Vayigash – What Constitutes a Kiddush Hashem

Pharaoh had two dreams that Yosef interpreted as a forthcoming seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. After the seven years of plenty and two years of famine Yaakov moved down with his family to Egypt. When Yaakov moved down midrashim say the famine stopped only after two years. The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachye both ask that if the medrash is true it would seem the dreams, or at least their interpretations were not true and that should cause some doubt on the honesty and trustworthiness of Yosef? The answer they both gave was that the last five years of famine came back after Yaakov passed away.
The source that the famine came back after Yaakov passed away is a Sifri in parshas Ekev. There it says where ever a righteous person steps foot, blessing comes along with him. The Sifri sites other examples and their sources in the Torah, for example Yitzchok going to Gerar, Yaakov in Lavan’s house, Yosef in Potiphar’s house, and then the Sifri tells of what happened when Yaakov and his family reestablished themselves in Egypt, in this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash: “When Yaakov went down to Pharaoh blessing came with him as it says ‘And Yaakov blessed Pharaoh’ (Breishis 47:10). What was the blessing Yaakov gave Pharaoh? It was that the years of famine should desist. But after Yaakov passed away the famine came back as it says, ‘So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children etc.’ (Breishis 50:21). It also said earlier, ‘And I will sustain you there’ (Breishis 45:11). Just as the first pasuk was referring to sustaining them during the times of famine so to the later pasuk is referring to sustaining them during times of famine, this is the view of Rebbe Yossi. Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai says that it is not a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of Hashem’s Name) when the words of the righteous are fulfilled in their lifetime but nullified when after they pass away. Rebbe Eliezer ben Rebbe Shimon says I see where Rebbe Yossi is coming from more than the view of my father, that this in fact is a Kiddush Hashem, for as long as the righteous are in this world blessing is in this world but when the righteous are removed from this world, blessing is removed from the world. We also find this similarly by the Holy Ark of G-D which stayed at Oved-edom HaGitti’s house and his house was blessed because of it, as it says, “And it was told to King David saying: ‘The Lord has blessed the house of Oved-edom, and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of the Lord’ (Shmuel Beis 6:12). If that is the case then isn’t it a fortiori (kal vachomer,) for just as the Holy Ark which was not made to receive reward or punishment but rather to house the broken pieces of the first tablets still causes blessing for the place it is in, all the more so the righteous for whom the world was created.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There seems to be an argument between Rebbe Yossi and Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai on whether the famine came back right after Yaakov died, as Rebbe Yossi said it did, which would complete the fulfilment of the dreams or according to Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai that could not have happened since it would not have been a kiddush Hashem, therefore we are left with the question of when or if the dream about the seven years of famine ever came to fruition. (There is a Medrish Rabba (Breishis Rabba 89:11) which the Ramban indeed quotes that says the famine came back in the days of the Prophet Yechezkel, many centuries later, but the Ramban still asked his question after he quoted the medrish so it seems, according to the Ramban that completing the famine so many centuries later would not answer his question since Yosef’s accuracy is in question during his lifetime which questions the authenticity of the dream.) In any event Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai’s son, Rebbe Eliezer ben Rebbe Shimon disagrees with his father’s assessment and sides with Rebbe Yossi that the famine did continue right after Yaakov passed away and this still constituted a Kiddush Hashem. What exactly was the Kiddush Hashem and what are the famous father and son duo arguing about?

What does seem clear according to both sides is that the lack of Kiddush Hashem does not lie in the fact that after Yaakov passed away and the Egyptians thought they had their food back and lives put back together, but they now fall into another famine and start complaining and questioning Hashem; how can He do this again, or even questioning if there is a G-D controlling the world, for that is not on either view’s radar. Rather they are focusing on the righteous person.
Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai questions how a tzadik can give a blessing, an utterance which must be completely truthful which has the spiritual power to change the events in the world, and then something so divine, so perfect, can now be absolutely erased when the tzadik passes on. Isn’t truth eternal? How can it just disappear like that? It would be a lack of sanctifying Hashem’s name if a blessing emanating from Hashem’s trusted servant who emulates Him and represents His truth and power just vanishes with the physical body of the tzadik, shouldn’t the tzadik’s repercussions be an everlasting imprint on this world?

On the other hand Rebbe Eliezer ben Rebbe Shimon has a totally different take on this situation which we can learn an incredible lesson from. The whole world is created for the sake of tzadikim (the righteous), people who personify being the servants of Hashem, fulfilling G-D’s will in the most exemplary manner, and Hashem showers them with gifts and abilities which they can positively share with the rest of humanity and the world at large. However if the imprint of the righteous would be everlasting it is possible that the rest of humanity would remain stagnant and feel why should we need to improve if we can rely on the blessing of the righteous of yesteryear who left there positive imprints on humanity forever. If that would happen then what would be the point of creating the world. The world would become corrupt because they would have no drive to better themselves.

However what Rebbe Eliezer ben Rebbe Shimon is teaching us is that if everyone would realize that in each succinct generation there has to be tzadikim for it to be worth it for the world to continue to exist and they can’t rely on the blessing of the previous generations then everyone will strive to perfect themselves and try to become righteous. This is a tremendous Kiddush Hashem because it gives people the impetus to constantly try very hard to seek out Hashem’s will and perform His service at the best of their abilities in order for it to be worthwhile for the world to continue to exist in each generation.

Miketz/Chanukah – Two Enlightening Thoughts on Chanukah

The Psiksa Rabasai diRav Kahana, a medrish by the Amora Rav Kahana, asks the famous question, why do we light candles on Chanukah, but answers with a not so famous answer: “For when the Chashmonaim, the sons of the Kohen Gadol were victorious over the Greek Kingdom, as it says, ‘and I will arouse your children, O Zion, upon your children, O Yavan; and I will make you as the sword of a mighty man’ (Zechariah 9:13), they then entered the Beis HaMikdash and found 7 (or 8 depending on the version) metal rods, set them up and lit inside them candles” (Parsha 2 Piska DiChanukah). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Zera Ephraim asks the obvious question on this medrish: “Why was the main miracle which the gemara mentions of finding only one jug of oil which would have lasted one day and it lasted 8 days, not mentioned? He answers, based on a Megilas Taanis, that to remember the miracle with the jug of oil lasting 8 days would have been enough to set up a holiday where you could not eulogize the dead at that time and to acknowledge the dedication of the alter. However, the lighting is in remembrance of what the Chashmonaim did back then of lighting the metal rods. This is also how Rav Yaakov Emden explained the Megilas Taanis.

The Zera Ephraim also says they knew that the rods which they lit did not come in contact with non-Jewish hands. This would have made them spiritually impure. So to remember that miracle it is befitting to enact a mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah.  He explains that finding the metal rods was miraculous because they were able to recognize that they were untouched and not even rattled by non-Jews.

He brings another reason why they were not spiritually unclean, for in fact they were metal rods plated with wood which according to the Rambam cannot become spiritually unclean.

Either way we find an incredible lesson! The fact they found these rods was not an unnatural miracle, rather it was more of a form of Divine Providence that they just happened to have found 7 rods which they were able to ascertain were untouched and not defiled, or were made in a way which could not be defiled and hence were able to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Beis HaMikdash when the original Menorah was unusable. Does that really warrant a Rabbinic enactment of a mitzvah, one which has become one of the most famous mitzvahs in Judaism which all kinds of Jews, Torah observant and not as observant, try to adhere to each year even until today?

We learn from here how important it is to recognize and to show gratitude for even what seems to be the minor miracles Hashem does for us, those that do not seem supernatural at all but are obviously divinely inspired. Indeed, even those not so obviously divinely inspired should always be attuned to how Hashem is constantly helping us, and by lighting the Chanukah candles, which remind us of the 7 pure rods that were found in the Beis HaMikdash, should arouse us to be more attuned to the subtleties of Hashem’s Divine Providence over each and every one of us.

We can learn a second very important lesson from the last part of the Psiksa Rabasi DiRav Kahana. He asks why we read Hallel on Chanukah and answers with a quote from Tehillim: “And to Hashem who has enlightened us” (Tehillim 118:27). Rav Kahana then asks why we don’t say Hallel on Purim if in the Megilla it writes, “To destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews” (Esther 3:13), and they were all saved? To this question he answers that we only read Hallel on the fall of a kingdom, but the Kingdom of Achashveirosh was still in power. That is why we don’t read Hallel on Purim but the Greek Empire was destroyed by Hashem so they started to give praise and thanksgiving to Hashem, and they said, “In the past we were slaves to Egypt and Greece and now we are servants of The Holy One Blessed Be He as it says ‘Give praise the servants of Hashem.’ (Tehillim 113:1).’” (Click here for continued Hebrew text.)
We have to put into context what was happening at the time. Granted the Jews were still governed by Achashveirosh, but it was a time of peace. The enemies were wiped out, Mordechai was viceroy, and in the next generation, Achashveirosh’s son Darius even sent the Jews to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. What an incredible state the Jews were in, living in such peace and security; that isn’t deserving of Hallel?! On the flip side, the Jews might have won a major battle over the Greeks and were able to recapture the Beis HaMikdash and rededicate it but they were still fighting the war for some time before they eventually won. That was deserving of Hallel?

The answer is, yes! The Jews in the times of the Greeks felt freedom, freedom to praise Hashem, freedom to serve Hashem, freedom from the clutches of a foreign government which wanted to instruct them how to live. Even if they were not completely free of the threat yet, because they did not feel the yoke of government around their neck, rather they felt like they had been released from bondage like the slavery of Egypt, and could now worship Hashem undaunted, that was worthwhile to sing praises of Hallel to Hashem even if the war was not yet over. They could now feel and be solely servants of Hashem! This is why we say Hallel even today. But by Purim, granted they were living in peace and tranquility after the downfall of Haman, but they still had to answer to the ruling government, that doesn’t inspire euphoria to arouse singing Hallel to Hashem.

We see from here that freedom is better than peace.

Vayeishev – The Formula for Righteousness

The Rabbeinu Bachye gives an introduction to each Torah portion, elaborating on a pasuk or two from Mishlei and somehow connecting it to the beginning of the Torah portion. For this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev he quotes the pesukim: “Do not rob a poor man because he is poor, and do not crush the poor man in the gate. For the Lord will plead their cause and rob those who rob them, of life” (Mishlei 22:22, 23). Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to say that, “King Shlomo is informing us of the punishment for stealing from the underprivileged in these two pesukim. There are four categories of these types of people: (1) poor people, (2) orphans, (3) widows, and (4) converts.” (Click here for Hebrew text)
When elaborating on the fourth category the Rabbeinu Bachye says: “Converts (geirim), the Torah warns us to care for them a number of times. The Torah says, ‘And you shall not mistreat a convert, nor shall you oppress him…’ (Shemos 22:20). It warns us not to mistreat him with harmful words and not to oppress him by stealing his money because, ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ Another pasuk adds another reason, ‘for you know the feelings of the convert’ (Shemos 23:9), it does not say ‘of the convert’ rather it says ‘the feelings of the convert, meaning he feels subjugated and lowly, and his eyes are always towards Hashem. The Rabbis also taught, ‘If you bump into a son of a convert don’t say to him I remember what your father use to do…, or if the convert comes to learn Torah don’t tell him, the mouth that once ate non-Kosher, how can it now come to learn Torah which was given from the mouth of the Great Holy One’ (Bava Metzia 58b).  For you were strangers in the land of Egypt and about a blemish you once had you shall not make fun of others. (Click here for Hebrew text)

We also refer to the righteous as geirim. The word ‘ger’ in Hebrew comes from the word ‘gargir’ or a piece of grain separated from its root. So to the righteous views himself alone and separated, his living quarters on earth feel only temporary. This is what King David said, ‘I am a stranger (ger) in the land do not hide your mitzvos from me’ (Tehillim 119:19). He compared himself to a sojourner (ger) ready to travel and he does not know when that time will come, and because he does not know when that time is, he must take provisions, since that time might come upon him immediately without notice. What are the provisions? They are fulfilling mitzvos; that is why King David said ‘do not hide your mitzvos from me.’

We also find that that our Forefathers were called geirim. Regarding Avraham it writes, ‘I am a stranger (ger) and an inhabitant with you’ (Breishis 23:4). Regarding Yitzchok it writes, ‘Sojourn (gur) in this land’ (Breishis 26:3). By Yaakov it writes in the first pasuk of this week’s parsha, ‘Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings (migurei), in the land of Canaan’ (Breishis 27:1). It first says ‘Yaakov dwelt’ and not that Yaakov sojourned in the land because it previously by Esav  said ‘Esav dwelt on MountSe’ir’ (Breishis 36:5) when the Torah discussed the descendants of Esav and the kings and chieftains that came from him, and that they settled in the land they were given to inherit, the land which will always be theirs; therefore the Torah is now telling us that Yaakov settled down in the Holy Land, in the land of his father’s sojourning. The reason the Torah uses the word migurei,is  because we find the Torah elsewhere calls it that, ‘to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojourning in which they sojourned’ (Shemos 6:4). This is because our forefathers (specifically Avraham) were uprooted from the other side of the river, they were now immigrants (geirim) in the land that was Canaan at that time.” (Click here for end of Hebrew text)

It would seem at first glance that Rabbeinu Bachya is teaching us that a person is righteous if he views himself as a temporary travelerin this world, knowing that at any moment he might pass away and he must  therefore prepare provisions for the journey to the World to Come, which are the mitzvos that he performs. This attitude is a sign of a tzadik, a person who is righteous.
However one can wonder why he is more special than any other Jew who performs mitzvos day in and day out, and might even expect reward for doing the mitzvos and is also careful tonot sin since he is afraid of punishment? Why aren’t we, meaning you or I, the average Joes who tries to be Torah observant, known to be tzadikim, righteous?

It must be that Rabbeinu Bachye is doing more than giving us a sign of the righteous -he is also sending us a message that you or I, or anyone can become a tzadik, it is not reserved for the elite, and he is sharing with us the formula of how to become a tzadik. We have to have the attitude that I am a ger.

We see from here that a ger has many connotations; a convert, a traveler, an immigrant. But they are all rooted in the same concept, that one is like a piece of grain separated from its root.

If a person has the attitude that he is like a convert who feels like a stranger separated from his people and family who he grew up with, and therefore feels subjugation and humility which stirs in him an urge to constantly be looking up towards Hashem in prayer for help and comfort, always increasing one’s emuna and bitachon, faith and trust in Hashem, then this is the first step in the process of becoming a tzadik. One also has to have the attitude that he is just a sojourner, a traveler through life who does not know when the end will come and therefore has to always be searching out for mitzvos to perform in the best quality he can so that he will have the proper provisions when his time does come to go from this world to the Next World. This is the second part of the formula to becoming a tzadik. Finally, one has to have an attitude that I am like an immigrant in a strange land, having no entitlements, and must respect the people around me who were living here long before I was.

With this formula of having an attitude of a ger: selfless, temporary, and humble, all being channeled into serving Hashem then it will seem, according to the Rabbeinu Bachye that one will become a tzadik.

Vayishlach – Careful What You Say

At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach we find the lineage of Esav. The Torah says: “And these are the kings who reigned in the Land of Edom before any king reigned over the Children of Israel” (Breishis 36:31). The Baal HaTurim explains why there were kings in Esav’s kingdom of Edom, before Yaakov’s Kingdom of Israel: “It is because Yaakov called Esav “my master” 8 times, therefore 8 kings reigned in his land before the Jews. Parallel to those 8 kings the Jews had 8 kings until Yehoram and in his day Edom sinned greatly.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Rabba elaborates on the parallels in leadership between Esav’s nation of Edom and Yaakov’s nation of Israel: “Rebbe Yossi bar Chanina said that when Edom had kings Israel had judges and when Esav had alufim (princes) Israel had nesiim (princes). Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said Edom had 8 and Israel had 8, Edom had Bella, Yovav, Chusham, Hadad, Samla, Shaul, Baal Chanan, and Hadar. Israel also had 8, Shaul, Ish Boshet, Dovid, Shlomo, Rechavam, Aviah, Asa, and Yehoshafat. Nevuchadnetzar came and mixed all the nations together and got rid of all the kings… Evil Murdach came and gave Yehoyachin the leadership in Israel, then came Achashverosh and gave leadership to Haman [who is a descendant of Amalek from the lineage of Esav” (Breishis Rabba 83:2). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Why would Yaakov calling Esav “my master” eight times cause Esav to have eight kings before Yaakov? The Daas Zekeinim says in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: “That because Yaakov called Esav ‘master’ he was punished. Hashem said to Yaakov, ‘I said that the older one will serve the younger one and you call him ‘master’ 8 times, as we find in this perek, I swear that 8 kings will rule from Esav before any kings rule over Israel.’ This is what’s written at the end of the Torah portion, ‘And these are the kings who reigned in the Land of Edom before any king reigned over the Children of Israel.’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

What did Yaakov do wrong? In the 9th category of flattery in The Gate of Flattery of Orchos Tzadikim it says: “It is permitted to honor the wicked only on the grounds of fear, fear that they will cause injury or loss at a time that they have the upper hand. It was thus permitted to honor them as men honor the powerful, out of fear and fright by standing, deferring, and the like, but it was not permitted to praise them, or to speak well of them to others.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Esav obviously had the upper hand, bringing with him 400 of his mightiest warriors against Yaakov, his wives and little children. The Torah mentioned that Yosef had some level of fear and trepidation upon meeting Esav; what then did Yaakov do wrong? Wasn’t he permitted to show respect to Esav under these circumstances?

It would seem that it was within reasonable hishtadlus (personal effort; i.e., versus reliance on the divine) for Yaakov to flatter Esav. But if one looks closely at the Daas Zekeinim, it was the manner in which Yaakov provided the flattery which was the problem. That is why he was punished. If Hashem said the older son will be serving the younger son (which Yaakov must have known about), then it was unbecoming to speak in a manner which would go against Hashem’s proclamation. Yaakov, despite all the stress and intimidation, still should have figured out a way to, while strategizing a plan of defense against Esav, somehow flatter him in a more appropriate manner.

For this reason, due to Yaakov calling Esav “my master” 8 times, which was contrary to Hashem’s proclamation of the brothers’ destiny, measure for measure, Esav’s descendants merited to have 8 kings before Yaakov’s descendants had any.


Vayetzei – Supernatural Powers

At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei, after Yaakov married Rachel and Leah, had most of their children besides Binyamin, and worked for Lavan for twenty years, Yaakov and his family escaped Lavan’s house to go back to Eretz Canaan [the Land of Israel]. Lavan found out about this three days later, and saw that his idols were also missing. He ran after them with the intention of killing them (as we see from the haggada we read on Pesach), but Yaakov ultimately forged a peace treaty with Lavan. When Lavan left Yaakov, the pasuk says: “And Lavan arose early in the morning and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them, and Lavan went and returned to his place” (Breishis 32:1).

The Sforno on this pasuk is bothered by the need for the Torah to inform us that Lavan blessed his children and grandchildren: “Our Sages have already said, ‘Even the blessing of a common man should not be treated lightly’ (Megillah 15a). However the Torah tells us of Lavan’s blessing to his daughters to teach us that a father’s blessing is, without a doubt, given with all his soul, and is worthy to be accepted (effective) reflecting the tzelem Elokim (image of G-D) within the [father] who blesses, similar to what [Yitzchok mentioned earlier when he wanted to bless Esav,] ‘That my soul may bless you’ (Breishis 27:4). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz
explains the connection to the tzelem Elokim (image of G-D): “The phrase Tzelem Elokim (Breishis 1:27), is explained by the Sforno as meaning that man has the potential to understand G-D and perfect himself to the extent of reaching a level of G-Dliness and immortality. This power is hidden in his soul (nefesh), and when this force is released its impact is powerful. When a father blesses his children, the blessing emanates from the depth of his soul and therefore it is extremely effective. This is true whether it be a Yitzchok or a Lavan.”

It sounds like there is an automatic tendency or ability for a father to be tuned into his pure soul and to give everlasting effective blessings to his children. However if you look at the Sforno by Yitzchok it does not seem so simple. The Sforno explains why Yitzchok first asked Esav to prepare some delicacies for him before giving the blessings: “He asked for savory food so that (Esav) should occupy himself in the mitzvah of honoring his father so that the blessings are affective, for even though he did not recognize Esav’s great wickedness, nonetheless he did not feel him worthy to receive the blessing that he had in his heart to give him.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text)

Yitzchok wanted to give Esav the blessings but it would seem that it would not have come naturally if not for the meal he requested from Esav, even though there supposedly is this natural ability for a father to tap into his own soul and give an affective blessing to his son.

The Evil Lavan who just a day ago and even hours earlier was ready to kill his children and grandchildren in cold blood over his idols, was able to automatically be in sync with his holy, sublime soul to give blessings to his daughters and presumably his grandchildren with such an effect that it was worthy of mention in the Torah. So it obviously worked, as the Sforno is teaching us. But Righteous Yitzchok, one of our forefathers, a very holy person, considered hekdesh [literally holy] because of almost being sacrificed by the binding of Yitzchok, could not automatically give Esav his blessing and had to ask Esav to perform the mitzvah of honoring him? Indeed, Yitzchok knew that Esav excelled in that mitzvah, to ensure he could muster up his abilities to be attuned with his soul, so that the blessing will work. Why was it automatic for Lavan but not Yitzchok?

We must say that in fact Yitzchok, on the level he was on, certainly was in tuned with his soul and was able to control this ability to give blessings that work, but that he wanted to make sure Esav really earned it. In fact, the Sforno concludes that when Yitzchok told Yaakov to go to Lavan and get married there Yitzchok did give Yaakov a guaranteed blessing from the soul, for the Sforno says: “Because of this, when he blessed Yaakov later (before he left for Haran) he did not request him to bring savory food, but blessed him at once saying, ‘And G-D Almighty bless you’ (Brieshis 28:3), for he knew that he was worthy to be blessed.”

What this means is that a father giving a blessing to his children that works is not natural and automatic; so how did Lavan do it? This can be explained by the famous stories of mothers who lift up cars with one hand and save their baby from underneath with the other hand. It is possible to get a supernatural rush of energy at times, of immense passion or compassion, and to do things which are not humanly possible because the adrenaline causes such drastic measures.
Not only is this possible physically, but it is also possible spiritually and mentally.

Lavan, aware that this would probably be his last time seeing his children and grandchildren, had a supernatural inspiration of fatherly love and compassion which drove him to tap into his pure soul, his tzelem Elokim, bringing out altruistic blessings, which worked on his family.

The ability to tap into our purity and holiness, which Hashem endowed us with, is within every single human being no matter how far gone they are from the true source and it can potentially be tapped at any moment, pressing the right buttons or with the proper inspiration.


Toldos – The Role of the Anointed Ones

One of the roles of the Kohanim in the times of the Beis HaMikdash was to be the teachers of Torah to the rest of Klal Yisrael. The last two pesukim of this week’s Haftorah for the Torah portion of Toldos states: “True Torah was in his mouth, and injustice was not found on his lips. In peace and equity he went with Me, and he brought back many from iniquity. For a priest’s lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 2:6, 7).

The Radak expounds on the last pasuk, saying  “that it was proper for each Kohen that their lips are guarding the knowledge of mitzvos and statutes, by enunciating them with their lips  to the Jews, as it says in the Torah: ‘To show the Children of Israel all the statutes that Hashem your G-D spoke by the hand of Moshe,’ and it also says ‘Instruct the laws of Yaakov and Your Torah to Israel;’ therefore, Yisrael requests Torah from their mouth.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Torah, being the guide book of all mankind, given as a gift specifically to the Jewish people from Hashem, gives us the means to live life to the fullest , and when the Jewish people are aware of this they thirst for the knowledge of the Torah. Therefore Hashem set up instructors to properly instruct us in how to abide by the Torah. It would seem that the most practical way of going about showing everyone how to do the right thing is to verbally teach them what to do. This seems obvious , but what does the Navi mean when it says “For a priest’s lips shall guard knowledge,” which the Radak interprets to mean “that it was proper of each Kohen for his lips to guard the knowledge of mitzvos and statutes?”  Why are lips needed to guard knowledge? How are they guarding it?

In the previous pasuk the Navi relates: , “True Torah was in his mouth,” referring to the Kohen, that Toras Emes, as the pasuk reads, should be in his mouth. But isn’t all Torah true? The Radak explains that just as Hashem’s Torah is in his (the kohen’s) mouth, meaning he teaches it to the public, so too it shall be in his heart, this is Toras Emes, a Torah of truth, meaning he should not be saying one thing but in his heart be thinking something else. Indeed, this fits perfectly into the next few words of the pasuk: “and injustice was not found on his lips.”

In order to guard the mitzvos from being lost they must be observed by the people. The only way to properly observe the mitzvos is to be taught them. However the only way they can be properly taught in a fashion that they will be well received and observed is if the one who is teaching them has his lips in sync with his heart. If they aren’t, then the message will not be delivered clearly and appropriately, which in turn would put the mitzvos in peril of not being observed, hence becoming lost.

This does not only apply to Kohanim but to all who teach Torah.

Chayei Sarah – Opening the Door to Trouble

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah recounts the death of Sarah Imeinu and her burial. The Pirkei DiRebbe Eliezer in perek 32 shares with us a very Interesting account of how Sarah Imeinu passed away, (Click here and here for Hebrew text):

“And when Avraham came back from Har HaMoriah, Samel got very angry, for he saw that his heart’s desire was not fulfilled to ruin Avraham’s sacrifice. What did he do? He went and asked Sarah, ‘Did you hear what news happened today in the world?’ She said to him, ‘No.’ He said to her, ‘Your old husband took the lad, Yitzchok, and brought him up as a burnt offering, and the lad was crying and wailing, for he wasn’t able to save himself.’ Immediately she started crying and wailing. She cried 3 cries which represent the 3 tekios and wailed 3 wails that represent the 3 sobbing sounds of the teruah and then her soul left her and she died. Avraham Avinu came and found her dead as it says ‘And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her’ (Breishis 23:2).”

Samel is the Angel of Death, otherwise known as Satan, the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). He wanted to ruin the moment which made history and created so many merits for Avraham’s offspring. When it didn’t work by the events of Avraham and Yitzchok, he turned to Sarah and the sudden shock and pain of hearing the news that her husband sacrificed their only child, which killed her. The Be’ur Maspik, by Rav Avraham Aharon Broida, says that Samel was not trying to lie to Sarah, for Avraham did bring Yitzchok as a sacrifice he just didn’t slaughter him, or the ram was an exact replacement of Yitzchok so it is as if he was slaughtered. At the very least Samel was definitely trying to trick Sarah.

(Parenthetically, the Be’ur Maspik points out that the shofar blasts we blow on Rosh Hashanah represent the cries and wailing of Sarah because the whole concept of Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to remember Akeidas Yitzchok (the binding of Isaac) as it says in tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a therefore we sound these 6 blasts which represent the six sounds Sarah Imeinu made on account of the Akeidas Yitzchok.)

The Be’ur Maspik is bothered by why such a righteous woman as our first matriarch deserves to pass away in such an inhumane and cruel way; maybe not physically, but what might be worse, emotionally, and what seems to be before her allotted time of death without anyone around her to say their goodbyes.

To answer this issue he quotes a Zohar in parshas Pinchas which tells us something else quite scary. At the time Avraham made a big feast in honor of Yitzchok, as recorded in last week’s Torah portion, the Satan made negative accusations and prosecutions which led to Hashem decreeing that Yitzchok should be brought as an offering and decreeing Sarah’s death. Therefore, the Be’ur Maspik suggests that it is possible that when the Satan saw the first decree not fully go into action since the ram was a replacement for Yitzchok, he was concerned that the same thing would happen to Sarah and so he quickly approached her to shock and frighten her so that she would die through pain and suffering. He ends by saying that this must be correct, because if not, how can Sarah be taken away like this without any due judgement?

Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu certainly made this party as a seudas mitzvah, thanking Hashem for the precious gift He gave them after so many years of being childless. Their intent was to make a tremendous Kiddush Hashem to all who participated, which in fact was recorded as happening. . Yet with all the right intentions and positive reinforcement it would seem they went a tiny bit over board which opened the doors for the Satan to stake a negative claim against them which Hashem was forced to accept that led  to the decrees of Sarah and Yitzchok’s untimely death. It sounds like Yitzchok would have been killed in the binding if not for Hashem stepping in, essentially creating a loophole to undue the decree, but the Satan quickly followed through with Sarah’s decree, which Hashem certainly let happen, and she died in such a shocking way, all because she left the door open for the Satan to prosecute and enact strict judgement, a similar but slightly different concept to the evil eye (ayin hara).

The lesson is clear. Be careful when making a party or a simcha, whether it is a wedding, bar mitzvah, anything, to not go overboard. Avraham was very wealthy and prominent, it was certainly within his means, and there was room and valid expectations for it to be fancy. But there is a fine line between fancy and extravagant. Reminding oneself of what happened to Avraham and Sarah could be a trick used as a litmus test when making a simcha or party in order to not do too much lest one opens the doors to the Accuser and let him in to “dance” at the party.

Vayera – Delegating Responsibility

If one googles “define proficient” they will get: “ADJECTIVE 1.well-advanced or competent in any art, science, or subject; skilled. NOUN 2. an expert.” If one googles “define efficient” they will get:, “ADJECTIVE 1. performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort; having and using requisite knowledge, skill, and industry; competent; capable.” Which one is better?

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, Avraham Avinu essentially single-handedly took care of his three guests “who happened to have” wandered by through the blazing hot sun of the desert. Why didn’t Avraham get help tending to their needs from his servants, especially if he was 99 years old, the third day from his bris, and possibly known as one of the most important people in his day?

The Torah when elucidating about this episode, saying: (?)“And to the cattle did Avraham run, and he took a calf, tender and good, and he gave it to the youth, and he hastened to prepare it. And he took butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he placed [them] before them, and he was standing over them under the tree, and they ate” (Breishis 18:7, 8).

One of the lessons the Ralbag learns from here is that “it is befitting for one who does good to others to put in an effort to not overburden others with the goodness one is trying to give them, but rather one should pay his goodness in the most complete and nicest way for the receiver to accept. For this reason you find that Avraham upon seeing that these people were in a rush to go on their way and time had also come to eat, he therefore quickly prepared food and chose the most choicest food which would finish cooking in the least amount of time, that being a tender calf. It also wasn’t enough for one of his household members to choose what to eat, rather he himself chose because he wanted the choicest to be brought in front of them. He also first placed before them butter, and milk [with the bread (or matza)] so that they can start eating while waiting for their food to be prepared in order so that the delay won’t feel too burdensome.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Surely Avraham Avinu had highly proficient servants who could have taken care of those three guests, especially at that time. Eliezer, his head servant, was known to be a sage, Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter, and all of Avraham’s devoted followers must have learned from Avraham how to emulate Hashem and act with pristine kindness. So why did Avraham Avinu take care of his guests essentially on his own?

It would seem that no matter how proficient his servants must have been, and no matter how old and in what state of health he was  or what kind of stature he held, Avraham Avinu still felt that the most efficient way to take care of his guests was to act on his own, even if it meant putting in a bit more effort while making sure it was done to their liking. This is because as a meitiv, a giver of good, par excellence, he understood that it was his responsibility to figure out the needs and wants of his recipients and to provide them in the choicest manner, that being efficiency at its best.

The underlying message being minimization of delegating responsibility as much as one can produces the best results.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder


Lech Licha – Chasdei Hashem!

I recall that during my time in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Henoch Liebowitz zt”l, often said that if a person comes to you who is a beginner (ie he does not have a lot of Torah learning experience), you should start them off with Chumash and Rashi from the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha,  because it talks about chesed [kindness], and anyone can relate to that.

The Torah portion begins: “And Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you’” (Breishis 12:1-3).

The first Rashi on the Torah portion says: “לך לך” – go for yourself — for your own benefit, for your own good: there I will make of you a great nation whereas here you will not merit the privilege of having children (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Furthermore, I shall make known your character throughout the world (Medrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 3). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In summary, Rashi in the next couple of pesukim discusses how Hashem guarantees family, fortune, and fame to Avraham even though traveling naturally decreases the chances of having children, stunts one’s fortune, and causes loss of fame. Not only was he guaranteed that the opposite would happen upon travelling to an unknown land but Avraham was guaranteed quadruple the reward for following Hashem blindly. He was also granted the gift of giving out blessings to others, which only Hashem was able to do up to that point.

At first glance these pesukim and Rashis seem to teach a better lesson in emunah and bitachon [having faith and trust in Hashem] than the lesson of chesed. Avraham had to make a tremendous leap of faith in order to leave his home town permanently to go to a far-off place, leaving his family. Even if he were guaranteed great reward who said it will come about? Avraham must therefore have had tremendous faith in Hashem; where then is the lesson of chesed in these pesukim?

However, when delving more into the subject, one can find the answer, and it is beautiful! One example, at the end of the first Rashi, is when he quotes a Medrash Tanchuma which says that Hashem guaranteed Avraham that his character would be known throughout the world if he followed Him to the unnamed place.

The Medrash Tanchuma elaborates: “’Hashem said to Avraham go for you,’ this is what the pasuk means when the pasuk writes, ‘Hearken, daughter, and see, and incline your ear, and forget your people and your father’s house’ (Tehilim 45:11).  ‘Hearken, daughter, and see, and incline your ear,’ refers to Avraham, and ‘and forget your people and your father’s house,’ refers to idolatry… ‘And the King shall desire your beauty’ (Tehilim 45:12), this refers to the King Of Kings He desires his beauty in this world and the Next World, ‘for He is your Lord, and prostrate yourself to Him’ (the end of this pasuk 12).Rebbe Avin said, this can be compared to a glass flask of oil mixed with fragrance lying in a cemetery and no one knows of its smell. What did they do? They took it and brought it from place to place and showed off the smell to the world. So to Avraham lived amongst idolaters and Hashem told him ‘go for you from your land and I will make your essence known throughout the world.’”

The Etz Yosef explains in the medrish that Hashem desired that Avraham would look nice in the world, in order to publicize his honor and glory in this world and the next. Since Hashem is his master, and since the servant is so great, so much more the greatness of his master; this will become known and His honor will be spread throughout the nations. Indeed, we know this actually happened and His honor was sanctified on High as well. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Based on this, the kindness being taught in these pesukim by Rashi is understandable. Imagine if a corporation gave its employees fancy clothes, delicious but healthy food, and a gym, including a pool for down time and exercise in order that their employees will look and feel their best in front of customers. Would you call that a chesed, a kindness, that the employer is giving the employees? Why not? Granted it is for the sake of enhancing the corporation, but it still makes the employees feel good and happy. By making the employees look good, it in turn makes the corporation look good in the public eye, which in turn increases revenue and value. Everyone wins!

All the more so with the Master of the World, King of Kings, Blessed be He, the Eternal one, who has no needs and only does for the sake of good. He wants his employees to look and feel their very best so that they will be a perfect example for the rest of humanity, and the world will realize it is worth emulating and following such pristine examples. What that means is that Hashem was in fact acting with incredible kindness towards Avraham by giving him the opportunity to represent Him and to show off his true colors.

This message does not only hold true for Avraham, but for all of his descendants as well. Hashem gave us the opportunity to be a “Light onto all other nations” and promised us an endless flow of blessing if we completely walk in His ways. What a chesed Hashem is doing for us. No wonder this is the first Torah learning that should be done with a beginner, a lesson in how much Hashem loves us and wants to act kindly with us by making us look and feel good through performing His mitzvos.

Noach – Purpose

There is an obvious connection between this week’s Torah portion of Noach and its Haftorah in Yeshayahu perek 54. Yeshaya, prophesizing about the current exile relates: “’With a little wrath did I hide My countenance for a moment from you, and with everlasting kindness will I have compassion on you,’ said your Redeemer, the Lord. ‘For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah shall never again pass over the earth, so have I sworn neither to be wroth with you nor to rebuke you’” (Yeshayahu 54:8, 9). The Radak says that Hashem told the Jewish people that just as he swore not to bring a flood ever again to wipe out the world, so too there will never be an exile after this current one. The Malbim says that just as Hashem won’t destroy every creature on Earth with a flood ever again so too Hashem will never wipe out the entire Jewish people.
There is a fascinating Medrish Rabba in Breishis which quotes this pasuk at the end of the medrish. It says: “Another matter, it is written in Koheles (3:1): ‘For everything there is a set time and period for every desire under the heavens.’ There was a time for Noach to enter the Ark, as it says, ‘And all your household into the Ark,’ and there was a time he was supposed to leave it, as it says “Leave from the Ark.” This can be compared to a chief supporter who left his place and left someone in charge, when he came back he told his replacement ‘Leave from your place.’ This can be compared to a sage that left to some other place and left someone else in charge, once he came back he told the other person, ‘Leave from your place’. So to [Hashem told Noach] ‘Leave from the Ark.’ But he didn’t accept upon himself to leave for he said “If I leave and I will populate the world it will be for a curse.’ Then Hashem swore that He will never bring a flood to the entire world as it says ‘For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noah, as I swore that the waters of Noah’ (Yeshayahu 54:9)” (Medrish Rabba, Breishis 34:6). (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Maharz”u has a number of interesting insights into this medrish. He says that the medrish is telling us there was a set time for Noach to enter the Ark, [not before or after,] and there was a set time for Noach to leave the ark, [not before or after,] and even though Noach desired to leave early and even prayed to Hashem to “get off this boat,” nevertheless he did not leave when he desired but rather when he was commanded to disembark.

The Maharz”u goes on to explain the parables the medrish relates about the chief supporter and the sage. Hashem is the chief supporter of the world, giving everything its proper sustenance. But when he brought the flood onto the world he gave the “keys of sustenance” to Noach and Noach was in full charge of feeding all the animals. That is how Noach had enough food to feed everybody; Hashem gave him the “keys” or means to do it. Hashem is also the ultimate sage who is able to figure out and differentiate between everyone and everything’s needs; how much food should be given at any one  time. Noach was given the task and lived up to the task of weighing and giving out food for each animal at their proper time, day and night, until Hashem said ‘your time is over and it’s time for you to give Me back the “keys” and leave the ark.’

The Maharz”u had a bit of difficulty understanding what happened next because it sounds from the medrish that Hashem promised never to bring a flood again while Noach was still on the Ark. But the Torah explicitly says that Noach first brought sacrifices to Hashem on dry land?! (Parenthetically the Maharzu points out, Noach sacrificed in Yerushalayim on the alter which Adam used to give offerings after he was banished from Gan Eden. This will also be where Avraham performs Akeidas Yitzchok and where the alter will be in the Beis Hamikdash. There is even a stone formation there to this very day!) Furthermore, didn’t we say earlier that Noach had a burning desire to leave the Ark to the point that he actually prayed to Hashem to leave, so why would he refuse to go when he was commanded to?

Therefore, the Maharz”u concludes that Noach certainly left when he was commanded to, but not with the proper intentions, for Hashem commanded Noach and his family to leave the Ark and procreate and replenish the world but Noach refused to procreate until after he brought sacrifices in Yerushalayim ,intending to arouse mercy from Hashem so that Hashem promised and swore he will never bring a flood to destroy the world ever again.

There is a blaring question one can ask on Noach’s thought process, for what was he thinking when he decided not to procreate the world if Hashem doesn’t take an oath to never bring a flood onto the entire world again? He wouldn’t be helping things one bit because once they die then there would be no one else on Earth just as if they would have children and their future generations would become corrupt and cursed and then be annihilated again. Either way ,the future would be lost; so what was Noach’s logic, why would his idea be any better than Hashem’s, lihavdil, if Hashem would not have sworn to never send a flood again? Furthermore why did Noach think not having anymore children would be a better solution then pain, suffering, and destruction? If in the future the generations break down so badly he can at least assume that something similar to his story  and someone would survive as he did, but according to his idea no one will survive, there won’t even be a chance for humanity to do good if he and his family would not have any more children. So why would he threaten such a thing?

The answer lies in a very difficult but important tenet in Judaism verses human psychology, the notion of why Hashem seemingly brings so much suffering into the world. In the eyes of man, pain and suffering is a horrid state which no one naturally would wish to live through or even observe. That is why Noach did not want to procreate the world, since the thought of future generations potentially going through the same destruction, pain, and suffering that he lived through would not be worth it,in his mind ,to be responsible for such a situation to potentially come about. What he didn’t realize was that his solution wasn’t any better or was actually worse, for a world without humanity has no purpose and that is the greatest evil. That is why Hashem specifically commanded Noach and his family to procreate, so that there will be purpose in the world.

In a similar vein we find in the Haggada that Lavan was potentially worse than Pharaoh for Lavan wanted to wipe out the entire Jewish people by killing Yaakov and his family whereas Pharaoh just decreed that all the boys should be thrown into the Nile. How can Lavan be worse than Pharaoh, who wrought so much pain and suffering onto the Jewish People? It must be that wiping out a whole race or family, leaving no purpose to there existence, is worse than all the pain and suffering Pharaoh brought upon us.

On a humanistic level it is understandable that one might think that suffering, pain, and destruction is the worst, and in fact it is nothing to sneeze at. But Divine insight understands that there is a purpose, an ultimate plan for such such pain, suffering, and destruction but ceasing to exist, which causes a loss of purpose,is much worse.