Chaye Sarah- Freedom, Liberty and the Pursuit of Honesty

If you look up the word “freedom” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary or you will find many definitions. The Cambridge Dictionary defines freedom as “the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited.” Also, “a right to act in the way you think you should.”
However, the Torah has a much different approach to defining freedom, as seen in the Medrish Rabba of this week’s Torah portion of Chaye Sara. “Rebbe Yossi ben Rebbe Dosa said that Canaan was Eliezer and because he served this righteous person [Avraham Avinu] with integrity he escaped the fact that he was cursed and entered a state of being blessed, as it says, ‘came the blessed of Hashem.’  Rebbe Yaakov said in the name of Rebbe Yochanan of the House of Govrin when he parted from speaking a Torah lecture, ‘Just as Eliezer who served the righteous one with integrity left his accursed state and became blessed, Jews who do kindness with those greater and smaller than them all the more so’” (Breishis Rabba 60:7).

The Yefe Toar explains that the subjugation to gedolim (great people) is in itself freedom and   liberty; indeed, the fact that Eliezer served Avraham with honesty and integrity caused him to be taken out of slavery, which is the curse, and into freedom, which is the blessing. So, if Jews do kindness with their hands, a referring to giving charity, and with their feet, which refers to running to do good, all the more so. This kal vachomer (fortiori) from the servant of Avraham is similar to one found in the first chapter of Brachos 5a, where we learn that suffering is an atonement. For just as a slave goes free if the master knocks out a limb, like an eye or a tooth, all the more so, suffering that effects the entire body will atone for all of one’s sins. And here we learn a kal vachomer (fortiori) from a slave that kindness and truth redeem a person from all sorts of suffering and distress. (Click here for Hebrew text.
The Maharz”u points out that one shouldn’t think it is too farfetched that Canaan, Cham’s son, be the servant of Avraham, though they were 8 generations apart, for Shem the son of Noach in fact lived 600 years until Yaakov was 50. Canaan who was cursed by his grandfather Noach chose to cling to Avraham at the end of his life which completely changed his life. With absolute dedication and honesty, he not only was Avraham’s right-hand man, but he imbibed all of Avraham’s teachings, and subjugated himself to the will of his master who was the greatest person of his generation. Because of his dedication and integrity Hashem transformed him into a blessed person and took off the curse that Noach gave him. This blessing the Yefe Toar refers to as freedom.

This freedom was not the right to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, whether good or bad. On the contrary, he was still in the service of Avraham Avinu all the way to the end. Rather, what set him free was his honesty and integrity towards the leader of the generation when doing his bidding. Why is that freedom?
The truth is that one’s performance in life, when done in an honest way without any deceit, is in fact genuine freedom. This is especially true when what you are doing is helping someone so great and close to Hashem as was Avraham Avinu. This is because the further away one distances himself from the façade of the physical world with all its trappings and lies, the closer he is to Hashem who is completely truth and is free to do whatever He wants. Certainly, by surrendering yourself to the will of a great spiritual leader in order to serve him and to learn his holy ways,  a transformative effect will occur to bring you closer to Hashem. This was true to the extent that Canaan who was literally cursed with being subjugated by his brethren and their future generations broke out of the curse by honestly clinging and emulating Avraham Avinu, the closest person to Hashem in the generation.

We can learn a lesson here that if we act as free people by choosing to emulate Hashem with doing acts of kindness with the utmost of honesty and integrity to others whether greater or inferior than us then we will certainly be free from any suffering and iniquity.

The ability to emulate Hashem who is free to do whatever He wants is the real definition of freedom.

Chayei Sarah – Saving the Best for Last

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The motto “Save the best for last” is a real concept in Judaism, with major ramifications as we see in a medrish on this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah.  In the parsha, after Eliezer and the House of Besuel agreed that Rivka should marry Yitzchok, Eliezer, who was Avraham’s chief servant, gave gifts to Rivka and her family. As it says:  “And the servant took out silver articles and golden articles and garments, and he gave [them] to Rebecca, and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother” (Breishis 24:53).

The Medrish Rabba quotes Rav Huna to say that “silver articles” refers to instruments that women used to sew or wash themselves, like a washbasin. The Rabbanan say that “delicacies” refers to popcorn (popped kernels of any grain to be exact) and nuts. The Medrish asks: is popcorn really more desireable than everything else? Rather, it is coming to teach us that when a person is embarking on a journey and doesn’t have proper provisions, he is in in great pain and suffering. Similarly, it says that before the Jews  left Egypt “Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments…” (Shemos 3:22). Were clothes really most desirable? Rather, it is coming to teach us that if one is going on a journey and doesn’t have any clothing, it causes pain and suffering. Similarly, it says in Ezra (1:6): “And all those around them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with possessions, with cattle, and with delicacies, besides all that was donated” (Breishis Rabba 60:11).

The Matnos Kehuna explains that when the medrish asked about popcorn and clothing, it was because it was mentioned last, and we save the best for last; hence, they must be favorite.  The Matnos Kehuna explains the answer of the Medrish that food, as well as clothing, are indeed the favorite because without them there would be pain and suffering. Therefore this is what he took to support himself on the journey. This pasuk in Ezra supports the notion that the delicacies are mentioned last because they are more beloved than anything else.

The Etz Yosef spells the matter out a bit more clearly. He explains that the Medrish first asks: “Is popcorn really more beloved than anything else?” And the Medrish “answers that for Eliezer it was because that was his sustenance on his journey.” The Etz Yosef went on to explain that there are objects that, taken in a vacuum, are seemingly not cherished, but because of circumstance (time, location, etc.) are beloved in that area. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In any event we see clearly that the motto “saving the best for last” is indeed a real thing. However we have to understand to what extent this assumption is made. If you take the second example used in the medrish you find something quite astonishing! You would think that if the Jewish women would be able to borrow anything from their Egyptian counterparts, they would ask for jewelry, fine gold and silver utensils, anything precious to them, which they did. But the medrish is telling us they saved the best for last, which was clothing. The clothing was the best because it was the most useful for them on their journey. Wouldn’t you think that something so essential would be asked to be borrowed first, just in case the Egyptians would change their minds part way and not let them take anything else? Why take the chance of taking too much advantage of the enemy?

It must be that the concept of saving the best for last is so naturally engrained in one’s psyche that that is how a person would automatically act, even at such a perilous time such as this one. They were preparing for a journey which they didn’t even know when it would end, and asking their enemy for anything, which normally could very easily backfire.

For this reason as well, Eliezer gave out his nosh last as presents to the family, not because he wanted to give Rivka first then her mother and brother. If the silver washing basin or golden sewing needle would have been his favorite he would have given that last. But because the nosh, his energy for the journey until now, was what he cherished most, so he gave it last.

 And so too when the exiles in the time of Ezra were preparing for their return to Israel to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, they packed their food provisions last because those were the most favorite, beloved, and cherished items for them at that very moment, upon their journey from Babylon back to Israel.
It would seem unless explicitly expressed or premeditated otherwise we can assume that it is natural habit that a person saves the best for last.
אחרון אחרון חביב!