Vayera – Defining the Truth

 Hashem by definition is completely truthful. This is proven in the Orchos Tzadikim at the beginning of The Gate of Truth: “Truth: The soul is created from the place of the Holy Spirit, as it is written (Breishis 2:7): ‘And He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.’ It is hewn from a place of purity and created from the Celestial Radiance, from the Throne of Glory. And there is no falsehood above, in the place of the Holy of Holies, but all is truth, as it is written (Yirmiyahu 10:10): ‘And Hashem G-D is truth.’ I have found it written (Shemos 3:14): ‘I will be what I will be’ [אהיה אשר אהיה], and (Yirmiyahu 10:10) ‘Hashem G-D is truth; He is the Living G-D and the Eternal King.’ Derive from this that G-D, the Holy One Blessed Be He is truth; for the word [אהיה], whose gematria [numerical value] is 21, is found 21 times [21×21=441 which is the gematria of emes, truth.] And the gematria of the word אהיה itself is 21 [ so that אהיה אשר אהיה, being understood as a compounding of אהיה, would, in itself, give the same result.] G-D made man to be just [see Koheles 7:29], and Shabbos 55a: ‘The seal of the Holy One Blessed Be He is truth.'” (Click here for Hebrew text.) However, in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera we find a very puzzling episode. Sarah just overheard one of the 3 angels who were visiting, saying that she would have a child one year hence, and the pesukim say (Breishis18:11-13): “Now Avraham and Sarah were old, well on in years; the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah. And Sarah laughed at herself saying, ‘After I have withered, I shall again have delicate skin. And my husband is old!’ Then Hashem said to Avraham, ‘Why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged?'” The Medrish Rabba (Vayera 48:18) points out, “Bar Kafra said, peace is so great that even the verses speak in falsehood in order to ensure peace between Avraham and Sarah. And Sarah laughed at herself saying, ‘After I have withered, I shall have delicate skin. And my husband is old!’ To Avraham this was not said, rather ‘why did Sarah laugh saying how will I give birth for I am old.’ The verse did not speak the same as what Sarah said, ‘for my master is old’ but rather ‘for I am old’. “ (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Yefeh Toar  observes that the medrish did not interpret Sarah’s statement as a question, which means she called herself old and withered and Avraham just old. Hashem said in place of her statement that she said ‘I am old’ because that is what her whole statement about herself really meant, and Hashem didn’t bother mentioning that she said ‘my master is old’ because He was just summarizing what she said, which in that case means that Hashem really did not lie at all. However, the Yefeh Toar points out that the medrish goes out of its way to clearly explain that Hashem actually changed Sarah’s words for the sake of peace. If that is the case, then how do we explain that Hashem lied or spoke falsehood? The Yefeh Toar specifically writes that Hashem changed His words, and in fact the medrish says the Torah writes it as if He spoke falsehood, in order to teach us a lesson in the importance of peace. How is this possible? 
Nevertheless, I heard from a talmid chacham, Rabbi Yitzchok Kolsky shlit”a, that if by changing words it will result in doing Hashem’s will, then those words are the truth, it is not a lie. Hashem’s will is to ensure peace amongst people especially between husband and wife; therefore changing what she said which appears to be falsehood is warranted and is therefore considered truthful. However, that does not mean a person can always lie for the sake of peace, because people pick up on it and it backfires a lot, which can make things worse and is obviously not the will of Hashem.

There is a story I heard of a couple who came home after a trip Thursday night and her mother, who was recovering at home from a procedure, offered to make Shabbos meals for them. The daughter said no, she had everything she needed, even though she actually had nothing prepared for Shabbos, as she didn’t want to trouble her mother who had a procedure. Yet she also felt wrong for just lying to her mother. Her husband decided to ask his rabbi if she did the right thing. The rabbi thought it was a good question and asked Rabbi Fuerst shlit”a what he thought. Rabbi Fuerst shlit”a said that one is allowed to lie if it will improve his or her middos [character traits]. He quoted a gemara in Bava Metzia 23b which states there are 3 circumstances (besides for the sake of peace) that one is allowed to lie. One reason is out of proper character, for example, in terms of a tractate of gemara, if one is asked if he is fluent in a certain subject matter, he can lie and deny it out of humility. For this reason, Rabbi Fuerst said that because this wife was respecting her mother, and was concerned for her health, she was allowed to lie.

 However, the Orchos Tzadikim in the conclusion of The Gate of Falsehood, after quoting this gemara concludes, “And in all these cases where the sages permitted deviation from the truth, if one can manage without lying it is better that he do so. For example, if he is asked, ‘Do you know this tractate?’ He can answer, ‘Do you really think I know it?’ If he can push off the questioner in this way without lying, it is better that he does so rather than lie outright. He should follow this practice in all his affairs. If he does so, happy is he and happy his begetter.” It seems clear from all this that one has to be extremely careful when deviating from the truth, and the litmus test is whether one is confident that he is doing the Will of Hashem. If he is doing the will of Hashem, then that is considered the truth; but that is very hard to figure out. Therefore one must be extremely careful in this matter, and not use it as an excuse to lie, except in very rare and well-calculated circumstances.

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.

Vayera – A Pinch of Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vayera – Philanthropy: Doing Because You Want to Not Just Because it is What’s Right

We find in this week’s Torah portion of Vayera the destruction of Sodom. Among the many reasons why it deserved annihilation was because of their refusal to be charitable; it in fact became illegal under Sodomite law to take care of strangers or guests from outside the city. This became known as the trait of Sodom and in fact the prophet Yechezkel warns the Jewish people, “Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Yechezkel 16:49).

There is a fascinating Mishna in Pirkey Avos that mentions this trait of Sodom:
5:10 There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor (or ignoramus, עם הארץ). One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious person). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.

“What is mine is mine and what is your is yours, this is the median trait, but some say this is the trait of Sodom.” Rabbeinu Yonah asks that if we take it literally that a person will not share with anyone though he is not a taker, why then is there an argument of what kind of person he is? The Gemara in Kesubos 68a clearly says that withholding tzedaka is the trait of Sodom and in many places the sages say this type of person is completely wicked. It does not make sense that there would be an opinion amongst the sages that this type of trait would be an average trait?!

Thus, Rabbeinu Yonah felt compelled to explain the Mishna as referring to a person who does give to the needy when obligated, out of fear of Hashem, but it doesn’t come natural to him because he is miserly. His attitude is “I’ll support the poor who come to my door  because the Torah tells me to since I am a G-D fearing Jew, but who  cares whether this feeling of giving comes natural to me or not” – this trait itself is an average trait. However, there are those who say that this trait itself is the trait of Sodom and its roots are very bad until one acquires the trait of giving away (ותרנות). One who does not support the hand of the poor and destitute at all, everyone would without a doubt agree is bad, and G-D forbid the sages of the Mishna would call them average, but one who gives tzedakah out of Fear of Heaven rather  than naturally is what the argument is about as to  whether this is an average trait or a trait of Sodom. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rabbeinu Yonah is saying something quite shocking and is a tremendous eye opener! It is possible for a person to be giving lots of money, at least a tenth of his earning in maaser (tithes), besides money to those who come to him begging for charity and if he is really rich he might be giving millions of dollars, yet he is doing it only because he is meticulous in his observance of halacha, Jewish Law, since he is a G-D fearing Jew, but if it was up to him he wouldn’t give anyone a dime because he is too cheap. Since he is giving and not for some ulterior motive like to get a tax cut or for fame, for example too have his name on a building, how then can anyone say that this is the character of Sodom and has very evil roots; he is still doing the right thing and doing it out of fear of Hashem; what is wrong with that!!!

There is an incredible nuance learnt from Rabbeinu Yonah! It is not enough to be G-D Fearing, to do the right thing in terms of the trait of giving, because deep down inside he is still stingy and a miser. Rather one must feel naturally compelled to give to those who are in need and if one does not, then it is debatable whether at the very least he is just nothing special or at the very worst rooted in evil like the people of Sodom.

On the other hand Rabbeinu Yona explains that if one’s attitude is “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, is an ignoramus” because granted he is a giver but he is also a taker and does not realize “that one who hates gifts is a formula for life” which is a good trait. Where as one who has the attitude of “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours, is pious” which means he takes the opposite extremes of having a natural feeling of being a giver and hating gifts. He wants to give and not take from others which is a trait above the letter of the law, that is why he is considered pious. This takes a lot of strategy and brainpower to be able to support yourself without any help and still have the means to be able to give with open arms to those who are in need, with a natural fervor and passion.

Vayera – The Source for the Concept of Tefilla

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After Avimelech, the King of the Plishtim (Philistines), took Sarah away from Avraham, Hashem came to Avimelech in a dream and told him not to touch her and to return her to Avraham. He then promised that Avraham would pray on his behalf, for Hashem made a miracle and closed up every hole in his, his wife, and maidservants’ bodies. The Torah testifies that: “Avraham prayed to G-D and G-D healed Avimelech, his wife, and his maids, and they were relieved” (Breishis 20:17).
The Medrish Rabba (Seder Vayera 52:13) relates on this pasuk, “ויתפלל אברהם אל האלוקים” : Rebbe Chama bar Rebbe Chanina said that from the beginning of this sefer [book] until now it never used this type of terminology; once Avraham Avinu prayed he untied that knot. “For Hashem had completely restrained every orifice” (pasuk 18), the mouth was restrained, the throat was restrained, the ears were restrained, up top was restrained, and down below was restrained, and everyone said it was because of the matter of Sarah the wife of Avraham. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

There are many explanations of what this medrish means. The Maharz”u says that the terminology (or format) of tefilla was not used until this point, when Hashem told Avimelech that Avraham would pray for him, and then the Torah relates that Avraham indeed prayed on his behalf. What the medrish means when it says “he untied this knot” would seem (according to the Maharz”u) to be that the word tefila comes from the pasuk “Naftuli Elokim Niftalti” (Breishis 30:8), the reason why Rochel named Bilhah’s second son Naftali. Rashi there explains that the word “Naftuli” comes from the phrase “ikesh upisalto,” which means perverse and crooked. Onkelos there says it stems from the word “bausi bi’ischonanti,” which means request while beseeching. But they are both the truth, for Hashem originally made the world straight but through man’s sin the straightness has become crooked and perverseness has entered the world. So tefilla, praying, exists to straighten the crooked and remove the perverse.
According to the Maharz”u, tefilla, prayer, came to straighten out the perverseness and crookedness of the world that came about as a result of sin, which made crooked the straightness that Hashem originally created the world with. This fits perfectly into what Avraham did; for the straight sense of the word, Hashem created man with holes in his body to help him function and Hashem blocked up those holes in Avimelech’s body because of the sin he committed of abducting Sarah. So Avraham prayed on his behalf to straighten out the corruption and crookedness Avimelech had created for himself. The Rada”l says that there was never a time until now that someone had prayed and Hashem had answered them, resulting in reversing a Heavenly decree, until Avraham came around and reopened these openings. This is why we say in our Shemone Esray “Magen Avraham,” that Hashem is Avraham’s Protector, for because of him the Gates of Kindness were opened to listen to prayer.
According to the Rada”l this was the first time Hashem answered the prayers of someone and reversed a heavenly decree, therefore we recognize the fact that Avraham opened the Gates of Kindness so that Hashem answers our prayers by saying in our Shemone Esray at least 3 times daily, “Baruch Ata Hashem Magen Avraham.”
 However the Yidei Moshe has a different take on this. He says this is the first time someone ever prayed an incredibly intense prayer, ויתפלל comes from the word פלילים, wondrous, just as it says by Pinchas, ויפלל פנחס, Pinchas did wondrous feats. It says that they needed something really big to happen, and that was referring to the incredibly intense prayer needed to untie the knot for all their limbs were closed, the mouth, ears, etc. as the Medrish explains.
According to the Yidei Moshe, this was the first time in history that someone prayed a very intense prayer and Avraham did so because it was a very dire situation; all the orifices of the king of the Philistine’s body and of his wife and servants were closed up. It was seeing clear and present danger, directly in front of his face, which inspired him to pray such an intense prayer, as never prayed before in history!

But why hadn’t this happen before? Surely Avraham himself was in other circumstances where he had to pray on behalf of others, or even himself, like when he beseeched Hashem to save Sodom earlier on in the Torah portion. That was also a circumstance of clear and present danger; he knew that fire and brimstone would hail down from Heaven and wipe out whole cities. Both situations were dealing with bad people, and Avraham was using his feelings of mercy and grace to pray on their behalf. But, still, by Avimelech, king of the Philistines, he prayed with more intensity? Why is this so? Indeed the Yidei Moshe did not say because he was trying to get Sarah back after she was captured, rather it is because he saw the dire situation they were in. That made a difference! The fact that Avraham saw with his own eyes the suffering Avimelech was going through prompted him to pray a very intense prayer, even more so than knowing that moments later whole cities would be violently wiped out.

A little more inspiration, actually seeing a reality check in front of one’s eyes, can transform one’s prayers from intense to really intense and make a world of a difference to the point that it was something never done before until then.