed Avrohom to marry her maidservant Hagar. Rashi writes that after Sorah spoke to Hagar to persuade her to agree to this plan, Hagar was convince and willing to go along with it. Rashi previously commented (16:1) that Hagar was none other than the daughter of the wicked Paroh. When she heard of the miraculous punishments which Hashem meted out there for the sake of Sorah (12:17), she decided to attach herself to this family in any way possible.

Although this surely required tremendous personal sacrifice on her part, she nobly preferred to be a maidservant to such holy people rather than a prestigious woman in Egypt. If Hagar had already given up everything she knew and enjoyed in life – wealth, honor, fame – in order to draw become even minimally attached to this holy family, why was it necessary for Sorah to convince Hagar to agree to be married to the righteous Avrohom?

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz answers with a beautiful insight into human nature. At the end of Dovid HaMelech’s life, he gave his final instructions to his son Shlomo, who would succeed him as king. He commanded Shlomo (Melochim 1 2:8-9) to remember the vicious curses which Shimi ben Geira had heaped upon him (Shmuel 2 16:7-8). However, because Dovid had sworn to Shimi that he wouldn’t kill him for his actions, he advised Shlomo to use his wisdom to find a means to avenge his disgrace and execute Shimi.

Shlomo dutifully called Shimi and commanded him to build a house in Jerusalem, informing him that he must remain within the city limits, for on the day that he departs he will be killed (2:36-37). Shimi agreed to the terms and indeed built a house in Jerusalem and refrained from departing the city for 3 years. At that time, two of his slaves escaped and he pursued them out of the city in order to bring them back. Upon hearing of this, Shlomo had Shimi summoned and decreed that because he had violated the conditions of their agreement he was to be killed.

Although in hindsight this represented a brilliant method of reconciling Dovid’s promise not to directly kill Shimi for his act of rebellion with Dovid's desire to have Shimi punished, how did Shlomo know that his plan would succeed, as we indeed find that Shimi managed to abide by the condition for 3 years before an unexpected episode caused him to stumble? Why did Shimi, who was a wise man who understood the consequences of leaving Jerusalem and managed to refrain from doing so for 3 years, suddenly commit such a foolish mistake, one for which he paid dearly with his life?

The Alshich HaKadosh explains that Shlomo, in his infinite wisdom, understood human nature profoundly. A person’s natural inclination is to crave freedom and resist any restraint on it whatsoever. Although Shimi’s “jail” didn’t resemble the typical cell, in that he was free to enjoy everything offered by the greatest city on earth, he was nevertheless artificially confined. Shlomo recognized that sooner or later Shimi’s need to feel free and unrestrained would win out and he would violate the terms of their arrangement. When that eventually occurred, Shlomo was ready and waiting to execute Shimi in a dignified manner, just as his father had requested.

Similarly, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz suggests that Hagar had demonstrated tremendous dedication and commitment to her ideals in willingly leaving behind the splendor of her father’s palace in Egypt. She was willing to give up everything in order to take a menial job serving the family of the holy Avrohom in degrading ways. Nevertheless, she knew deep down that at any time, she was free to change her mind and return to her homeland. Although a marriage to Avrohom would offer her the unique opportunity of being married to the man who introduced the knowledge of Hashem to the world and to bear a child with him, it would also require a commitment on her part to voluntarily renounce her independence and autonomy, and it was for this reason that Sorah needed to convince Hagar to overcome her internal resistance.

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) Tosefos writes (Berachos 7b d.h. lo) that the events in Parsha Lech Lecha are related out of chronological order. Avrohom was 73 years old when he fought the war against the four kings (14:14-16), but he was only 70 at the time of the ברית בין הבתרים (covenant between the parts), even though it is related later (15:7-21). The commandment at the beginning of the parsha to leave his homeland (12:1-3) occurred when Avrohom was 75 (12:4). As the covenant between the parts took place in the land of Canaan (15:7), why did Avrohom go there before Hashem commanded him to do so (12:1-3), and once he had gone there why did he return to Charan?

2) Rashi writes (12:5) that in addition to Lot, when setting out for the land of Canaan Avrohom and Sorah also took the people whom they had converted during their time in Charan. What happened to all of these converts and their descendants, as no subsequent mention is made of them? (Meshech Chochmah 21:33, Ayeles HaShachar)

3) Rashi writes (12:11) that due to his great level of modesty, Avrohom never looked at Sorah until they were about to enter Egypt. How was he permitted never to look at her when the Gemora in Kiddushin (41a) rules that if it is forbidden to marry a woman until he has looked at her to ensure that she will find favor in his eyes? (Maharsha Bava Basra 16a, Oznayim L’Torah, Mishmeres Ariel, Eebay’ei L’hu, Maharsha Yevamos 100b)

4) When approaching Egypt, Avrohom asked Sorah to pretend to be his sister so that the Egyptians won’t kill him in order to be permitted to marry her (12:12-13). As forbidden relationships are one of the three categories of sins for which one is required to give up his life rather than transgress them (Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:6), how could he ask her to do so in order to save his life? (Nesivos Rabboseinu, Taam V’Daas, HaK’sav V’HaKaballa, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Chaim Kanievsky quoted in M’rafsin Igri, Eebay’ei L’hu)

5) Rashi writes (13:14) that as long as the wicked Lot remained with Avrohom, Hashem didn’t speak to him. How can this be reconciled with an explicit verse which states (12:7) that Hashem did speak to Avrohom during the time that he was traveling with Lot? (Moshav Z’keinim, Paneiach Raza, Rav Ovadiah Bartenura, Akeidas Yitzchok)

6) A person who sees a large and impressive lake recites the blessing עושה מעשה בראשית – Who makes the work of Creation (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 228:1). However, this is only the case if the lake was created in that location at the time the world was formed, but not if it was subsequently formed through the actions of man (Mishnah Berurah 228:6). Does one who sees the Dead Sea recite this blessing, as the Torah seems to indicate that it was only created in the time of Avrohom (Rashi 14:3), but the Gemora in Bava Basra (74b) seems to indicate that it was one of the 7 lakes which was formed at the time of Creation to surround the land of Israel? (Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv quoted in Ayeles HaShachar, Shu”t Shevet HaLevi 9:47, Mor U’Ketziah Orach Chaim 228, Sefer Pardes quoted in Nimukei Orach Chaim 228:2, Piskei Teshuvos 228:3)

7) After Avrohom miraculously defeated the four kings and rescued the captured Lot (14:14-16), he feared that the miracles performed on his behalf had detracted from the reward which awaited him in the World to Come. Hashem reassured him and promised him that his reward would indeed be great (Rashi 15:1). Of what concern was this to Avrohom, as the Mishnah in Avos (1:3) advises one to serve Hashem without concern for the reward he may receive for his actions? (Ayeles HaShachar, Ruach Chaim)

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Lech - Lecho by Reb Jay

In this week’s parsha there is the chronicle of the relationship between Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, and Hashem.

Avraham had been involved in a war. After the war, and the rescue of his nephew Lot, and after Avraham had seen miraculous acts performed by Hashem, Avraham said to Him, “You have given me no offspring.” Avraham was not complaining. In fact the Midrash relates (Bereshis Rabbah) that he was worried that perhaps when Hashem performed these miracles for him, his merit had run out. Furthermore, he saw in the stars that he was to have no children. The Torah tells us: Hashem took him outside and said “gaze now towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able. And He said to him, so shall your offspring be” (Bereshis 15:3-5).

Hashem told Avraham to go outside for two reasons. The first reason is logical, to show Avraham the vast number of stars and how they are uncountable. The second reason is much deeper. The Gemara explains (Shabbos 156a) that Hashem was telling Avraham to see outside of nature. Yes, according to nature Avraham was not able to father children, and the astronomers were reading the stars correctly. Hashem was telling Avraham to see outside of his perceptions, in that not only was Avraham outside nature, but it had to be that way, for he was to father a nation that would be outside nature. Ain mazal l’Yisroel-the Jewish people are not under astronomical influence.

For example, a nation usually starts when a group of people live in a regional area, decide to form a government, write a set of laws, form an army, and become a nation. Rarely is the constitution written before the area is even settled. Yet that is what the Jewish people did, by receiving the Torah and then going to Israel. It is outside the natural order of the world for a group of people to identify both as a religion and a nation while away from that land for close to two thousand years, but that is what the Jewish people have done.

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in Da’as Tevunos, that Hashem runs the world with two traits. The first trait is the way of judgment, in that the world runs through reward and punishment. The second trait is through His goodness, as due to His perfection He desires to return the world to a state of perfection, to rectify the world. The first trait is how Hashem runs the world through nature; the second trait is above nature. It must be our will to perform the will of Hashem. We elevate ourselves through performance of His will, the Torah, and cling to His trait of running the world above nature, leading to the perfection of the world.