Thursday, December 8, 2016

Parshat Vayeitzei - The Loud Sound of Silence

This week's parsha, in continuing the episode of Yaakov and Eisav’s rivalry, tells of Yaakov's journey from Be’er Sheva to Charan. Rashi (verse 10) notes that his leaving was significant because “the departure of a Tzaddik makes an impression, for as long as he is there, he is their magnificence, he is their splendor...Once he leaves, the [city’s] magnificence has gone away, its splendor has gone away...” Clearly both Yaakov's presence in and exiting of the city was impactful.  

One may wonder why Yaakov in particular is used as the illustration for this idea. We have already heard of a few departures of the righteous from their towns, some of the most notable being Avraham from Ur Kasdim and Yitzchak to Gerar to see Avimelech. Surely these also made an impression on their cities, yet we have no mention of this idea in those instances. What is so significant about Yaakov's departure in comparison with the others that warrants this special status?

As we know from the Midrashic sources, in the period between his leaving of his family and his setting off for Charan, Yaakov went to study in the Yeshiva of Shem V’Ever for 14 years. But when and where did this happen? The Meharsha in Megillah (17a) points out that if it is true that he spent 14 years in the house of Shem V’Ever, it would seem to contradict the verse itself – which implies that he left Be’er Sheva and went directly to Charan, without any stops along the way. Furthermore, the Midrash Rabbah and the Gemara in Chullin (91b) explain that the dream of the Ladders and the Angels actually occurred when Yaakov was still in Be’er Sheva, even though it is mentioned after the passuk has already told us that Yaakov was on his way. This would again imply that once Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, there were no detours before his arrival in Charan.

To resolve this issue, the Meharsha gives an answer that is meaningful on many levels. The Meharsha explains that the Yeshiva of Shem V’Ever was actually in the city of Be’er Sheva itself. Therefore, when the Torah says that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva to go to Charan, it was already after the 14 years of study. This is stunning; we know that throughout that time, Eisav was seeking retribution from Yaakov for stealing the Bracha. If Eisav were to find him, he would surely have exacted revenge upon Yaakov. Yet, according to the Meharsha, Yaakov remained in the very same city with the person looking to kill him and was never caught! This obviously bespeaks of the great Hatmada (diligence) Yaakov in his learning – he must not have left the Yeshiva throughout the entire 14 years, for had he done so, he would have been found by Eisav.

According this Meharsha we can now answer our question. Why was Yaakov chosen to illustrate the concept of the impact of a Tzaddik on his city, when we already have prior examples to learn from? As explained previously, for much of the time that Yaakov was in Be’er Sheva, he remained hidden behind the walls of the Yeshiva, and probably did not make much contact with the people outside. Yet even with all this secrecy, the Midrash says “the departure of a Tzaddik makes an impression, for as long as he is there, he is their magnificence, he is their splendor...Once he leaves, the [city’s] magnificence is gone away, it's splendor has gone away...” Yaakov, being a complete unknown, is in actuality “the splendor” of the city, and his departure is marked as a loss despite the complete lack of awareness of the residents! The very presence of a ben-Torah in the town is a merit, even when he does not make an active effort to interact with others. Of course we understand that one who goes out and speaks to the people directly can influence them for the good, but only from Yaakov could we learn that a person who sits indoors and does his avodat Hashem privately, makes a strong impact on the public as well, if not even more so.

What an important lesson for us all - we all want to make our mark and do all we can for K’lal Yisrael. Whether we find ourselves in the public sphere or not, we need to remember that first and foremost, our personal efforts in serving Hashem make the greatest impression.

May we all be able to be a source of merit for the entire nation in all that we do.

Shabbat Shalom
Naftali Kassorla

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Parshat Toldot - Yaakov's Truth

This week's parsha tells us of the rivalry and difference of character between Yaakov and Eisav. Yaakov was “איש תם יושב אוהלים”, while Eisav was a man of the field. The Medrash relays how already from the womb, the contrast was stark. When Rivka would pass the Beit Midrash, her stomach would rustle, and when she passed a house of idol worship, the same would occur.
Despite Yaakov’s piety, Eisav was the bechor – the firstborn – and thus was entitled to the blessing for the firstborn son.
In what is one of the more difficult episodes in the Torah to understand, we learn of the means to which Yaakov had to resort in order to acquire the blessings in place of his brother. By the command of his mother Rivka, Yaakov presents himself to Yitzchak as though he is Eisav. On a surface level, this is accomplished through trickery and false pretenses – a difficulty which many commentators have dealt with at length.
There is a fascinating Gemara in Makkot (24a) which expounds on the verse in Tehillim (15:3):
לא רגל על לשונו זה יעקב אבינו, דכתיב אולי ימושני אבי והייתי בעיניו כמתעתע
“Has no slander upon his tongue” this refers to Yaakov, our forefather, as it is written “Perhaps my father will feel me and I will be in his eyes like a deceiver.”
Rashi (In Makkot) explains:
He [Yaakov] initially did not want to lie, thus he said “Perhaps my father will feel me…But his mother [Rivka] forced him, as she had a prophecy..etc.”
The implication here is that Yaakov, in voicing his fear of being caught, is demonstrating his trait of honesty.
This concept is truly perplexing; the Gemara is attempting to show that Yaakov always spoke the truth, yet the proof it brings to support its assertion is from one of the most seemingly duplicitous episodes in the Torah! Furthermore, Yaakov appears to be concerned that his father will feel him and “catch him in the act.” From the fact that Yaakov bases his concern on his father possibly discovering his identity, we may infer that were Yaakov assured that he would not get caught, he would have no apprehension. How does this show honesty, and how is this a proof to the Gemara’s point?
I posed this question to my rebbe, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl Shlit”a (former Chief Rabbi of the Old City) and he explained this Gemara based on an idea from the Vilna Gaon in Parshat Chayei Sarah. Every time אולי (perhaps) is written, it is actually an expression of a hope or desire for something to occur. For example: Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, said regarding his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak: ״אולי לֹא־תלך האשה אחרי״. The ksiv (i.e. the way it is written in the Torah) is spelled without the letter vav, so the word can also be read אלי. On this word, Rashi brings the Medrash which explains that Eliezer really did not want Rivka to follow him, and that he was searching for a pretext for Yitzchak to marry his own daughter in place of Rivka (hinted to in the word “אלי” – “to me”). With the word אולי, the Torah is alluding to Eliezer’s inner desire that things would not work out as planned.
According to this, says HaRav Nebenzahl, the verse from Toldos is the greatest proof of Yaakov’s complete integrity. In saying “Perhaps my father will feel me,” Yaakov was not expressing fear of being caught – to the contrary! His very desire was to be caught, lest he have to follow through with that which could be perceived as dishonest.
Here we see the lengths to which Yaakov was willing to go to avoid lying, even in a permissible situation. He was personally prepared to forfeit the place of the firstborn, and all the spiritual and material benefits that go along with it. This one decision could also affect the entire course of man’s history and the future of the Jewish nation, allowing Eisav to reign with the special rights given to him. Yaakov only acquiesced in deference to his mother’s command, which was based on a prophecy showing that this was the correct way to act.
What a lesson in how gravely serious it is to lie, and how much we should be prepared to sacrifice to avoid doing so.
Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Chayei Sarah - Unspoken Virtues

This week's parsha tells us of the mission Eliezer was sent to fulfill, to find a wife for Yitzchak, his master's son. Eliezer requested of G-d a sign to show him who was fitting for Yitzchak, and the request he makes is a fascinating one. Technically, all Eliezer needed to do was seek out Betuel and Lavan and pick out the girl for Yitzchak. Yet he doesn't do that. Instead, he sets up a test of sorts: “Behold I am standing by the spring water...let it be that the maiden to whom I shall say ‘Please tip over your jug so I may drink’, and who replies ‘Drink, and I will even water your camels.’”

The Malbim explains, that the motivation for Eliezer's request was to glean something about the character of Rivka. He preferred someone of modest means, the kind who would draw water herself, not through her servants, despite her family's wealth.

Eliezer asks G-d that Rivka should respond, “Drink, and I will even water your camels.” The Sforno explains that her response will go beyond Eliezer’s request, and she will offer all that is needed...
However, in the actual playing-out of this episode (verse 18), Rivka, initially does not mention a word about watering the camels. She speaks only of bringing water for Eliezer, and then proceeds to draw water for the camels too. Rav Moshe Feinstein Zt”l powerfully explains that so great was Rivka’s kindness, it was second-nature to her that another's needs should be provided for. That Eliezer’s camels had to be watered was so obvious that she saw no need to say she would do it. Chesed was so much a core of her personality that it went beyond second-nature; it was her essence.

Rav Moshe is saying an incredible idea: the unspoken acts of kindness, the innate traits, are sometimes greater than the outspoken and verbalized ones. It showed that kindness was deeply ingrained her very fiber. In a certain sense it didn't need to be “verbalized” – and perhaps if it was, it would have cheapened it.
The need to verbalize and publicize our ideals is known as “Virtue Signaling.” To bloviate, to speak of ideals, serves to make us feel good about ourselves, for we have now shown others how virtuous we are. But too often, it leads to a feeling of superiority, so that when acts of kindness are performed, it's not because they are ingrained in us. Instead, it is a robotic mirroring of chesed, of what we (or others) perceive to be kindness. Inevitably, this “kindness” will be misapplied – because it’s merely a cheap knock-off of the real thing.
This lesson of the ingrained trait of chesed is beautifully contrasted to last week's episode of Lot and the angels in Sodom. On the one hand, he risked his life to save his guests, mirroring Avraham's trait of kindness. Yet on the other hand, incredibly, he offered his own children to the rabid mob of Sodomites. How could he act in such a contradictory manner? To protect his guests, while serving up his own children?!

In light of what we discussed above, the Alter of Slabodka explains* that Lot’s chesed was a superficial form of kindness, which while on the surface appeared virtuous, did not go beyond the surface level. It was not ingrained in him in a true way, and therefore it was horribly misapplied. This led him to protect his guests at all costs, while sacrificing his own children! Chesed – or any trait for that matter – that is not really processed into our character, is only skin-deep. It is not real.

The greatness of Rivka was that her kindness was not a virtue, or an ideal to be “spoken about,” rather it was a reality, it was her life. It was as much a concrete part of her personality as her name. This is what Eliezer was looking for in a spouse for the son of Avraham, the paragon of kindness, the epitome of inculcating the trait of kindness in his service to G-d.

This is the level of character that we strive for: to have chesed become ingrained in our essence and a part of both our conscious and subconscious. We should grow strong in our resolve and be blessed in our efforts in this endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom

*See the Alter’s explanation of the Midrash which states that Lot was saved from Sedom in the merit of his revealing to the Egyptians that Sarah was the wife of Avraham, and not his Hachnasas Orchim. He explains that the act of Hachnasas Orchim was by habit, while the act of not revealing the truth about Avraham was true test of his loyalty. The struggle and overcoming is what is valued, not the act by rote.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Parshat Vayeira - Illness and Identity


This week's parsha begins “Hashem, appeared to him in the plains of Mamre” (18:1) Rashi comments that G-d's appearance was for the purpose of visiting Avraham who was ill following his circumcision. Interestingly, the Torah does not name who is being visited by God.


Rav Yaakov Kenizel, in his commentary on Rashi, notes this problem; how does Rashi know that this was the intention? He explains that Rashi knew from the fact that the Torah does not identify Avraham. Thus this parsha must be coming off the heels of Parshas Lech Lecha which concluded with Avraham performing a circumcision on himself, and there he was fully identified. 


But one could still ask, why doesn't the Torah formally name Avraham? Why rely on such a seemingly convoluted method to figure it out?


Perhaps there is a deeper message hidden here. As we know, G-d comes to visit Avraham in his pain. After Avraham undertook the arduous mitzvah of Brit Milah, Hashem comes to perform the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim – visiting the sick, so to speak. In order to curtail the burden upon Avraham, G-d even made the day hotter, as the medrash explains to stop travelers from passing by his tent lest Avraham would tend to them. All of this because Avraham was in pain – G-d was sensitive to the feelings of Avraham. For the truth is, as we know, when a person is sick, they're not “themselves”; they are not at their best and they don't look their best, whether because of a serious illness G-d forbid, or something as simple as a headache. Too often it is easy to judge or conclude that this is the true person.


This idea is born out in a vivid and difficult memory of mine. I had a relative who throughout his life was the paragon of sensitivity and mentchlichkeit. Unfortunately, he was stricken with brain cancer to which he ultimately succumbed. I watched painfully as this great man, over the time he received treatments, became bloated and immobile. He lost his hair, and due to to his incredible pain, his temper as well. It was almost as though he was a different person. This person who I adored for so many years and admired for his care and sensitivity to his spouse, was now irritable and moody towards her.  It felt so incongruent – how could this happen? How could a person undergo such a drastic change? Was this who he really was deep down? How could all those years of character vanish in such a short amount of time? I struggled to make sense of what I was being presented with.


That was until I learned this parsha. Then I understood this important lesson in Bikur Cholim and in empathy. In not identifying Avraham by name, the Torah teaches us that a person in pain is not “himself”, that pain and difficulty can take over a person, and become an impediment to be the person who he really is deep down. It is not a true representation of that person. Rather the true self is covered under the difficulties that they are bearing. And we, the onlookers, must understand that they are not the true version of themselves. 


The message doesn't end there. In truth, this episode is a tremendous praise of Avraham. Despite his deep pain, he so desired to perform the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – Hospitality – and we see the great effort that he invested in that. But this is a praise of Avraham, our righteous forefather who lived on this great spiritual level and was able to overcome the pain. For us, it is not so easy. We are not Avraham Avinu, and we cannot expect that of ourselves or of others. What we can do is strive to better understand the pain and empathize with those who find themselves in this difficult situation.


This should serve for us as a lesson in empathy and love for others around us. May we continually grow to be the best version of ourselves.




Shabbat Shalom


Monday, October 31, 2016

Parshat Noach - Sensitive Souls


The Ramban writes in Bereishit (1:29) on the verse “Behold I have given to you all herbage of yielding seed that is on the surface of the entire earth” that originally man was only allowed to eat from the vegetation of the earth, but from the flesh of the animals, man was not permitted. Only until Noach was such permission granted (9:3, Sanhedrin 59b).

The Ramban explains that this was granted to Noach specifically, for since he saved their species, he would be permitted to slaughter them for their meat.

At first glance the connection between the saving of the animals and their slaughter seems perplexing. How is it logical to say that since he saved them from their death and extinctions, their death would come from his hand? Wouldn't it follow and be more fitting to say that since he saved them from death he couldn't be the one to cause their death?

In fact, we find a similar parallel for such a concept later in the Torah. The first plague that G-d decreed upon Egypt was the turning the Nile River into blood. The plague of blood came through the hands of Aharon and not Moshe; as Rashi explains, “since he was saved through the Nile it would have been wrong for him [Moshe] to be the instrument to inflict a plague upon it”. So too, one could argue that since the saving of the animals came through the hands of Noach, that hand could not be the instrument in their death. For if Moshe was barred from causing pain to the Nile since he was saved through it, Noach; who saved the animals all the more so could not be the the once to slaughter the animals.

In truth the only person through whom the permission to slaughter the animals could be granted was Noach and his children. The most fitting of conduits to such a privilege could only be given to those that are of such spiritual and selfless stature as of Noach and his children who toiled for forty days and forty nights with great care in serving and feeding the animals. Only those so attuned to the sensitivity of the animals could be the ones to kill them and consume them for their own pleasure.

This level of sensitivity to animals is echoed by Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch:

There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul, which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes . . . (Horeb, Chapter 60, Verse 415)  

This is perhaps what the Ramban is telling us, in connecting the permission to slaughter the animals and eat their meat and Noach saving them from extinction. That by caring for them they showed that they were most capable of not losing their humanity and sensitivity to them while using them for their own benefit.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Parshat Bereishit - The Worth of Humility

In this weeks parsha the Torah tells us of G-d's creation of the world and all within it. Six days G-d created and on the seventh He rested. Each day was dedicated to different creations. and the pinnacle of creation was Man. The Torah writes "Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness (1:26)." This hakdama or introduction indicates to us that man's creation was done with great care and deliberation. The Abarbanel points out the command to creating Man was different than previous commands where G-d said "Let the earth bring forth..." G-d couched man's creation in this form to point out this very idea, that man's creation was on a wholly different level than previous creations.


Yet, the mefarshim are puzzled with a fundamental issue in the verse. When telling us of the great idea to make Man, the Torah uses the plural "Let us make man" which would seem to indicate their is more than one creator. this would obviously be completely antithetical to the basis of Judaism and Monotheism yet nonetheless G-d uses this phraseology. And in truth Moshe himself raised this very issue. The Midrash tells us that when Moshe wrote the Torah and came to this verse he exclaimed "why G-d would you create the pretext- Pitchon Peh for heretics to maintain their belief of plural divinity!"  Yet G-d replies "write! whoever wishes to err will err".


The question though is why? What can be gained by using this specific way of expression? Why risk the possible error of many people throughout the generations due to this verse?


To answer this very question Rashi cites Chazal "from here we learn of he great humility of G-d, for he consulted the Angels before creating man, so too we should always consult others before embarking upon a new idea". This is amazing, seemingly this lesson of G-ds humility in consulting the Angels is justification enough to risk heresy How can this be so? How can we better understand this idea?


Perhaps we can glean a deep insight from this question. Very often we are lead to belief that the results of any particular action are a reflection of the correctness of the deed itself. but very often this is not true. for very often what one course of action is correct may not necessarily lead to the result that we desire, yet the reaction or course of action was nonetheless correct, this is very often true in interpersonal relationships where we cannot control the result or consequence of others behavior . Sometimes being non confrontational and timid is the correct response even though this may not lead to appeasing the other person but may in fact even cause them more outrage. This goes for responding in a more aggressive stance as well. Yet the results of our actions cannot be the litmus of success and failure regarding the initial decision.


Clearly Hashem felt that this lesson of humility, or seeking guidance and counsel is worth teaching in this particular context, despite the possible error that may come from this verse. For nothing can be allowed to get in the way of acting with forethought, with clarity of mind of purity of intention, when embarking upon a course of action, not even the possibility of the great error of heresy!


This should serve for us as a lesson in the appreciation of seeking counsel and spur us to take heed of those greater and more wiser among us


Shabbat Shalom


Friday, November 6, 2015

Parshat Chayei Sara - Rivka: Demeanor and Decorum

In this week's Parsha, the Torah tells us of the matching and marriage between Yitzchak and Rivka. The Torah explains at great lengths the journey which Eliezer (the servant of Avraham) took to find a wife for Yitzchak, and the miracles that were done for him. After Eliezer is successful in finding the fitting bride for his master, he brings Rivka to the Negev where Yitzchak is staying in order for them to meet.

This meeting is a tremendous moment in our history; it is a major step towards the culmination of HaShem's promise to Avraham to make his offspring a great nation. The Torah tells us in great detail of this momentous occasion: "And Rivka raised her eyes and she saw Yitzchak, and she inclined while upon the camel. And she said to the slave, 'Who is that man walking in the field toward us?' And the slave said, 'He is my master.' She then took the veil and she covered herself"

Interestingly, the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Rivka took her veil and covered herself. Why? What purpose does this little detail serve? We know that there is not one extra word in the Torah without a lesson, thus what is HaShem trying to tell us?

Perhaps we can glean an insight into the true understanding of what "closeness" is and what it demands of us.

Naturally when people become closer, the standards of decorum become lowered. Society tells us, the more relaxed and candid, the more intimate the relationship. Our speech can be blunter, more straightforward, focusing less on speaking sensitively and more on the material. Our demeanor can be more informal and unkempt. The general assumption is that with our loved ones we can act in ways that one could never get-away-with in any formal social setting.

However, the Torah perspective is different, the closer one gets, the higher the demand for etiquette and respect. For the closer we are to someone, the more we are dependent on them, and they on us. It's possible that for this reason in order to directly forestall our natural tendency the Torah commands us to respect our parents. We cannot correct them, contradict them, call them by their first name without an honorary title, or even sit in their designated seat. This applies to our Rebbeim as well, for the laws of respect and the closeness of that relationship are intrinsic. The Torah takes into account this personal relationship, and despite the familiarity, we are commanded to follow a strict decorum.

At this most special moment of seeing her husband, the man with whom she would build the future of our people, play a part in the fulfilling of G-d's promise, giving purpose to creation - in recognition of this - Rivka covered herself. This momentous occasion would be spoiled with a lowering of decorum, so rather Rivka honored it with the raising of standards.

This is the lesson from Rivka: that to ignore one's manners is not a sign of closeness, rather it is a cheapening of that relationship. For closeness is not defined in how many secrets one knows about the other, or how relaxed one can feel in another's presence. Rather it is about honoring the other person and the special role that they play in our lives. And such a special role must be treated with the level of respect which it deserves.

Mutual respect and the etiquette which it demands are important foundations of a peaceful Jewish home, and by inculcating this lesson of respect and etiquette we can build homes of love and honor. The fact that the Torah adds a seemingly superfluous detail allows us to see how our predecessors viewed their loved ones and the degree of respect they accorded them, and to learn to follow in their ways.

May we all grow in the perfection of our behavior and service to HaShem.

 Shabbat Shalom 
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