Chaye Sarah-Proper Etiquette

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Many people are embarrassed by their hair going gray, yet on the contrary it is a crown of glory as the Medrish Tanchuma (3) at the very end of the piece on this week’s parsha concludes: “Another interpretation, ‘You were dressed in glory and splendor’ from Your glory and Your splendor You dressed Avraham’s head that You gave him glory in his old age as it says ‘and Avraham was old'”. The Etz Yosef explains that Hashem attributed the pasuk in Daniel 7:9, “His hair like clean wool” to Avraham. We see in fact that a head of white hair is actually a glorified crown on the head of a person.
 The Medrish Tanchuma elaborates in more detail about this concept in his first piece on the parsha based on the pasuk, “Now Avraham was old, well on in years, and Hashem had blessed Avraham with everything” (Breishis 24:1). The Medrish Tanchuma begins the parsha of Chayei Sarah by stressing the importance of being focused and having a clear mind while praying.The medrish then says, “There was no person who focused all his mind and intent in prayer like Avraham Avinu, who said before Hashem, ‘You should not do something like this.’ When Hashem saw that he was beseeching a merit for the world not to be destroyed, He started praising him and saying ‘You are more beautiful beyond any other man etc.’ (Tehillim 45:3). [Avraham]said back to [Hashem], what beauty do I have, when my son and I walk into a city they can’t differentiate between the father and the son because a person lives 100 or 200 years and doesn’t grow old! Avraham [further] said, Master of the Universe, You must differentiate between the father and son and between the young and the old, so that the elder will be distinguished by the youth. Hashem said back to him that I swear I will start with you. [Avraham] went his way and went to sleep that night and got up in the morning. Upon waking up he found that the hair on his head and beard had turned white. He said before Him, Master of the Universe, you made me an example! He said back to him, ‘The crown of splendor is old age’ (Tehillim 16:32). ‘The glory of elders is old age’ (Tehillim 20:29). That is why it says, ‘And Avraham was old.'”

The Anaf Yosefasks a blatant question on this medrish; “it already wrote by the destruction of Sodom ‘from the young to the old’ and Lot’s daughters said, ‘Our father is old’? Even by Avraham, himself, the Torah writes that Sarah said ‘My master is old,’ it also writes, ‘And Avraham and Sarah were old;‘ so why is this pasuk of ‘and Avraham was old’ any better than those pesukim to be indicative that white hair only started at this point? He answers that the feeling of being old out of living for most of one’s years was already felt in the world, but there was no recognition in the world of elderliness recognizable by hair graying, and therefore people who wanted to talk with Avraham would talk to Yitzchak. For this reason, Avraham asked for mercy that old age would be recognizable by the whitening of hair. The medrish is learning from this pasuk when it says ‘ Avraham was old well into his days’ though it wrote earlier before Yitzchak was born, ‘And my master is old’ as well as ‘And Avraham and Sarah were old’ for Avraham was then 100 years old. But the pasuk here was written after that for Yitzchak also had a nice long beard at this point and whoever wanted to speak with Avraham would mistakenly start speaking with Yitzchak, and therefore Avraham requested mercy that his hair would turn white.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Until that point people had felt their innards growing old, the aches and pains that come with old age; but nothing substantially different on the outside. Therefore, Yitzchak and Avraham, two great sages with long beards, looked the same, and people approached Yitzchak instead of Avraham if they went to a city of people who didn’t know them. Was Avraham jealous of Yitzchak? Why would he be, the Torah says Avraham had everything, he was an incredibly great tzadik and had nothing to be jealous about, especially over his own son. On the contrary, it should have been a source of great pride that his son was being treated with such respect and if Avraham felt someone really was supposed to be talking to him, he could politely say excuse me, I think you really wanted to speak to me, and Yitzchak could even direct the stranger to Avraham. So why did Avraham pray for his hair to turn white, asking for mercy, as if something terrible was happening every time he walked into a city with his son and they approached Yitzchak instead of him?

We must say that proper etiquette and basic manners is to first approach and speak to the elder before the younger person accompanying him and a breach of derech Eretz, proper manners might lead to a breakdown in society which Avraham did not want to cause so he beseeched from Hashem to change nature and have hair whiten in old age, which is the crown jewel of an elder who deserves the proper respect due to a person who has many years of experience in life.

Vayera – Sanity Together Through the Will of Hashem

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In this week’s Torah portion of Vayera, perek 20, Avraham goes down to Gerar and there is a confrontation between Avraham, the populace, and Avimelech, the king. In this encounter  Avraham, scared, feels he must tell them that Sarah is his sister in order to save his own life.

Unlike when Avraham went down to Egypt because of a famine, and when Yitzchak went to Gerar because of a famine, the Torah does not mention that Avraham went to Gerar because of a famine. Why then did he go there? The Radak says he traveled from there to the Land of Plishtim in order to dwell in every spot that Hashem promised him he would inherit so that he will have acquired every portion of the land. Plishtim was also part of the inheritance, belonging to the tribe of Yehuda as mentioned in Yehoshua 13:3. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In fact, when they get to Gerar the pasuk says “Avimelech, the king of Gerar sent [soldiers] and took Sarah” (20:2). Rabbeinu Bachye asks, “After Sarah was taken in Egypt to Pharaoh and a great miracle happened, that great blemishes started showing up [on Pharaoh and his palace,] which forced him to return her, then why did he now go down to Gerar, and say she is my sister, is it appropriate to rely on a miracle each time, maybe a miracle won’t happen this time? Rabbeinu Chanannel zt”l writes that now when he came to Gerar, he divorced her because he was afraid that they would kill him if he would say she is his wife. Nevertheless, Hashem didn’t let him be totally separated from her and leave such a righteous woman by a wicked man because it’s not right to let the scepter of the wicked be left on the fate of the righteous. This divorce was under duress, and this is why Hashem told [Avimelech in a dream] that she is married, for it wasn’t a complete divorce.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Avraham, out of fear for his life not only said what appears to be a white lie, although it did contain an element of truth since Sarah was indeed his niece, the daughter of his brother, so she was like a sister once removed. (See the end of this piece in the Rabbeinu Bachye.) In order to minimize the reliance on a miracle, which there is a rule in Jewish Law that one should not rely on miracles, rather believe they can happen if Hashem wants them to happen, Avraham even divorced his wife. And even though he was motivated by fear, and therefore Hashem didn’t allow the separation to be complete, and Avraham, unbeknownst to himself at the time, but undoubtedly thankful afterwards, was in fact still married to Sarah.  Therefore Hashem decided a miracle once again was needed to be performed, to save Sarah’s dignity and life.

Eventually, after Avimelech gave Sarah back to Avraham, he insisted on making a peace treaty with Avraham, and Avraham acquiesced. Later in the next perek the Torah relates, “And Avraham contended with Avimelech about the well of water that the servants of Avimelech had forcibly seized” (Breishis 21:25). The Ralbag learns two lessons from this pasuk (Click here for Hebrew text.)

  1. It is proper for a person to distance himself as much as possible from any sense of oppression in business and of stealing. We see this from the fact that Avraham rebuked Avimelech even though he was the king, over the robbery that his servants oppressed Avraham with, thinking that it was done under the king’s command.
  2. A person should be brave-hearted when appropriate and soft of heart when appropriate. For we see that Avraham Avinu was originally afraid of Avimelech and therefore said about Sarah that she was his sister, out of fear of being killed. But now he strengthened himself to claim against the king about the king’s servants oppressing him, so that it will be clear to him that Avimelech did not want anything bad to be done to him since Avimelech was seeking out peace with him.

 Fear is an emotional reaction which is inborn and very hard to control and to turn on and off. Even if Avraham was a good actor, it is known that actors go crazy from constantly playing different roles and changing their emotions on a sporadic basis. In reality we can assume Avraham wasn’t acting; so how was he able to control his emotions? What’s even more astounding is that the Ralbag says what he did should be a lesson for everyone to emulate. How can we be expected to control our emotions and be brave-hearted at the appropriate times, and soft-hearted at the appropriate times?

However, if one was to analyze what Avraham did and felt, and the motivations behind them, there is a common thread which binds it all together. That is doing Hashem’s will. Hashem wanted him to go place to place to live in every single spot he would be inheriting. Hashem did not want him to rely on miracles, and Hashem wanted him to admonish unlawful business, violence, and theft.

 Therefore there will be times where Hashem will want him to be in a state of natural fear because no one really wants to die, it’s instinctive to want to stay alive. He was also afraid of relying on a miracle to be saved from death, so he felt he had to reduce that threat of relying on a miracle by divorcing his wife, which Avraham thought was Hashem’s will. But when Avimelech’s servants robbed Avraham’s wells he got angry and stood up to King Avimelech because he thought they confiscated them under his direction. If you look closely at the Ralbag he did not “strengthen his heart” because Avimelech’s servants took something away from him, being a personal issue, rather because he felt he had to rebuke the king for allowing or maybe even enforcing such injustice. Avraham understood and felt the detriment of these actions on the world and therefore he knew it was Hashem’s will to stand up to the king whom he previously feared and to set him straight. One would think Avraham would want to appease him since Avimelech was trying to make peace with him.  Instead, the right thing to do was to rebuke Avimelech at this point; that is what Avraham calculated was Hashem’s will at that time and he acted in that fashion.

Running one’s life with the attitude of what does Hashem want from me at this moment, what is Hashem’s will right now, is not only an attitude that Avraham could live his life by, but the Ralbag is teaching us that you and I, everyone, has the ability to live every moment of one’s life with the attitude of what is Hashem’s will for me at this moment.

Through living by this attitude, it makes sense that at the right time one can have a brave heart, and at another right time have a soft heart, it is all for the same reason, what is Hashem’s will.

Lech Licha – Excommunicating Oneself

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Along with taking many students with him to Eretz Canaan, Avraham also took his nephew Lot and pledged to take care of him after his father was thrown into the furnace by Nimrod and burned, with no miracle saving him.

In this week’s Torah portion of Lech Licha on the pasuk of, “And Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan” (Breishis 12:5), the Ralbag learns that one should watch over the wellbeing of his relatives, just as he takes care of himself, for in this way a person will get the help needed from his family. We find this by Avraham, that Lot went wherever he went and whatever Avraham chose for himself, he chose for Lot as well. (Click Here for Hebrew text.)
And yet, after the incident with Pharaoh capturing Sarah when they went down to Egypt during the famine and Pharoah sent them off with great wealth and servant, including his daughter Hagar, to be a maidservant for Sarah, the Torah reports, “And Avram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south. And Avram was very heavy with cattle, with silver, and with gold… And also, Lot, who went with Avram, had flocks and cattle and tents. And the land did not bear them to dwell together, for their possessions were many, and they could not dwell together. And there was a quarrel between the herdsmen of Avram’s cattle and between the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle, and the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then dwelling in the land. And Avram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no quarrel between me and between you and between my herdsmen and between your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please part from me; if [you go] left, I will go right, and if [you go] right, I will go left’” (Breishis 3:1-9).

The Ralbag learns from here that it is beneficial to distance oneself from arguments and strife as much as possible, for in this way the collective family and country will stay intact. For we see by Avraham, though he tried with all his strength and efforts to keep Lot with him to guide him on the good path as much as possible, however in order so that one would be able to help the other in a time of need, Avraham chose to part ways from Lot in order to distance himself from strife.
Avraham, with all his dedication, love, and kindness – why couldn’t he figure out a way to compromise or resolve any issues that was brewing amongst him, Lot and their herdsman? Couldn’t he then keep everyone together so that he could be a continued positive influence upon them?
The medrish Pesiksa DiRav Kahana (3:3) paints a picture of why Avraham had no choice but to disassociate from Lot. “Why were [the shepherds of Lot and Avraham] quarreling with each other? Because when a person is righteous even his household like him are righteous as well as anyone who clings to him. And when a person is wicked his household like him are wicked.” Avraham Avinu’s shepherds muzzled their flock so that they wouldn’t eat from other people’s property and steal their grass. Lot’s shepherds let their flock graze unmuzzled anyplace in the land. They claimed that the whole land belonged to them anyways because Avraham’s inheritors were promised by Hashem to inherit the Land of Canaan and since Avraham had no children the land would be given to Lot, his closest inheritor. And the reason why you are muzzling your flock is in order so that Lot will inherit weak flock. Avraham’s shepherds contended that right now the land was not theirs, it belonged to the Canaanite nations and they had no right to steal their grass. Hashem in fact proclaimed that Avraham’s shepherds were right, that right now it’s stealing from the Canaanites.

The medrish goes on to record in the name of Rebbe Azaria, “just as there were arguments between the shepherds there were also arguments between Avraham and Lot as it says, ‘may there please not be quarreling between you and I etc.’ Disassociate yourself from me is not written here, rather ‘separate’ (הפרד) just as a mule(פרדה) can’t have children so to my offspring shall not mingle with your offspring.”

The Zera Ephraim, a commentary on this medrish by Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolis, points out that although Chaza”l say that a Jew may marry a female Moabite or Ammonite, who are from Lot, and in fact King David and therefore the line of Moshiach comes from Rus the Moabite, that is only permitted after they convert. This is because it’s as if they were reborn again a new person; but if they don’t convert, a Jew may not marry them since Avraham separated himself from Lot and his offspring. Parenthetically, what’s interesting to note is that if not for this incident a Jew might have been allowed to marry a Moabite or Ammonite because they are cousins to us, according to the Zera Ephraim. The reason why Moabite and Ammonite men may not marry a Jew even after conversion is because of an incident that happened in the desert.

The Zera Ephraim also observes that when Rebbe Azaria describes the fighting amongst the shepherds, as well as Avraham and Lot, he calls it a תחרות, which the Zera Ephraim says refers to the beginning of a fight between two loved ones, and therefore Avraham was afraid as time went on infighting would erupt between them. That is why Avraham pleaded ‘please will we not quarrel;’ meaning, in order that there would not be any fight between you and I, let us please separate etc. Chazal say that the word תחרות originates from a word that means heating up, meaning from the heat of anger comes fighting. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 It would seem from the Zera Ephraim that not even for an outlandish quarrel did Avraham abolish Lot from his presence, but rather for the beginning of a fight. Avraham must have had the proper inkling that this would just escalate into a full-blown fight, so he severed it at the roots. But why did Avraham not try to make amends? He had a positive influence on thousands of people, certainly his close relative who was like a son to him, he should have been able to get through to and settle whatever problems that had arisen. Didn’t the medrish itself say that when a person is a tzadik then his household and those that cling to him follow in his footsteps and are also righteous? Certainly Lot was part of Avraham’s household and clung to him like a son to a father?!

Perforce, we must say that Lot made an absolute decision to disassociate and disconnect from his uncle and his moral ways. In fact, the “Biur” on this medrish says that Lot was considered evil because he had a desire to be promiscuous, as what came to fruition in the end after Sodom was destroyed. Avraham senses Lot’s psychological disconnect, understood there was really no way to influence him in a positive manner, and knew he was better off severing ties with him completely in order to not escalate any fights and risk being tainted by the character trait of anger. If not for Lot deciding to sever ties with Avraham then Avraham would never have abandoned Lot, which led to Lot being captured and Avraham needing a miracle to save him and then Lot only being saved by the destruction of Sodom because of the merit of Avraham.

We see from here how destructive arguments can be and how important it is to avoid them at all costs, and even someone on the caliber of Avraham Avinu would not be able to get through and influence his own nephew, Lot, since he decided to disconnect from him (similar to a decision that Korach made to seperate himself from Moshe and the people, when he decided to pick a fight, see Chiddushei HaLev Bamidbar page 106, on parshas Korach 16:1, the second shmuz on “Vayikach Korach”.) That is why Avraham had to sever ties in order so that a major argument wouldn’t ensue and escalate.

Noach – Nimrod the Circus Master and Hashem’s Master Plan

Nimrod was a powerful ruler who had thrown Avraham into the burning furnace for not believing in idols.  Avraham was miraculously saved . Nimrod is first singled out in this week’s Torah portion of Noach amongst the genealogy of Cham. “And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty man in the land. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land emerged Asshur, and he built Nineveh and Rehoboth ir and Calah. And Resen, between Nineveh and between Calah; that is the great city” (Breishis 10: 8-12).
The Radak on these pesukim says the reason why Nimrod was singled out from the rest of the children of Kush, son of Cham, was because of his power and kingship that was mentioned in the Torah. He used his power and strength to capture many nations and became king over them. Before him there was no person who had the desire and will to fill his heart with such power to rule a whole nation. The Torah mentions all the nations he conquered because he was the first king, before him each nation was led by a group of judges or leaders (possibly like a democracy. This all took place after the incident of the Tower of Babel.

The Torah also mentioned how Nimrod controlled and overpowered vicious wild animals, trapping them with his strength and tricks, to the point that people were so awed over how he controlled them. They created an axiom when people of that generation and generations after saw someone subdue and catch vicious wild animals, they would say he is like Nimrod. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
 It’s striking to point out that Nimrod became more known for his hunting than his monarchy. He was the first person to overpower and impress upon nations to rule over them as an authoritarian king. He set a precedent for all kings after him, all that power and wealth, the way kings carry themselves, the aura of royalty all stemmed from Nimrod, yet the Torah testifies he was not known for his kingship but rather people  remembered him for being a keen hunter, a circus master in essence, why is that?

It would seem that dazzling tricks and a show of “cool prowess,” in a nutshell, celebrity fame is more memorable than cunning skill and force to mobilize and build up an empire, in the eyes of people.

The Radak goes on to say that Nimrod first captured Bavel and ruled over it and then he captured Erech, Achad, and Kalneh. Those 4 were in the land of Shin’ar. He then captured other lands that were not mentioned. But then Ashur, who probably came from the line of Shem (see pasuk 22 here) settled in the land of Shina’ar. Ashur (predecessor of Assyria) either captured it from Nimrod or from his children after Nimrod died and he became king of that land. Ashur was King of Bavel and the surrounding areas. The children of Cham were displaced from those areas, the children of Kesed, the kasdians, from the lineage of Shem, also settled there.

This entire story is to inform us, “the whole world and everything within it belongs to Hashem” (Tehillim 24:1). “And not by strength does man overtake another” (Shmuel Alef 2:9). And He can take the kingship of a land and give it to another, whatever He sees fit, as it says: “And He gave to who He saw fit in His eyes” (Yirmiyahu 27:5). Everything depends on their deeds “for He is a G-D of faith, and there is no injustice” (Devarim 32:4). All this story, as we already wrote, that even though Ashur conquered many lands and built great countries, and the monarchy of Assyria ruled over them for a very long time, still in all the monarchs of Bavel took them over, namely, Merodach, Baladan Ben Baladen, Nevuchadnetzar, and his children, and after that the kings of Persia conquered them, and so on and so forth from king to king. This is how it is in  all the lands throughout history, in order to prove that the land belongs to Hashem. 
If one delves into the history of one nation conquering another they might find methods and strategies for how it happened but to understand why empires are constantly being toppled, and seemingly powerful kings like Nimrod and nations like Bavel, Assyria, Persia, and even Greece and Rome all topple, the logic only points to the fact that there must be an All Powerful G-D that runs the world and He is in charge of how history ultimately plays itself out. Learning about history through a Torah perspective will enhance your appreciation and strengthen your belief and trust in Hashem. The very fact that Nimrod was known as the hunter and not as the father of all kings throughout history is a testament to this fact that ultimately Hashem is the King Of All Kings and He’s the one who ultimately runs the world.

What’s incredible to contemplate is the fact that all the displacement and even loss of life during each war and conquest all ultimately are for the sake of realizing Hashem’s authority and power in this world. By focusing on this and getting more clarity that the only answer to all the mysteries is that there must be a G-D running the show, will bring one closer to Him and it will ultimately be a great comfort to know that someone is “running the show” in a world which on face value seems to be so chaotic, but on a deep level there is a master plan and we have the ability to watch it all unfold with peace of mind and serenity.

Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Breishis – Beyond Even the Shadow of a Doubt

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The Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer (chapter 12, 20) says that Adam HaRishon was created on Har Hamoriah, the Temple Mount. In chapter 11, the Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer says that in the 10th hour of the 6th day of creation, Hashem placed Adam into Gan Eden.

The pasuk in this week’s Torah portion of Breishis states and Rashi comments:

Now Hashem, G-d took the man, and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it. (Breishis 2:15) טווַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:
took: He took him with pleasant words and enticed him to enter. — [Gen. Rabbah 16:5] ויקח: לקחו בדברים נאים ופתהו ליכנס:  

 The Gur Aryeh, wondering what it means that Hashem took Adam with words and why He did so, explains that for a person it is not possible to just physically take him or her, since the essence of a person is the fact that he or she is an intellectually thinking organism, and it is not possible to physically take them. For even though one’s body could be taken, one cannot just take one’s mind or intellect. Therefore Rashi explains the word “took” to mean that He took with words, and it therefore makes sense that He took also his mind, meaning with permission, through talking to him. So too, anytime the Torah writes the word “took” in reference to a person, Rashi explains it in this fashion; that he was convinced through words, so that the taking would be with the consent of the person. For the mind is the main essence of a person, and if this is not done then a person really isn’t taken, since the main essence of a person is his or her mind and intellect. 

Based on this Gur Aryeh, it would seem that if a person is captured, he or she is not willfully taken away unless he is convinced to go where he or she was taken, that is why Hashem didn’t just take Adam and place him in Gan Eden, He also told him what He was doing. However, Rashi also says that He had to manipulate, or literally seduce, Adam to enter Gan Eden. The Gur Aryeh asks why Adam had to be enticed to enter Gan Eden? However, he answers that this enticement was just to tell him he is entering Gan Eden; Hashem would not have taken him and brought him into Gan Eden without telling him because it would not be considered him going willfully. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Wouldn’t you trust your loving father if he told you that you are moving to a new beautiful place? Now what if your father was a very powerful and wealthy king; you would be even more excited about where he was going to take you! All the more so if He is the King of Kings, All Powerful, All Loving, and only does good. Shouldn’t it be then obvious to Adam that Hashem, Master Of The Universe, would bring him to the most delightful place that would be perfect for all his needs and desires? Furthermore, Chaza”l say Adam was created by Hashem already an adult, with not just mature understanding, but on such a level that the angels mistook him as G-D, being that he was literally the son of G-D, formed by Hashem Himself, without any intermediaries helping Him. Hashem had to put him to sleep in order for the angels to realize Adam wasn’t the all-perfect G-D that Hashem is. Someone on such a level with such a relationship with Hashem, why would it need to be spelled out that he was being placed in Gan Eden as if he needed convincing that this is right for him?

It is true that it was very obvious that Hashem would only want and give Adam what would be best for him, and Adam knew that, however Hashem wanted to make sure Adam accepted with crystal clear, authentic clarity what he was getting himself into.

We see from here that there is a difference between the obvious and real clarity.

Vezos Habracha – Mourning in Hashkafa

We have experienced over the past year and change the passing of Torah giants as well as world leaders. These are losses that have impacted people in a very deep way and have left marks that make us wonder what will be in the future, what is next, where are we heading? However, mourning for these tremendous losses can be put into perspective through one of the final pesukim in the entire Torah from the Torah portion of Vezos Habracha. “The Children of Israel bewailed Moshe in the plains of Moav for thirty days; then the days of tearful mourning ended” (Devarim 34:8).

The Ralbag learns from this pasuk that “it is improper to mourn a person too much, and even though he [or she] had the greatest of qualities possible. For we see that Moshe Rabbeinu with all his tremendous qualities in governing and greatness, still in all the Torah was not in agreement that they should mourn him for more than 30 days, which was the same mourning period for Aharon.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Besides the great loss of a leader, of a person of tremendous character, an example for every single person to emulate, there is another element which should be addressed, if one internalized what it says in Iggeres HaRamban, “At all times you should think in your heart that it is as if you are literally standing before Hashem and His Holy Presence is upon you since His Honor fills the entire world…and you shall be bashful from all people,” and Rav Yechazkel Sarna zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, explained that after you accept the reign of your Creator upon yourself, to always be like a servant before his master, you shall also accept the reign of your friend upon yourself” like a servant before his master” because each person was created in the Image of G-D. We find in the sefer Reishis Chochma also the concept of subjugating oneself before his friend just like he would before one’s Creator. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

If that is properly internalized then a loss of a friend and especially a loved one, and all the more so the loss of great leaders should be something which is almost insurmountable to overcome. If one truly felt the respect the way one should feel for every single person appreciating the quality of everyone’s loss and especially one that has such an impact on your life, it makes sense that the mourning process over their loss would be long and hard. However, the Torah says there is a standard, a line to be drawn even for the greatest of people, those who are most honorable and respected, there is still a limit.

We see from here that it is totally natural and healthy to mourn for the dead but within limits and though it might be hard to get over such a grave loss understandably, but the Torah knows it is within our ability to be comforted.

Hashem’s consolation to us is that He is eternal and will always be by our side to sustain us and guide us, this is the ultimate comfort.

Haazinu – Finding Your Portion in Torah

Shiras Moshe, the Song of Moshe, is what takes up most of this week’s Torah portion of Ha’azinu. Towards the beginning of the song states, “My lesson will drip like rain” (Devarim 32:2). He was referring to the Torah he taught the Jewish people.
The Medrish Tanchuma (Haazinu 3) asks why the Torah is compared to rain, and answers that just as rain erodes rocks as it says, “Stones are worn away by water” (Iyov 14:19). So too, the Torah wears out a heart of stone. This is what our sages of blessed memory said: if it’s a rock, let it melt, and if it is iron, let it blow up. Therefore, it is only good for a person to kill himself over words of Torah and to be involved in it constantly day and night, as the pasuk says, “And you shall toil in it day and night” (Yehoshua 1:8). This is what they say, “If a person tells you, ‘I have toiled and have not found,’ do not believe him.” And this is why it is compared to rain; for just as rain, the world cannot exist without it, because it needs to sprout vegetation in a positive way. So too the world cannot exist without Torah, as it says, “If not for my covenant (Torah) day and night I would not have placed the laws of heaven and earth” (Yirmiyahu 33:25). And just as rain comes down little by little (drop by drop), so too the Torah in the beginning reads alef (1), beis (2), gimel (3), daled (4) which are small amounts, but in the end it accumulates into greater amounts: kuf (100), reish (200), shin (300), tav (400). In this way also, one should begin learning Torah and afterwards he’ll be able to stand over the Torah and all its details.

The Etz Yosef in the name of Rav Avraham, the brother of the Vilna Gaon, from the Sefer Maalos HaTorah, explains in detail what the medrish means when someone says, ‘I toiled and did not find it,’ you should not believe him. Based on a gemara in Nida, when a baby is in its mother’s womb it is taught all the Torah. When it comes out the angel smacks him above the lip and he forgets everything. What is the point of all this learning if he is going to be made to forget it anyways? However, based on what the Alshich writes by “And give our portion in your Torah,” we can explain that because all the souls stood at Mount Sinai and each one of them accepted their part in the Torah, about this the gemara says “I toiled and I found it,” then you can believe him. Just like a person who found his lost object, since it is a part of him, and therefore if it would not have been taught to him in his mother’s womb, he would not have been able to reach his portion in the Torah, even if he would have toiled a lot. If he would not have forgotten, he would not need to toil, and if so then there goes all the need for reward and punishment. Therefore, the angel taught him his portion in his mother’s womb, and this is considered learning the entire Torah; meaning all of his portion of Torah. And when he leaves into the airspace of the world, he will forget everything, and afterwards, through much efforts of toiling, he will find what he lost. So, if a person says I toiled and could not find it, you should not believe him, because that is impossible! (Click here for Hebrew text.)
If one was to think about the power of Torah and its complexity, one might get overwhelmed and think ‘what’s the point of trying to tackle it and understand it, it is so above my abilities, unfathomable! Something which has the power to melt the heart of the most stubborn and harsh of men, which can only be successfully understood and applied through breaking one’s back, with all one’s sweat and blood, it’s just not for me, it’s too much!’ There are very few people who really know how to make weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or chemical weapons that could melt away metals and blow up stone, and the Torah is compared to just that. But to psychologically break the most bitter and evil of habits and ways, it is all-encompassing of how to live everyday life, and it is the blueprint of the cosmos. Such profundity and subtleties could be very overwhelming and one is told that the only way to achieve clarity is to kill yourself over its study. How can it be for everyone?

The medrish here with the Etz Yosef seems to be giving steps to how anyone can fulfill their maximum in Torah without getting overwhelmed.

  1. First off, one must have the attitude that it’s his life force he can’t live without; it is just like water or air. Also, it brings the greatest success to the world, and the world cannot exist without it; so it’s worth learning it correctly and living by it.
  2. Furthermore, one does not have to simply jump into it. Start slowly, and the more one gets into learning the more it compounds and multiplies, just as the gematria of the alpha beis starts 1-10 but doesn’t continue 11, 12, 13, but multiplies 20, 30 40, and eventually in the end 100, 200, 300, 400. So too, one’s knowledge and ability to understand the profundity of Torah and its depth and breadth will multiple with Hashem’s help as one continuously toils in it.
  3. The Etz Yosef in the name of Rav Avraham the brother of the Gr”a makes Torah learning even more palpable! The Torah is so vast and there are infinite layers. However, Hashem sets aside a portion for each Jew. Some portions are bigger than others, and each of us does not know the exact portion that we will be getting, but we don’t have to be overwhelmed that we must know everything, to its fullest extent and depth. Rather we have to put in a full effort to learn what we can.
  4. What is even better is that we aren’t trying to find something we know nothing about. In the deep recesses of our mind and heart this portion of the Torah lays, that our angel taught us in the womb. It is just forgotten about; but it is there, and when it is found, it’s guaranteed to be as exciting as finding a lost object you have been looking for, for a very long time! The feeling of excitement and elation upon being reunited with it will be palpable, because you looked so long and hard for it. It won’t feel like something foreign to you that you must get used to; rather it will be your own part in Torah, which you are destined to have and are simply becoming reacquainted with.

That makes it much easier to look forward to, and worthwhile to put in, many hard-working hours to go searching for it, plumbing through the depths and breadths of books, as well as listening and interacting with Rebbeim, colleagues, and students to find your lost portion of the Torah that belongs to you.

That’s an exciting adventure and a worthwhile enterprise to spend your life advancing!

Vayeilech – Jealousy of the Living

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Moshe Rabbeinu was lucid until the very end of his life. He also had reached the 39th  level of intelligence, right under the 40th, highest level. He certainly could remember everything in his lifetime with this brain capacity, besides the fact that he must have done a cheshbon hanefesh, a calculation of all the wrong he might have said or done in his lifetime. Yet when Hashem told him in this week’s Torah portion of Vayelech (31:14):

Behold, your days are approaching [for you] to die. Call Yehoshua and stand in the Tent of Meeting, and I will inspire him. So Moshe and Yehoshua went, and stood in the Tent of Meeting.” ידוַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה הֵ֣ן קָֽרְב֣וּ יָמֶ֘יךָ֘ לָמוּת֒ קְרָ֣א אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ וְהִתְיַצְּב֛וּ בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד וַֽאֲצַוֶּ֑נּוּ וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ משֶׁה֙ וִֽיהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ וַיִּתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

The last Medrish Tanchuma in this Torah portion says that Moshe responded
before Hashem, saying, “’Master Of The World, with a word that I praised you with, for I said (Devarim 10:14):

Behold, to Hashem, your God, belong the heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the earth, and all that is on it. ידהֵ֚ן לַֽיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וּשְׁמֵ֣י הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּֽהּ:

You are striking me down?’ Hashem said back to him, ‘You are compared to a bad neighbor who sees what comes in but does not see what comes out. This is what you said about my children,

Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips? יבוַיְדַבֵּ֣ר משֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹא־שָֽׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַֽאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם:

And you spoke out slander about My children.’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Rabba on this portion has the same medrish almost verbatim. The Maharz”u on the medrish explains the parable (mashal) of the bad neighbor and the parallel application (nimshal) to what Moshe Rabbeinu learnt from the parable. The mashal is  “One who sees his neighbor bringing a lot of stuff into his house and he thinks it belongs to his neighbor and he is jealous of him. He does not see that the stuff belongs to other people and what comes in immediately comes out. Or the neighbor has a lot of expenses (like a big family to take care of or expensive rent) and whatever profit he earns he must immediately spend, so in reality there is nothing to be jealous of. [In the nimshal Hashem says to Moshe,] ‘So to you focused your eyes on something positive and you forgot to focus on something negative that you had said before Me and you switched out one behold for another behold.’” The Maharz”u also points out that when one has good speech it creates merits, and bad speech creates punishment, which must be why that word, “behold,” was used to proclaim his death; since Moshe used it to slander the Jews 40 years before. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There is a rule in Torah learning that the nimshal must fit perfectly with the mashal, meaning the application must be an exact fit to the parable. How does that work in this case? In the parable, the neighbor was jealous of his fellow because he didn’t see the whole picture, but, in the application, Moshe didn’t realize why Hashem was proclaiming his death with the word “behold” if he himself used it to praise Hashem, and Moshe forgot he also used it to slander the Jews. Where do we see any mentioning of jealousy by Moshe? And forgetting is very different than not understanding the full picture; so what does the nimshal (application) have to do with the mashal (parable)?

As we said earlier, we must assume Moshe remembered everything, he was not forgetful. On the contrary, the Torah went out of its way to point out a few times that he had forgotten a halacha only when he was in distress or on some level angry. It must be that Moshe Rabbeinu on a very miniscule level felt jealous of everyone who would be staying alive and be given a chance to enter The Land of Israel, and that jealous bias caused him to overlook and forget the time he had slandered the Jews while using the word “behold,” which is why Hashem used that word to proclaim his incoming death. Now we can see an exact parallel between the mashal and the nimshal.

The lesson we should take away from here is the power of a negia (a bias), which can affect even the greatest of people and even at the very end of one’s life. And even at some mini level it can still make an impact and cause even the smartest people to overlook something they should have realized.

Netzvim – Listening to the Wake-Up Call

Days before Rosh Hashana it’s very appropriate to be reading the Torah portion of Netzavim. In one segment of this week’s Torah portion, it discusses a time in the Land of Israel where people will be going astray and worshipping idols or anything besides Hashem. Hashem will even send warnings through nature for them to repent and fix their ways however they will not heed to the signs as it says, “Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from Hashem, our G-d, to go and worship the deities of those nations. Perhaps there is among you a root that produces hemlock and wormwood. And it will be, when he [such a person] hears the words of this oath, that he will bless himself in his heart, saying, “I will have peace, even if I follow my heart’s desires,” in order to add the [punishment for the] unintentional sins [of this man] to that of [his] intentional sins. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, Hashem’s fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and Hashem will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens” (Devarim 26:17-19).
Rav Saadia Gaon, not being as concise as usual, depicts the very decrepit state these people are in. They are rooted in poison and are as bitter as bitter melons. “They calculated in their mind saying, ‘I will only have peace, and I will go according to the desire of my heart in order to rid myself of the draught through getting drunk. Hashem will not be willing to forgive him for this, rather Hashem will get very angry, and His wrath will be upon him and all the curses (from the previous parsha) will cling to him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It sounds like this person or people are quite delusional! They are steeped in terrible habits and ways, to the extent of believing and worshipping in idolatry, and they are so far gone that the Torah says their roots are bitter and poisonous. Besides that, they seem to be getting hit with violent warnings from Hashem to repent, and they are totally oblivious to the signs and decide to just drink away all their problems and follow whatever naturally gets rid of the present problems. They use whatever their heart desires, to the extent that they tell themselves everything is fine, I am doing nothing wrong. Meaning, they feel they can turn to science and any natural means to find solutions and resolve problems and ailments that are around them. And at the end of the day, they can just drink away all their problems as if they didn’t happen.

At that point, Hashem rains down terror on them, and the Torah goes on to say, “The later generations will say, your children who will arise after you and the foreigner who will come from a distant land, when they will see the plagues of that Land and its illnesses with which Hashem has afflicted it… And all the nations will say, ‘For what reason did Hashem do so to this Land; why this wrathfulness of great anger” (Devarim 29:21-23). The Torah goes on to say that the nations will be told that because these people rebelled against Hashem and His Torah they were severely punished and thrown out of the land of Israel.
 The Torah concludes this section by saying, “The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D, but the revealed are for us and our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah (29:28). Rav Saadia Gaon says on this pasuk that the later generation, your children that will come afterwards, “shall take mussar, learn a lesson, and should say this, ‘The hidden are for Hashem, our G-D and all that is revealed they are for us and our children…'”
 What is this lesson that we, the later generations, are supposed to take to heart, and how is it related to what the earlier generations did wrong?

The root of the problem with the earlier generations was not the idolatry itself, or any other sin they had committed, but the way they handled the situation when Hashem sent signs and warnings to repent. Instead of looking at their inner self and figuring out how to change their own lives, they looked around and tried to fix all the problem that came their way; draught, famine, sickness, etc. using scientific solutions. When those didn’t work, they turned to hallucinogens, but they ignored the real issue. Therefore, the lesson the later generation should take is that the hidden reasons behind why things in this world happen, be it climate change and the weather, pollution, disease etc. is for Hashem to deal with. We have to focus our time and energy into what is revealed to us, which is “to carry out all the words of this Torah.”

This does not mean we must stay ignorant of the sciences and not understand how the human body and the natural world around us works. However, it must be done in the framework of being sure our focus is to learn and observe the Torah, Hashem’s blueprints of creation and the handbook for mankind. If the Torah is our focus and the physical world is just part of our understanding of serving Hashem to the optimum, then the world would be a better place and we would not have to turn to alcohol or other substances to escape reality.

Good Shabbos and a good gabentched year,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Ki Savo – The Making of a Mentche

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The Medrish Tanchuma in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Ki Savo discusses a bunch of scenarios where it seems one is creating a situation out of nothing. The Torah states:

This day, Hashem, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. טזהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֗ה יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ מְצַוְּךָ֧ לַֽעֲשׂ֛וֹת אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וְשָֽׁמַרְתָּ֤ וְעָשִׂ֨יתָ֙ אוֹתָ֔ם בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ:

The Medrish Tanchuma (Ki Savo, paragraph 1) asks, “What does ‘This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill’ mean? Is it only until then that Hashem command the Jews, wasn’t this the fortieth year, as it says ‘And behold in the fortieth year in the eleventh month’ (Devarim 1:3), so what does ‘This day’ mean? Rather this is what Moshe told the Jews, ‘Everyday the Torah should be cherished and loved by you as if today you accepted it on Har Sinai.’” 
This is the first example of creating a perception which seems to go above and beyond time and space and transform the simple understanding of reality. In this circumstance one has the ability to have a fresh love of Torah, so much so that the excitement and feeling is palpable – as if he is now there, at Har Sinai, when the Jewish people first received the Torah. Even though, in reality, it could be many years later, even thousands of years later, and that feeling can potentially be felt every day!

Another example the medrish gives, from the next part of this pasuk: “’and you will observe and fulfill them’ Rebbe Yochanan said anyone who performs a mitzvah in verity, the pasuk treats him as if this mitzva that was just fulfilled was given on Har Sinai.”
This seems to be saying that if a person authentically fulfills a mitzva in its entirety and purity, then it’s as if that very mitzva came out of Har Sinai, with all it’s holiness and incredible value. Even if one is in some other country like America, performing the mitzva. It sounds very special!

The Medrish quotes Rebbe Yochanan again, “Rebbe Yochanan further said, whoever does the Torah in it’s verity, the Torah equates him as if he made himself, as it says,

And Hashem commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, so that you should do them in the land to which you are crossing, to possess. ידוְאֹתִ֗י צִוָּ֤ה יְהֹוָה֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֔ם חֻקִּ֖ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֑ים לַֽעֲשֽׂתְכֶ֣ם אֹתָ֔ם בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹֽבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:

The pasuk does not say ‘la’asos osam,’ to make them rather ‘la’asoschem osam,’
to make you, (not osam with a vav, as the Etz Yosef points out in the name of the Minchas Shai, rather ‘osam’ without a vav, which can be read ‘isam’). From here we see that the Torah attributes it as if he created himself.”

The Etz Yosef quoting a Maharsha explains why it is as if we create ourselves if we learn Torah in its pure authentic truth, “because before one learns Torah in its authenticity, the difference between man (adam) and animal (biheima) is nothing. And when one knows the ways of the Torah his whole essence separates from all the other living creatures and he becomes a man (adam), which is the purpose of him being created.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
How is it possible to say that a person is no different than an animal until he learns Torah Li’amisa, Torah to its truest extent? We all know from the beginning of Breishis that man was created b’tzelem Elokim, in G-D’s image, with an intellectual and spiritual soul. We have the ability to think and make decisions on a level many times deeper than any animal. We can choose between good and bad; we don’t just run on instincts. The power of speech and communication that we have is far more advanced and complex than that of any animal. Doesn’t this obviously make any human different and distinct from any animal?! In fact Hashem acknowledges this difference in every single human being as it says in Pirkei Avos (3:14): “He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G‑d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it says, ‘For in the image of G‑d, He made man’ (Breishisr 9:6)!” 

However, it would seem from the Maharsha that the Etz Yosef is using to explain the Medrish Tanchuma, that although it is true that mankind is set apart from the animals from the very beginning of creation, however all the qualities that make a human different than the animal is in fact only a potential difference. At best, it makes a human into an “animal plus.” And only when one uses these qualities to take that potential and actualizes it by using them for the ultimate purpose of creation, which is to learn Hashem’s Torah to its truest extent and apply it to one’s lives, only then does one transform him or herself from an “animal plus” to an adam, a person.

We can now understand the rest of this Mishna in Pirkei Avos quoted above, “Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of G‑d; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of G‑d, as it is stated: ‘You are children of the Hashem your G‑d’ (Devarim 14:1). Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: ‘I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it’ (Mishley 4:2).”

Hashem, out of His over bountiful love for His children, gave us the opportunity to go well beyond our physical state on earth, and transform ourselves into spiritual beings, by giving us His Torah. Giving our own selves the ability to convert our being, which is already part physical and part spiritual, but naturally leaning to our physical, animalistic tendencies from birth, and by choice allowing us to lean more towards the spiritual side of our essence by giving us the Torah to learn it’s depth and profundity in order to be closer to Hashem and His ways.

In this way Hashem gave us the ability to actually transform ourselves from mere creatures like any other animal into distinct people, (adam), mankind.