Vayishlach – Never Give Up on Your Child

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According to calculations based on the Seder HaOlam, by the Tanna Rebbe Yossi ben Chalafta, Reuvain was 15 years old when he switched Yaakov’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to his mother’s, Leah’s, tent. This act was a very immodest gesture and demonstrated a lack of respect to his father as seen from how the pasuk treats its severity, “And it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard [of it], and so, the sons of Jacob were twelve” (Breishis 35:22). Rashi explains Reuvain’s defense, “וישכב AND HE LAY — Because he switched his couch, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had actually sinned in this manner. But why did he switch his couch? When Rachel died Yaakov removed the couch to Bilhah’s tent and Reuvain came and protested against the slight thus inflicted on his mother (Leah). He said: “If my mother’s sister was her rival, is that any reason why the handmaid of my mother’s sister should become a rival to her!” On this account he disturbed the couch (Shabbat 55b).”
Though Reuvain had good intentions, they were still misguided; however the Ralbag learns a lesson from Yaakov’s reaction or lack thereof, “which is that it is appropriate for a person to not blow up at his eldest son over the despicable acts he committed, for maybe he might push himself away from him and totally lose him. Rather it is befitting for this person at this juncture to bring his son closer to him in order to guide him onto the right path. For this reason, the Torah related that Yaakov had heard about the terrible act Reuvain had done, and it makes no mention of Yaakov getting angry at him. However, when Yaakov gave orders and blessings at the end of his life, he punished Reuvain for this horrible act by snatching away his birthright and giving it to Yosef.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is fascinating that the proper thing to do is to still punish your child after he has learned how to act appropriately and has done teshuva (repentance), which chaza”l say Reuvain did. Indeed, he even led the way for Yehuda to do teshuva for his wrongdoing of not saving Yosef and bringing him back to Yaakov, when he was thrown into the pit, though he had the chance. Yet Reuvain still deserved punishment and because he understood the wrong he did, because of the proper guidance from Yaakov, there was no worry about him being angry and leaving the family when he lost his birthright to Yosef.

However why does the Ralbag point out this lesson of not being quick to anger and throwing one’s child out of his house for a severe sin he has done, specifically pertaining to the eldest child; wouldn’t it pertain to any child? Imagine if G-D forbid, any child became a drug addict, stole thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry from his parents and beat up his brother. Would it make a difference whether he was the oldest, youngest or middle child, either way, the parents’ reaction would be either to get angry and throw him out of the house or more appropriately take him in, bring him closer, care for him and help him fix his problem; so why does the Ralbag emphasize him being the eldest child?

It would seem to the Ralbag, that of course the most appropriate thing would be to show patience, love, and compassion for your own child, and to direct him on the right path. But when it comes to the eldest child a parent might have higher expectations for him or her and be quicker to anger, irrationally throwing the child out of the house if he or she does not live up to those expectations. That’s basic human nature or psychology of a parent towards their eldest, therefore the Ralbag goes out of his way to inform parents to not act on human nature and be quick to get angry just because one’s eldest is majorly failing at what his expectations are and rather be patient and show proper love and guidance for this wayward child of theirs.

Vayetzei – Using Our Emuna Muscle

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei, Yaakov takes a rest on the way to Haran and has the famous dream of angels going up and down a ladder. When he wakes up, he realizes he is in a very holy place. “And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it. And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city” (Breishis 28:18, 19).

Every letter, word, and phrase in the Torah has a reason behind it. Rabbeinu Bachye asks, “The place he [Yaakov] called Beis El is Yerushalayim, and what is the significance of informing us that it was called Luz originally, and what benefit is reaching us from this [knowledge]? It makes sense to say that the pasuk is coming to hint to us with this name that from this place the world started to expand and develop. And behold it is the beginning of creation and its renewal, therefore [the pasuk] revealed to us that the name of the city was originally Luz from the same language as Luz, which is a body part on the spine of a person from where in the future He will awaken, renew, and recreate for the sake of the resurrection of the dead. For just as the incredible innovation [of the creation of the world] stemmed from there, so too the wonder of the resurrection of the dead will start from there. King David already elaborated on this concept and said that the creation of the world and also the creation of the soul and the body all are from the middle which is Zion. That is what it means in Tehillim, beginning of perek 50, ‘God, God the Lord, spoke and called to the earth… From Zion, the finery of beauty… He shall call to the heavens above etc.’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The stone that Yitzchak was placed on as an offering by Akeidas Yitzchak is the same stone from which Hashem created Adam, and it is rests in the Beis Hamikdash, and it remains in its place to this day. (Indeed, it is from there that Muslims mistakenly believe that Mohammad ascended to heaven). This place is where all of human life started, and everything evolved. Chaza”l say that Yerushalayim is at the center of the earth, from whence everything is perfected, and it is the epicenter of advancement throughout the ages. Because it is the source of the advancement of mankind, Yerushalayim was originally called Luz, just like the specific vertebrae on the spine where Chaza”l say the resurrection of the dead for each individual will commence and reconfigure the body.

It would seem that this resurrection at the end of days will begin in Zion, Yerushalayim, just as the beginning of mankind began from that same central point, which is the significance for the pasuk to be telling us why it was called Luz originally. But what benefit is there in whether we know or not this knowledge, that the resurrection of the dead will in the future start from Yerushalayim?

The last of the 13 Principles of Faith spelled out by the Rambam is “I believe with complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead whenever the wish emanates from the Creator, Blessed is His Name and exalted is His mention, forever and all for all eternity.” The first Mishna in the 10th perek of Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek, lists as one who has no share in the world to come, one who says the resurrection of the dead isn’t in the Torah. The Gemara there explains the reason why he loses his share in the World to Come is because since he denies the resurrection of the dead he will not be resurrected.

Not only is this pasuk a hint in the Torah to the resurrection of the dead but Rabbeinu Bachye is telling us that the Torah wanted to train us to believe in such a concept. For just as we can believe that Hashem fashioned all of creation and created man from this point on earth, so too Hashem will recreate, or resurrect, everyone deserving from that point on earth using their spinal vertebrae called Luz. Because history happened in the past and we presently can’t see what actually happened or take a time machine to find out what actually happened then we must rely on belief in the mesorah, tradition, that is passed down from generation to generation, of what has happened in history from the beginning of time, all sourced from the Written and Oral Torah.

 However, it would seem that this pasuk is giving us an indicator, an aid of how to help us strengthen our belief muscles. It is easier to believe the history of what has happened in the past, especially if there are visual aids and hints that could paste together a puzzle and picture of what must have happened. The future does not have that kind of clarity or even hints, no stories or relics, it is all speculative at best. Therefore a greater leap of faith is needed to believe in something that will take place in the future. However, Hashem made it more tangible for us to understand what will happen in the future by the resurrection of the dead by telling us that it is the same concept from where all of man had started from. So, by working on our belief system of how Hashem originally created the world we can more easily understand and believe what will happen at the end of days so that we will merit to be a part of such an illustrious event.

Hashem has purposefully created a situation where we can use easier more simple beliefs in order so that we can apply them to more difficult, esoteric beliefs to make the belief system more palpable as long as we put forth the efforts into recognizing this system of belief in Hashem.

Toldos – Defining a Lie

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In this week’s Torah portion of Toldos, Yaakov receives the blessings from Yitzchak in what seems to be a deceptive manner towards Esav and Yitzchak, and Rivka, his mother, even seems to be in on the plot. The Radak brings up an obvious and famous question on the way Yaakov acted. “There are those that ask in wonderment how Yaakov who was a tzadik (righteous) and G-D fearing, could speak a lie? But this is no wonder, for Yaakov knew he was more fitting to receive the blessings than his brother. And the spirit of prophecy that would rest on Yitzchak to bless him would more greatly go into effect by Hashem if [Yitzchak] would bless him and not his brother, because [Yaakov] was more desirable to Hashem than [Esav]. And switching words in circumstances like this is not shameful for a tzadik, for we see that Hashem said to the prophet Shmuel, “[And Samuel said, ‘How shall I go? For, if Saul hears, he will kill me.’] And the Lord said, ‘You shall take a heifer with you, and you shall say, ‘I have come to slaughter (a sacrifice) to the Lord’” (Shmuel Alef 16:2). So to Avraham and Yitzchak said about their wives ‘She is my sister’ and this was not considered for this reason speaking a lie because out of fear they said what they said. And so, by Yaakov when accepting the blessing of his father, even though he changed his words it is not consider speaking a lie. Furthermore, it was the command of his mother, and the Torah writes, ‘A man, his mother and his father he shall fear’ (Vayikra 19:3). Also, she was a prophetess, and when she said to Yaakov, ‘Upon me shall be the curse’ (27:13), Onkelos translates that to mean ‘On me it was said in prophecy that you will not be cursed, my son’” (Radak on Breishis 27:19). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is true that Rivka had a prophecy that Yaakov would not have been cursed, but does that give a right to lie and trick your father? Isn’t there a well-known concept in Judaism that “the end does not justify the means?” So, even if the end looks bleak through natural means if Yaakov would not lie and trick his father into giving him the blessings,  does that mean he is allowed to commit a sin and lie to his father? Why wasn’t this called lying if it is plainly what he did? And even if you make up excuses that if you put the comma in a different place he really wasn’t lying, he really said “It is I, Esav is your firstborn;” he is still deceiving his father, and for someone on his level of righteousness and attentiveness of Hashem’s mitzvos he should not have even been perceived as lying?!

Furthermore, the excuse of doing it out of the mitzvah of listening to his mother is no excuse because the end of that very pasuk says “and you shall observe My Sabbaths. I am the Lord, your God” (Vayikra 19:3), why does the Torah juxtapose fearing one’s parents and observing Shabbos in the same pasuk and conclude “I am the Lord, your God: [where “your” is in the plural form, meaning to say,] [because] both you and your father are obligated to honor Me! Therefore, do not listen to him to negate My commands. — [B.M. 32a]. If that is the case then Yaakov had no obligation and was indeed forbidden to listen to his mother if she is causing him to sin; so how could Yaakov go through with receiving the blessings in this fashion?! 

The obvious answer is that what he said was not a lie, and therefore he was allowed to say what he said. The question is why not? It would seem, though, that we have to redefine what is a lie. Yaakov, Shmuel, Avraham, and Yitzchak all had to say and do things which looked deceptive and or false, but under the circumstance, since they plainly knew without a doubt the will of Hashem, in their calculations there was no way to accomplish His will without changing words and being deceptive,  barring an open miracle, which as a rule in this natural world we are told not to rely upon; indeed then what they said and did was not in fact a lie. Fulfilling the will of Hashem is not a lie, it is only a change of words. On the contrary those that try or want to stop that will from going into effect are carrying out the lie.

Therefore, by Shmuel, when he was told to anoint Dovid as King and he would have to pass by Shaul, Hashem, Himself told Shmuel to look like he was carrying a cow to be sacrificed, so that Shaul would not realize what was happening and kill him. This was proper hishtadlus (effort), that was supposed to be shown in this world of nature and a miracle was not supposed to be relied upon. So too Avraham and Yitzchak, through all natural means, feared they would have been killed as the laws of the area they entered dictated, if they would have said she is my wife. There is no mitzvah to kill yourself and Hashem wanted Avraham to go down to Egypt and Yitzchak to the Philistines during a famine, so according to all natural causes, barring any open miracles, which they had no right to rely upon, then the proper thing to do was to switch their words and deceive the people of that area. This is not called lying because they are doing the will of Hashem, who defines truth and is by definition completely truthful.

This is also true by Yaakov, since he knew that it was Hashem’s will for him to receive the blessings. But in this natural world, barring a miracle, there would be no way of him receiving them, then talking and acting in this fashion was the only natural means of fulfilling Hashem’s will and therefore it was not a lie. This means he did not sin and had a mitzvah to follow his mother’s command.  It has nothing to do with the axiom “the end do not justify the means” since nothing wrong was done.

This does not mean that one can lie whenever he thinks he is being stopped from doing Hashem’s will. Chaza”l clearly state that Hashem does not want people to be habitual liars. That is not His will. Being attuned to Hashem’s will precisely is not so easy. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Shmuel obviously were because they heard and understood prophecy, and for rare circumstances they were allowed to change their words and perceive to be deceptive. However, the lesson learned from here is that the definition of a lie is something going against Hashem’s will, for Hashem is all truthful.

Chayei Sarah – A Leap of Faith

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In this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, Avraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak. He finds Rivka at the well and asks her for a drink of water, and she proceeds to give his animals a drink as well. Eliezer then gave her gifts of betrothal before he even asks her who she was. “Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]” (Breishis 24:22). Rashi explains that there was a symbolism behind each of the pieces of jewelry Eliezer gave Rivka. “Half [a shekel]: This alludes to the shekels of Israel, half a shekel per head. — [Targum Jonathan] and two bracelets: An allusion to the two Tablets paired together. — [Gen. Rabbah (60:6), Targum Jonathan], weighing ten gold [shekels]: An allusion to the Ten Commandments [inscribed] on them. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:6].”
The Levush Haorah, wondering why Rashi gives symbolism to each of these gifts, gives a very deep and profound insight into Eliezer’s intentions. He says, “It would seem to me that Rashi specifically pointed this out because the pasuk did not write, ‘The man took a golden nose ring and he put it on her nose, and two bracelets etc.’ Rather the pasuk was hinting with this that he was not concerned to give her a gift of greater value, rather he just wanted to hint with it certain concepts. And even though she definitely did not understand them and did not know what they were, nevertheless, it is possible to say that he did this in order to do an action that would strengthen the success of his journey. Meaning, that she will be the woman that Hashem will prove to be for Yitzchak. We find in many places of prophecy that the prophet will strengthen and fortify his prophecy with an action the prophet performs, for example, ‘And he said, “Open the window to the east,” and he opened it; and Elisha said, “Shoot!” And he shot. And he said, “[This is] an arrow of salvation from the Lord, and an arrow of victory over Aram, and you shall strike the Arameans in Aphek until they are completely annihilated”’ (Melachim Beis 13:17). There are many other examples like that one, check and you will find them. This is one of the secrets of prophecy to energize the Powers On High. So too he, [Eliezer], wanted to energize upon her Powers From On High so that she will merit and be ready for this holy match (made in Heaven). This will also answer the question everyone asks of why he first gave them to her and then asked her who she was, for even though he relied on the merit of Avraham, and trusted in him, as Rashi explained, nevertheless, what’s the big deal? Why take any chances? What would hurt if he would have asked her name first and afterwards give her the presents? It would have been better! But according to what I am saying, this isn’t a problem, because if he would have asked her beforehand and then given to her, then there would not have been any room for [spiritual] energy and inspiration, for he would have given it with the confidence of knowing who she was. He would have relied on that and not on the intent of arousing [spiritual] energy, but now that he first gave and did not originally ask, his thoughts and intents were more clinging On High with his inspirational energy in a fashion of prayer and beseeching and it more actively created a clinging to Hashem through his intent, thoughts and arousal of [spiritual] energy. If one truly thinks about this, he’ll understand.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It sounds like from this Levush Haorah that Eliezer was giving some sort of spiritual, kabbalistic sign of success for finding what he thought would be the perfect match for Yitzchak. But wasn’t he taking a big risk? It sounds like the jewelry he gave her was not so expensive; what if she had been insulted and rejected the proposal? Why should he have risked putting in jeopardy such an important mission? He should have put in all his efforts to ensure success and make a good impression on her for Yitzchak! Furthermore, what if she was the wrong girl? Avraham asked him to find his family, so shouldn’t Eliezer have inquired first to be sure he did not mess up? What if he was wrong? You can’t put trust in Hashem on someone else’s expense, especially with so much at stake like a proper shidduch for Yitzchak!

However, if you think about this a bit, I believe there is an incredible insight into bitachon, trust in Hashem, that can be learned from the Levush Haorah’s understanding of Eliezer’s actions. It would seem that the proper effort, hishtadlus, for Eliezer was to have more bitachon, trust in Hashem, even blind faith of sorts which was a matter of taking risks.  But by taking the actions he took, and making the decisions that he made, it was in fact the proper efforts he was supposed to take, and if he had not, then it’s possible that the shidduch and marriage would not have been the same. This trust in Hashem is what transformed his efforts into calculated efforts and not just a blind leap of faith.

The way to understand this best is what the Chovos Halevavos says in the beginning of his introduction to the chapter on Bitachon, “The benefits in religious matters: Among them, peace of mind, and trusting in G-d as a servant must trust in his master. Because if one does not place his trust in G-d, he will place his trust in something else, and whoever trusts in something other than G-d, the Al-mighty will remove His providence from such a person and leave him in the hands of the one he trusted.” 

Eliezer’s actions though seemed odd, risky, and improper, but on the contrary ensured that he will be guided and protected in the “Hands” of Hashem which guaranteed and was in fact a sign of a successful mission.

Vayera – A Pinch of Salt

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The Angels told Lot and his family to flee Sodom in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, because they were going to destroy the city with fire and brimstone. They warned them to not look back, and Rashi says the reason for this is because Lot and his family were wicked with them. It was only because of the merit of Avraham that they were saved, and they are not worthy to see others being punished while themself being saved (Rashi on Breishis 19:17).

The Torah relates that while Lot and his family were running for their lives, “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (19:26). Rashi gives a reason why she specifically turned into a pillar of salt instead of the same punishment everyone else got of fire or brimstone: “By salt she sinned and by salt she was punished. Lot said to her, ‘Give a little salt to these guests.’ She said to him, ‘This evil custom too you come to institute in this place?!'” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Rashi is based on a Medrish at the end of Breishis Rabba 50:4, which took place when Lot brought in and took care of his two guests before they told him to flee the city. However, there is a medrish a bit later (Breishis Rabba 51:5), on this very pasuk that discusses his wife turning into a pillar of salt. This medrish in facts tells us why she was turned into a pillar of salt, “Rebbe Yitzchak said that she sinned with salt. That night the angels came to Lot, what did she do? She went to all her neighbors and asked them, ‘Give me salt, for we have guests.’ Her intent was for everyone in the city to realize what was happening and for that reason she became a pillar of salt. The Maharz”u adds that because she went around to her neighbors, she therefore became frozen as a pillar of salt that she could not walk. This was exact measure for measure for her wrongdoing. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

If that is the case, then why did Rashi quote an earlier medrish for the reason why she was turned into a pillar of salt, and why in fact does the Maharz”u in this medrish reference this previous medrish as a source where everything will be explained when in fact this medrish seems to be self-explanatory?

 To put, the severity of the issue  into proper context, it is known that one of the laws of Sodom was to not accept or treat guests nicely. Infact, it was a capital crime to take care of guests in Sodom, the Sodomites being worried about strangers taking advantage of them. Obviously, this is a very selfish mindset which was taken to an extreme. But Lot’s wife being from Sodom felt threatened by her husband for asking for salt for the guests to dip their matzah into, since it was Pesach time,  which was a show of hospitality. This in fact the Maharz”u points out on the medrish that Rashi quoted that measure for measure for sinning with salt Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt.

It would seem from the basic understanding of the second medrish that the reason why she turned into a stiff pillar of salt was because she walked around to each neighbor asking for a pinch of salt with the intent of informing on her husband. When following through on what happened, we see her plan worked and a wild group of people gathered in front of their house demanding the surrender of the guests. Only because the Angels blinded the people were they able to escape the city with Lot’s family. Why didn’t Rashi use this medrish which is more of an exact reason for her punishment measure for measure? Informing on Lot to the Sodomite citizens is much more of a severe sin than just arguing with him. There are very serious punishments for an informant in Jewish Law and one of the causes of the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash was Bar Kamtza informing on the Jews to the Roman government. So, it would make more sense for Rashi to have quoted this medrish which more directly discusses the reason for her punishment and discusses a more severe sin she did then to quote the first medrish which was only the initial skirmish and disapproval she had with Lot?

We must say that the blame for the punishment was the initial sin of arguing with her husband which spiraled into informing on them and almost getting at least the guests but possibly everyone killed. But because she didn’t keep the initial reason for sin in check and she just escalated the problem, the blame was on the initial altercation and not for the more severe sin which ensued afterward.

We can learn from here a possible trick on how to stop ourselves from continuing to sin, for if one realizes that the blame of his or her sin was for the initial starting point which one allows to escalate and make worse than he or she would be sure to keep it in check out of embarrassment or fear of punishment so that the matter won’t get worse.

Realizing that the blame for sin is on the initial action even though the punishment is on the entire process might stop the whole process of the sin from happening.

Lech Licha – A Time to Scoff

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In a prelude to this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha, the medrish Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer (chapter 26) depicts Avraham’s abusive childhood, including two out of the ten tests which took place before he was told by Hashem to move to the Land of Canaan. The first test was when Avraham was born; all the government leaders wanted to murder him, and he was hidden underground for 13 years, where he didn’t see the sun or moon. After 13 years he came out speaking Lashon Hakodesh (Hebrew), rejecting and disgusted by any idols or gods, and believing in The Creator, saying “The G-D of Legions, happy is the man who believes in You.” Medrashim say the first realization Avraham had of Hashem was from the age of 3. The second test listed in the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer was him being thrown in jail by his father for ten years and then being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod, from which he was saved by Hashem. The Biur Maspik points out that this story is discussed in more detail in Breishis Rabba parsha 38, where it begins with the famed story of Avraham breaking idols as a child, which means, according to the Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer, that he was 13 at the time. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Rabba, as explained by the Matnos Kehuna, says that Terach, Avraham’s father, was an idol maker. One time he stepped out of the shop and left Avraham in charge. A man came in and asked to buy some idols. Avraham asked him how old he was and he either responded he was 50 or 60 years old. Avraham said back, “Woe is to this man who is already 60 years old and wants to bow down to an idol which is only a day old.” The man walked out humiliated. Another time a woman came carrying a big plate of fine flour and she told Avraham, “Take this and give it as a gift to these idols.” Avraham got up, took a staff and broke all the idols besides the biggest one and put the staff in its hand. When his father came back, he asked who did this. Avraham answered, “Why should I deny anything from you? A woman came carrying a tray of flour and told me take this and give it to the gods.” Avraham told his father “I brought it before the idols and this idol said I should eat first, and another one said I want to eat first, the biggest idol got up and smashed all the other idols with this staff.” His father said back, “Why are you mocking and playing around with me, do the idols really know how to think, speak, and move?” Avraham responded to his father, “Are your ears listening to what your mouth is saying?” Terach then took Avraham and brought him to King Nimrod. Nimrod said to Avraham, “If you won’t bow down to these idols then bow to fire.” Avraham said back to Nimrod, “If that is the case then I should bow down to water that could put out fire.” Nimrod said, “So bow down to water!” Avraham retorted, “If so then I should bow down to the clouds that hold the water.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the clouds!” Avraham said back, “Then I should bow down to the wind which disperses the clouds.” Nimrod responded, “So bow down to the wind.” Avraham responded, “I might as well bow down to a person who is full of holes and the wind stays inside him,” (which the Matnos Kehuna said would apply to all living things on the ground.) Nimrod lashed back, “You are talking gibberish, I only bow down to fire. I will throw you inside it, and your G-D that you bow down to should save you from it!” The rest is history, Avraham was saved and his brother Haran said “I will follow suite”, but was wishy washy in his belief in Hashem, so Hashem let him walk out alive for sacrificing himself last Kiddush Hashem but he soon died in the hands of Terach because his innards were burnt up for not being totally committed to Hashem, as the Maharz”u explains.  Avraham eventually collected a lot of followers and moved to Eretz Canaan upon Hashem’s command, which is where the beginning of this week’s Torah portion starts. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashi emphasizes that Avraham’s father was very upset that Avraham was making fun of him and joking around. How can Avraham Avinu, the model for the Jewish people, a person of perfection, who passed every test Hashem gave him with flying colors with a 100%, no imperfections, yet in order to prove his devotion to Hashem he used the attribute of leitzanus/scoffing which the Pele Yoetz, in the chapter of leitzanus/scoffing warns about “the known severity of the sin” to the point that they say in the beginning people have much suffering and in the end are totally destroyed because of this trait, and similarly, many types of terrible things are explained by the Holy Rabbis which come about to a scoffer. In fact, Avraham suffered 10 years in prison for making fun of his father and was almost burned to death for joking around with the king, if not for the fact that Hashem saved him. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

How can Avraham have acted in such a despicable matter to his own father who he is obligated to respect, and to a king, who also by definition deserves respect, naturally. Chazal say  Moshe showed respect towards Pharaoh. each time he confronted Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go because of the natural respect a leader of that fashion deserves, whether he is evil or not!? Even if Avraham had a right to rebuke the customers, his father, and the king for their idolatrous ways, why do it in that fashion, which is known to be such a demeaning character flaw? Indeed, why did it not taint, albeit on a microscopic level, the passing of the second test Hashem gave him of being thrown into the fiery furnace?

It must be that using the character trait of scoffing was not an issue, even one iota. And even though he went through suffering and was almost killed, that was not a punishment for the way he acted but cause and effect for that type of behavior and the very fact that Hashem miraculously saved him is in fact the proof that what he did was not wrong in any sort of way.

There are times when a character trait like scoffing is most likely a negative trait, with very severe ramifications. But there are also times when the same trait can and should be used, and is proper to be used, as in this circumstance by such a terrible sin as idolatry. Especially since they are convincing him to give in to the practice as the king tried submitting him to do. It does not matter who the person is, or if you embarrass him in public, such a heinous crime against Hashem deserves tactics of belittling and disrespect, on the contrary by Avraham using such creativity and wit showed his utmost dedication to Hashem and for that reason he passed the test with flying colors.

Noach -It’s Within Our Grasp to Win

After Hashem destroyed the world with the flood, the waters receded, and the survivors left the ark. “And Noah built an altar to Hashem, and he took of all the pure animals and of all the pure fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma, and Hashem said to Himself, ‘I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done’” (Breishis 8:20, 21). The Ramban explains this pasuk as an excuse not to immediately and utterly punish every wrongdoing, “FOR THE INCLANATION OF MAN’s HEART IS EVIL FROM HIS YOUTH. He (G-D) ascribes merit to men because by their very creation they have an evil nature in their youthful days but not in their mature years. If so, for these two reasons, (First, that by his very creation, man’s heart is evil, and second, that this evil persists only when he is young but not when he matures. Therefore, for these two reasons it is not proper that every living thing be smitten on account of man.) it is not proper to smite every living thing.”

However, the Medrish Tanchuma blames man for developing his yetzer hara from his youth and not keeping it in check, which is not in contradiction with this Ramban, or the Medrish Rabba that states, “Rebbe Chiya Rabba said, pathetic is the dough which the baker admits is bad, ‘for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’” The Yefeh Toar explains that even though it sounds from this medrish that one is naturally born with an evil inclination, that is a reason to not act with strict judgement every time man sins, but it is still within man’s power to overcome his nature. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

For this reason, the Medrish Tanchuma says after Adam sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, “Hashem the G-D said, ‘This is The Man’” (Breishis 3:22), this is what the pasuk in Koheles means when it says, ‘See, only this one have I found, for G-D made man straight’ (Koheles 7:29). Hashem only created man to be called righteous and upright in His image, in order so that he will be righteous and upright like Him. If that’s the case then why did He create a yetzer hara, evil inclination, which it says about it, ‘for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth’? If You say it is bad who then can do good? Hashem said back, ‘actually you make him evil! Why? A child 5, 6, 7, 8 ,9 years old does not sin, but from 10 onward he develops the evil inclination.’ If that’s the case then no person can protect himself!? Hashem responds, ‘you make him bad.’ Why? Because you were a baby, and you didn’t sin, now you grew up and sinned. There are many worse things than the yetzer hara, they are more bitter and you sweeten them. There is nothing more bitter than a type of bean called a turmos, and you strive to boil and ultimately sweeten it in water 7 times, so to mustard, capers, and many other things. So just as something bitter which I created in that fashion, you sweeten them for your own needs, all the more so the evil inclination which is given into your hands.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Anaf Yosef actually asks: isn’t the evil inclination bad by itself? He answers by quoting an Alshich based on a Zohar, that Hashem gave the yetzer hara to a person as a good thing, in order to give a person reward for not listening to the yetzer hara. If a person would not have a yetzer hara he would not be able to earn his reward, but a person seduced by his yetzer hara switches it to be corrupt with one bad decision.
Practically, how can we save ourselves from the seduction of the yetzer hara? It is not easy to use the yetzer hara for good and not fall into his trap. The Mesillas Yesharim says in the first chapter, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has put man in a place where the factors which distance him from the blessed G-D are numerous. These are the physical lusts which if he is drawn after them, behold, he draws away and goes ever further from the true good. Thus, we see that man is truly placed in the midst of a raging battlefield. For all matters of this world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials for a man. Poverty from one side versus wealth from the other. This is as Shlomo said: “Lest I be satiated, and deny You, and say, Who is G-d? or lest I be poor, and steal…” (Prov.30:9). Tranquility on one hand versus suffering on the other, until the battle is waged against him from the front and from the rear.” Where is the light at the end of the tunnel; is there truly any hope in winning the war against our evil inclination? How can the medrish say that dulling, or even sweetening, the yetzer hara is easier than making mustard seeds and the like edible?

However, the Nesiv HaYam, a commentary on the Medrish Tanchuma, gives some practical insight on how to tackle the yetzer hara. He explains the medrish with it’s kal vachomer (fortiori), “Hashem tells the angels that man is like one of us, righteous and straightforward, but man can make himself bad, for the yetzer hara was created for the good of man, in order so that we can earn a lot of reward, if we don’t listen to it. So only man makes it bad. The intention of creation was for man to be righteous and straightforward just like the One G-D of the world, and only he would know good from bad, but then it becomes possible to enlarge the yetzer hara. But just like a turmos, which is a very bitter bean, when boiled 7 times, then becomes sweet and good to the point that it is a tasty side dish at mealtime, and just as all these bitter substances that Hashem created bitter, and didn’t command anyone to sweeten them, all the more so the evil inclination that Hashem created and gave into the hands of man to sweeten, is in truth very good.”

A person is faced with a lifetime of challenges, and when there is a will there is a way. People over the centuries have discovered different foods, have taken raw materials from the earth and figured out how to use them for there own good. But they do it not only to use them but to make them better, to perfect the substance, for example the chocolate (cacao) or coffee bean. There are always innovators who try to make them taste better, look and smell more appealing, and become more useful. If people can create such progress with something they were not commanded to do, which they had to search for, harvest, and develop on their own, then all the more so the yetzer hara, which is literally given to us in our hands, and G-D commands us to work with it and use it for the good, all the more so all the potential bitterness and side effects can be cut out and put aside and one can develop sweet scrumptious and tremendous reward when using the yetzer hara in the proper manner.

By having the attitude that the evil inclination is a product that might look, taste, feel, smell, and sound ugly but it’s a challenge that can be worked on and developed into something of value, scraping away all the dark sides and revealing all the positive and constructiveness that can come out of using the yetzer hara for the good, and knowing that Hashem gave us this product in our hands, it is in our control to sculpt it for the good, to bring out its sweetness and positivity, then one can reap the fruits, which might take much labor but is exciting and worthwhile to discover and perfect. With this approach, it will make it harder for the yetzer hara to entice a person into a murky, bitter path which a person is not supposed to walk though, that is the evil inclination which one is trying not to listen to. In that way an abundance of reward and a well meaningful life will be well earned.

Breishis – Temporary Insanity is No Excuse

What was the motivation of the first murder in world history? Was he really guilty? Did he have a good excuse to acquit himself?

The Torah records the murder of Hevel by his brother Kayin, which occurred after Hashem accepted Hevel’s sacrifice but not Kayin’s. The Medrish Tanchuma (paragraph 9) goes into a lot more detail of what actually transpired.

Here is a depiction of the account based on one of the views in the Medrish with additional information from its commentary, the Etz Yosef: Kayin and Hevel were 40 years old at the time. Kayin sacrificed flax seed (i.e. linen) and Hevel sacrificed a first born of his sheep, therefore wool and linen became forbidden as a mixture as it says, “You shall not wear shaatnez, wool and linen together” (Devarim 22:11). And Hashem said it is inappropriate to mix the offering of the sinner with the offering of the innocent, therefore the mixture of wool and linen became forbidden.
After this episode Kayin said to Hevel, “What do you say? Our father has separated himself from our mother and is not having anymore children, and Hashem is angry with him, it’s as if he is dead so why don’t we discuss our inheritance? We can split the whole entire world but since I am the firstborn, I deserve to get a double portion.”
Hevel responded, “If this is halachically true then I will submit to your will”.
Kayin said back, “Thank you and I will include the place where your offering was accepted as in my domain.”
The place, where the alter was, was to be where the Beis Hamikdash would be built, and it is known that the Beis Hamikdash is in the center of the world, therefore when they were splitting the world, and Kayin was going to take a double portion then the Beis Hamikdash would then be in his portion.
Hevel refused to accept this split claiming that the world didn’t have to be split in the center exactly next to each other and therefore he can keep what was already coming to him when Hashem accepted his sacrifice.
Even though the Beis Hamikdash was not built yet they both wanted that location because either they knew the place itself was inherently holy or they were hoping to live long enough for the Beis Hamikdash to be built in their lifetime.
After Hevel’s refusal of the deal a fight ensued and Kayin started chasing Hevel from mountain to valley and from valley to mountain until they grabbed onto each other and Hevel, who was stronger, knocked down Kayin and pinned him to the floor. When Kayin saw the bad fortune he was in he started shrieking, “Hevel my brother don’t do anything wrong to me!” Hevel had mercy and released him. Kayin then got up and killed Hevel, as the Torah says, “And Kayin got up” which implies he had fallen.
As soon as he had killed him, Kayin said to himself, ‘I must run away from my parents, for they will ask me about Hevel, for there is no one else in the world besides him and I.’
Immediately, Hashem appeared to Kayin and said to him, “You can run away from your parents, but you cannot run away from Me… Where is Hevel, your brother? He was merciful upon you and didn’t kill you when you fell under his clutches, but you slipped out and killed him. And how did you kill him? You beat him with a stone on his legs then his arms, for you didn’t know where his soul would come out…until you got to his neck.”
When Hashem had asked where is Hevel your brother, Kayin had responded, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper? You are the guardian of all creatures, and You are asking me where he is?” Then Kayin admitted, “I killed him but You created inside me a yetzer hara (The Etz Yosef points out at this juncture that this is what Kayin meant when he said ‘I don’t know’ meaning I was not in the right state of mind, for temporary insanity entered inside me, which is the power of the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, and he did it, for a person only sins when he goes temporarily insane, and without knowledge he sins.) You protect everything and You let me kill him, in fact You killed him, for if You would have accepted my offering like You did his, I would not have been jealous of him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
After some more intense back and forth between Hashem and Kayin, Kayin admitted to his sin, in a form of repentance and his punishment was downgraded from death on the spot to a lifetime of exile until he himself was accidentally murdered by his blind 7th generation grandson, Lemech, when he was hunting, being lead by his son Tuval Kayin, the real culprit, who Lemech also killed after he realized what his son caused him to do.

Though Kayin does sound like he had some chutzpah, the way he was talking to Hashem, and his underlying motivational bias was jealousy, however it does not seem that the motivation was out right negative jealousy. He wanted a share in the holiest place on earth just as Hevel wanted. This means his motivations were noble, altruistic motivations stemming from a pure drive to be close to Hashem, and maybe even remorse for that ill given offering that he had sacrificed. He was also knocked down first, granted Hevel had mercy on him and didn’t kill him when he easily could have, but Kayin might have felt he had an excuse of self-defense or self-protection, to ensure he would not be killed by his stronger brother. Lastly, why wasn’t his excuse of temporary insanity caused by the Evil Inclination an acceptable excuse? How can he be held responsible for murder, he wasn’t in a right state of mind at the time?!

Hashem’s responded rhetorically, “What did you do?!” Which the Etz Yosef explains to mean, “You did a tremendous thing, for you caused the yetzer hara to control you, for you made him bad!”

We see from here that temporary insanity is no excuse for innocence, on the contrary, that’s the way the Evil Inclination gets everyone to sin. However, it is because we allow the Yetzer Hara to get to that point, that we are held responsible for the actions we do in that temporary state of insanity. It is within our potential power to put the Evil Inclination in check and not allow ourselves to fall into that state of sin. We have the means! We have the tricks and the ability to have self-discipline in order to with stand and overcome the Yetzer Hara we just have to be on guard all the time. We must be sure not to let down our guard even for a moment.

Sukkos – “According to One’s Efforts is One’s reward” (Last Mishna in Mishnayos Avos)

The haftorahs for the first day and Shabbos of Sukkos depicts the war of Gog and Magog and its aftermath. There will be great chaos and bloodshed but, in the end, there will be open miracles which will result in the whole world recognizing Hashem as one. (It is worthwhile to read both haftorahs with commentaries inside.)

The pasuk in the haftorah for the first day of Sukkos, which we actually say every day at the end of Pesukei Dizimra, and repeat many times in our Yomim Noraim davening, says “Then Hashem will be king over all the world, on that day Hashem will be One and his name will be One” (Zechariah 14:9). Rashi on this pasuk says that every non-Jew will leave their gods and there won’t be any nation worshiping a foreign god, and Hashem’s name will be known and mentioned by everyone. Later in the haftorah the prophet Zechariah relates, “It shall be that all who are left over from all the nations who had invaded Yerushalayim will come up every year to worship the King Hashem, Master Of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkos” (Zechariah 14:16). The Radak there says the reason why the whole world will come together in Yerushalayim on Sukkos is because at that time of the year will be the war and when they will see all the wonders of the Blessed Creator. Therefore, to commemorate that event, they will come each year at this time.

Rashi cryptically says this pasuk is what Chazal explain in gemara Avoda Zara daf 3a-3b about an easy mitzvah Hashem will give the non-Jews to do which will be sukkah.
Here is the beginning and the ending of Hashem’s conversation with all the non-Jewish nations (taken from Soncino translation): Daf 2a: R. Hanina b. Papa — some say R. Simlai — expounded [the foregoing verse] thus: In times to come, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will take a scroll of the Law in His embrace and proclaim: ‘Let him who has occupied himself herewith, come and take his reward.’ Thereupon all the nations will crowd together in confusion, as it is said: All the nations are gathered together, etc.
Daf 3a-3b: The nations will then plead. ‘Offer us the Torah anew and we shall obey it.’ But the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, ‘You foolish ones among peoples, he who took trouble [to prepare] on the eve of the Sabbath can eat on the Sabbath, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath? Nevertheless, I have an easy command which is called Sukkah; go and carry it out.’ (But how can you say so: does not R. Joshua b. Levi say: What is [the meaning of] the verse, the ordinances which I command thee this day to do them? It is that this day only [the present] is the time to do them,’ they cannot be done tomorrow [in times to come]: this day is the time in which to do them, but not in which to be rewarded for them. [Why then should they be offered this observance in the Messianic time?] — Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not deal imperiously with His creatures. And why does He term it an easy command? — Because it does not affect one’s purse.) Straightaway will every one of them betake himself and go and make a booth on the top of his roof; but the Holy One, blessed be He, will cause the sun to blaze forth over them as at the Summer Solstice. and every one of them will trample down his booth and go away, as it is said, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. (But you have just said ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, does not deal imperiously with his creatures? — True! but with the Israelites, too, it occasionally happens that the summer solstice extends till the Festival [of Tabernacles] and they are vexed [by the heat]. But does not Raba say: He who is vexed thereby is freed from dwelling in the Sukkah? — Granted, they would [in such circumstances] be freed, but would Israelites contemptuously trample it down?)
With Rashi’s direction we can put the gemara of Avoda Zara into perspective. In the aftermath of the war of Gog and Magog everyone, Jew and non-Jew, will recognize Hashem as one and His will to follow; no turning back, this will be it. A new chapter in history, a new world order, which everyone will embrace. Hashem is going to gather everyone together to collect their earned reward, and in His ever-abundant mercy will even give the non-Jewish nations another chance, an easy chance to earn their pay; but they will squander the opportunity by belittling the mitzvah given to them. But putting the situation into perspective something doesn’t make sense! Coming together on sukkos they will be commemorating their Independence Day, liberation from the chaotic world they once lived in. They will now have a complete clarity and devotion to Hashem. So how can they belittle the mitzvah Hashem gave them by kicking the sukkah, even if they got frustrated that they couldn’t fulfill the mitzvah because it was too hot? Where will their faith and trust in Hashem be?

Furthermore, the Haftorah continues, Pasuk 17: “And it shall be that whoever of all the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts-upon them there shall be no rain.”

Rashi there comments, “rain: Actual rain to cause the produce of their land to grow. Now, what reason did He have for decreeing upon them the withholding of rain? That the commandments of the festival are based on the rains: the four species of the lulav and the water libation are to appease God for water. Since the festival of Tabernacles is the time of the rains of the year, no rain will fall on those who entertain doubts concerning the festival of Tabernacles. This is learned in the Tosefta of Sukkah (4:7).”

Pasuk 18 states: And if the family of Egypt does not go up and does not come, it shall not [rain] upon them. The plague [on Egypt] will be [the same as] that with which the Lord will plague the nations who do not go up to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles.
How can any of the family of nations think not to come up to Yerushayim for sukkos, their Independence Day, if they have complete belief in Hashem, His Will, and reward and punishment?

It would seem though, that when the gemara in Avoda Zara says the reason why the non-Jews don’t deserve reward is because only those that toil on the eve of shabbos get there reward on shabbos, meaning only if one works hard in performing Torah and mitzvos in this world does he receive his well-earned reward in the next world, it not only is a message about the reward received but a message about how the reward is earned. Meaning, because the Jewish people as a whole not only performed but worked hard and struggled to perform Torah and mitzvos throughout history they rightfully deserve that reward but they also appreciate more what it means to perform a mitzvah and do Hashem’s Will. So they would never get upset and belittle a mitzvah just because they lost their chance and became exempt from the mitzvah. On the contrary many people would just feel disappointed on losing the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah. But this is because we spent many years observing and appreciating what a mitzvah is all about. The rest of the nations of the world will realize the true path one day, but won’t have the experience and work ethic to appreciate what they are given by Hashem. Therefore, even when the whole world unifies to believe in the one and only G-D and to fulfill his will, it will still be hard for them in the beginning even if they will never stop believing, just because they haven’t worked hard yet at performing and walking in the way of Hashem.

This appreciation derived from a proper work ethic in learning Torah and performing mitzvos is something that can apply to us even today. It might be difficult for converts or even baalei Teshuva who come back to their faith and want to keep the mitzvos and learn tons of Torah. In fact potentially any Jew has his or her ups and downs, but it’s still hard and frustrating. This could be due to the fact that most  aren’t used to it, but with a commitment to never give up and to keep on trying, to build up the work ethic needed to perform Torah and mitzvos properly, then a person will appreciate the path of walking in the ways of Hashem, whichever direction it leads. In this way he will rightfully earn his due reward.

Haazinu – Hashem’s Right to Expect Us to Pray

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In this week’s Torah portion of Haazinu we find The Song of Moshe. In it, Moshe says, “The Rock! Perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; a G-D of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He” (Devarim 32:4). The Medrish Tanchuma expounds on this pasuk saying, “He is righteous who does righteousness with His sons. When a person is poor and he has good deeds, he prays before Him and says, ‘Like Your Great Name, do for me righteousness.’ The Holy One Blessed Be He will open His treasure house and give to him. This is judgement for He did righteousness. This is what King David meant when he said, ‘What is all this good that You hid for the ones who fear You…’ (Tehillim 31:20). David said before Hashem, ‘I know you have treasure houses of lots of charity, if you don’t give it out to me and my friends, what is all Your good?”

The Etz Yosef says that the medrish was bothered why the pasuk says “All his ways are judgement etc. He is righteous and straightforward.” Judgement is strict judgement, but righteousness and straightforwardness are above and beyond the letter of the law? This is what we find when a person has good deeds, and he is poor, he asks Hashem to give him charitably. So, Hashem gives him. This is the letter of the law and charity, (or righteousness,) at the same time. Fulfillment of the strict letter of the law because this person has good deeds, and righteousness because Hashem doesn’t owe anything to anyone… (Click hee for Hebrew text.)

The Etz Yosef says there is no contradiction between strict judgement and righteousness (or kindness) because the poor person earned his right to be supported by Hashem because of his good deeds, but Hashem is not obligated to give him because He is tied down to no one. The Beur Ha’amarim adds that even at a time of strict judgement, where Hashem decides a person should be poor or suffering in some other way, it is for the benefit of the person, for that is what Hashem decreed with His wisdom. But even then, Hashem is kind and acts above and beyond the letter of the law, and so He sends these miseries in a fashion that a person can handle them. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

It is understandable that Hashem, in his strict judgement, felt a person needed to go through some trials and tribulations as an atonement for a wrong that he did. It is even considered a benevolence of Hashem that he gave this person some form of suffering, whether it is poverty, an illness, or anything else, in a fashion that he would be able to potentially withstand. But why is it so kind and benevolent to expect the one in need to pray, ask, or even beg for what he needs? Imagine a benefactor, even if it is a king, who demands a request to be helped. People will be turned off or maybe even too embarrassed to go to him. What kind of benevolent person is that?

Perforce, there must be a difference between man and Hashem. Man is by definition imperfect and will have needs or wants, if not now then at some point, whether it is for attention, payment, or anything thing else; he or she will actually need or want. So it’s a chutzpah to demand others to ask and beg if you might need it yourself someday. On the other hand, “Hashem reigned and has donned grandeur…” (Tehillim 93:1). Hashem is an omnipotent, all knowing, all powerful, perfect entity which needs nothing, by definition. His expectations for us to ask for our needs and wants must be for our own wellbeing in order so that we will gain levels of trust and recognition of Him in order to be closer to Him which is the ultimate goal as it says in the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim, “Man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in Hashem.”

Prayer is one of the ways to grow closer to Hashem which is why Hashem expects us to do, so, for our own benefit.

Gmar chasima tova & good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder