Eisav-Western Man

In פרשת תולדות, we are introduced to the character known as עשו. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes some interesting observations about this biblical character.

From birth, עשו was unusual in that he looked like a mature adult. And from birth, he already had the inborn hatred of Yakov. The Rav said that this principle of הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא את יעקב, this known principle that Eisav hated Yakov, was really a fight between the holy and profane. This enmity began well before the Arab conflict with the Zionists.

The Rav further said that Eisav has a great deal in common with modern, Western man. As an איש שדה, he was driven by a desire for wealth, luxury, and fame. He was interested in affluence and he did not believe in Providence.

He denied עולם הבא when he said, הנה אנוכי הולך למות, behold I am going to die. Yakov, on the other hand, was the opposite and was interested in the pursuit of holiness by way of simplicity and faith in G-d. We are to recognize this contrast and pursue the path of Yakov. Shabbat Shalom

What’s in a Name

The Gemara in Brachot makes a reference to the significance of giving a child a name. It refers to the name ראובן and the name רות.

In the case of ראובן, Leah was suggesting that the name meant, ראו בן, that is, look at my son how amazing he is. When Eisav lost the birthright, he complained that he was cheated. But even though ראובן lost his birthright when he sinned with בלהה, he showed no hard feelings to Yosef, and even tried to save him from his brothers.

In the case of רות, the root of the word (no pun intended) comes from ריוהו which means, “sated”. The reference is to her descendant, David, who sated Hashem with songs and praises.

When parents name a child, G-d inspires them to select a particular name that has significance not known to the parent. Many years later, the appropriateness of that name may become apparent to all.

What’s in a name? A lot more than we realize!

The Power of a Bracha

Many people are familiar with a song called, “Tanya” that turned Avraham Fried into a star. What many do not know is that the lyrics come from מסכת ברכות.

The Kohein Hagadol, Rav Yishmael Ben Elisha tells the story of a prophetic vision he had while in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Some say that it was Hashem Himself that appeared to Rav Yishmael, and He asked the Kohein Hagadol to bless Hashem.

His Bracha was that Hashem should never be angry with עם ישראל and He should always judge us with רחמים, mercy, and never with דין, harsh judgement. Hashem likes the Bracha and nods His head in approval.

The lesson from this story is that we are never to take someone’s Bracha lightly, even if it is from a child or a Gentile. King Darius blessed Daniel that he should succeed in building the second Temple. And King David was blessed by Arnavta after selling him the land that was the site of the Beit Hamikdash.

We must never belittle anyone’s Bracha that is directed towards us. The good intentions with which it is made, comes with positive energy and love. And that can go a long way.

More on Welcoming Guests

Rabbi Soloveitchik claims that Eliezer was looking for more than Chesed as the character qualities necessary to be worthy of being Yitzchak’s wife. He was particularly looking to see how Rivka was when it came to הכנסת אורחים, welcoming guests.

In Parshat Vayeira, the Rav said that giving צדקה shows sympathy while הכנסת אורחים shows a certain equality with the guest.

He expands this idea in חיי שרה by explaining how welcoming guests presents different challenges. The first is that having guests in our home requires a great deal of patience. We are to be generous in sharing all of our possessions with our guest. A second point is that having guests in our home means having strangers in our home. We need to be more on guard knowing these visitors are with us. And the third point is that we need to welcome these guests while they may have strange mannerisms and opinions.

Eliezer set the bar pretty high for Rivka, but she passed with flying colors.

Self Correction

There is a statement in מסכת ברכות that is very fascinating. Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rav Yossi: טובה מרדות אחת בליבו של אדם יותר מכמה מלקיות, that one’s personal regret in his heart, is worth more than many sets of lashes.

The Gemara is telling us that the most effective Teshuva that one can have, is  when one recognizes on his own, the need to fix his deeds. It is nice when one is able to be moved by the rebuke of a holy Rabbi.

However, if one suddenly realizes on his own that he needs to get his act together, and he cannot go on living as before, it is as if he’s been to court and he received lashes. Reish Lakish adds that such self introspection is as if he received 100 lashes.

The Pasuk proving this, comes from Mishlei where it says, “Chastisement frightens an understanding one, more than smiting a fool one hundred times.” The Pasuk is referring to self-chastisement which is the most effective way of Teshuva.

Age is Just a Number

Shavua Tov. An important message of today’s Parsha, is truly the idea that “you are as old as you feel.” We learn this from the way the Torah describes the years of Sara Imeinu.

Instead of simply saying that Sara was 127 years old, the Torah says that she was 100 and 20 and 7 to tell us that she had the youthfulness of a twenty year old when she was 100.

The Talmud says that there are seventy-five year olds that act like twenty-five year olds, and there are twenty-five year olds that act like seventy-five year olds. It’s all in the mind and how one views the world.

The Talmud also tells us that Kalev and Yehoshua were the same age. When they were both eighty-five, Yehoshua became an old man as זיקנה קפצה עליו, old age overtook him. But Calev still remained youthful when he was eighty-five. So we see that “age is just a number” and that we should have the wisdom of an elderly sage, and the feeling of youthfulness of a young man. Youthfulness represents idealism and we must never stop being idealists.

חיי שרה

There are two unusual commentaries brought by Rabbi Soloveitchik in פרשת חיי שרה. The first involved Eliezer’s meeting with Rivka. After she passed the test by showing good character and Chesed, the Rav claims that Rivka kept Eliezer up all night asking him to tell her stories about Avraham.

She had heard so much about this mysterious man who left his father’s house to pursue his role in teaching the world about monotheism. She was fascinated by Avraham’s vision and very much wanted to help Yitzchak keep these dreams alive.

The second point involved Devora, the nurse-maid of Rivka. The Rav claims this Devora was a very special woman who raised Rivka and inspired her to strive to achieve spiritual heights.

The proof of Devora’s greatness was that the Torah mentions her death later but does not mention the death of Rivka or Leah. This Devora is deserving of special notoriety for her place in helping form the Jewish nation. Shabbat Shalom

Specialness of Tannaim and Amoraim

The stories in the Gemara about how the Rabbis dealt with adversity are both moving and inspiring. Several Rabbis who were critically ill regretted that the illness prevented them from immersing themselves in Torah.

The story of Rav Yochanan is especially touching. He had to deal with the death of ten sons. He carried a small bone of the tenth son with him at all times. He used as a source of comfort to others who were mourning for loved ones. He told them that despite his enormous loss, his faith in Hashem was unshakable. It was rare that anyone suffered as Rav Yochanan did.

It is also interesting how Rabbis such as Rav Yochanan had incredible healing powers. When he visited Rav Elazar, who was ailing, the Talmud tells us that he simply held Rav Elazar’s hand, he was cured.

The faith, holiness, and scholarship of the Tannaim and Amoraim is the reason why we cannot dispute their views. It is difficult to fathom such Kedusha, but it was there. We are left to learn from these Rabbis and try to emulate their way of life.

צדיק ורע לו

The age old question of צדיק ורע לו ורשע וטוב לו, or, why do bad things happen to good people, while the wicked prosper, is dealt with in מסכת ברכות.

The term used in the Gemara is יסורים, or suffering. There is a lengthy discussion of the subject with a Pasuk from Mishlei quoted, saying that Hashem rebukes only the ones he loves. While this is little consolation for one who is going through a serious illness or loss of money, there is still a lesson to be learned.

We are taught to believe that everything Hashem sends our way is for our ultimate good. Either He wishes for us to repent, or He desires to give us greater reward in the manner in which we accept that which we are forced to deal with.

It is difficult to give absolute answers to this question of why good people suffer. However, one thing is clear from the Gemara’s discussion. No matter how trying and uncomfortable the situation is, we must never become negative or bitter or full of self pity. If we can overcome this, in the end we will certainly realize that everything we were confronted with was for our benefit. And we will be rewarded greatly for this acceptance.

Qualities of a Jew

The Talmud in מסכת יבמות points out that there are three character traits of the Jewish nation. They are רחמנים, merciful, ביישנים, shy or modest, and גומלי חסדים, they do acts of kindness.

The trait of גומלי חסדים is learned from Hashem’s conversation with Avraham in connection with the destruction of Sodom and Amora. It sounds as if Hashem is talking to Himself when He says that he cannot cover up from Avraham what He plans to do. Because it is obvious how Avraham will educate his children לעשות צדקה ומשפט, to do acts of justice and charity. The Gemara says that this is the source for the Jewish people being גומלי חסדים.

This passage shows the uniqueness of the Jewish people. This explains why when we see cruel and unkind behavior in an individual, we wonder if he’s really Jewish as he does not possess those qualities that typify the Jewish people.

באשר הוא שם

The Talmud in ראש השנה relates that when ישמעאל was faint when he was sent away with Hagar, the angels in Heaven made an argument with G-d. They pleaded with Him not to answer the prayers of the young lad and he should not find a well of water for sustenance.

After all, they argued, Yishmael’s descendants would harm the Jews in many ways, including starvation. The Gemara then quotes a passage in the name of רב יצחק: We are only permitted to judge a person for his actions at that moment.

This was learned from the Pasuk in the Torah: כי שמע אלוקים אל קול הנער באשר הוא שם, that Hashem heard the voice of the youth in his present state.

In general, this is the ruling. That is, we don’t punish sons for the sins of the fathers, and not the fathers for the sins of the sons. We judge as things are now right in front of us.

Welcoming Guests

Shavua Tov. One of the important lessons taught in פרשת וירא is the importance of הכנסת אורחים, welcoming guests. It is a remarkable story that the narrative of the Parsha tells us that Hashem is visiting Avraham the third day after his Brit, and is setting the example of ביקור חולים, visiting the sick.

In the middle of his conversation with G-d, Avraham notices three visitors. He asks Hashem if He wouldn’t mind postponing their conversation until he takes care of his guests. We do not see any protest on Hashem’s part. From here we learn, גדול הכנסת אורחים מקבלת פני השכינה, that welcoming guests is even greater than receiving Hashem’s countenance.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that this type of Chesed is unique. Giving Tzedaka shows sympathy. הכנסת אורחים shows equality. It is not an easy Mitzva to observe, but from our Parsha we learn that it is a very high level of Chesed.

Avraham’s Faith

Rabbi Soloveitchik describes עקידת יצחק a little differently from other commentators. First, he points out that  the section regarding the binding of Yitzchak, begins with the words והאלוקים ניסה את אברהם. The name אלוקים means strict justice. Hashem made Avraham believe that he was actually going to offer his son as a קרבן.

The remarkable part of this whole story is the manner in which Avraham accepted Hashem’s command to sacrifice his son. He did it with joy.

We know this because Avraham was told to go to, “one of the mountains that he would be shown.” Avraham knew which mountain by way of prophecy. The fact that he still had prophecy was because he still had joy. (One is not given prophecy unless he was in a state of joy.)

The Rav further says that Avraham’s faith was so strong that he no longer saw Yitzchak as a son, but viewed him as a קרבן. His faith in Hashem and not questioning Hashem in any way at all, is what made Avraham’s faith in the Akeida, stand out above all other acts of faith and martyrdom throughout our history. Shabbat Shalom

Sdom and Lot’s Daughters

Rabbi Soloveitchik has a little different take on the Sodom incident and the daughters of Lot, mentioned in פרשת וירא.

In terms of the people of Sodom, the Rav wrote that generally, there is always room for Teshuva. The hope is that the sinner will come to his senses and repent. However, there are instances where people can deteriorate to such a point that they become pure evil.

Such was the case with the people of Sodom. They were beyond the level where they could ever return. In cases of evil of this sort, the only solution was to destroy evil. This is what Hashem was forced to do.

In the case of Lot’s daughters, the Rav views them as righteous women. They had lived long enough in Avraham Avinu’s house to learn to care about the world. The act they did with their father was necessary in order to save mankind. As distasteful such an act was, it was done for noble reasons.

The daughters were rewarded as the mother of Moab, was the ancestor of Ruth, the mother of the Davidic and Messianic dynasty. The other daughter was the mother of Amon, who Naama descended from her. She was the mother of Rechavam, King of Yehuda, son of Shlomo.

סומך גאולה לתפילה

The Talmud in מסכת ברכות emphasizes the importance of being סומך גאולה לתפילה. This means that we are to say the Bracha of גאל ישראל before we say Shmone Esrei both at Shacharit and Maariv.

The idea of גאל ישראל is that we acknowledge Hashem’s kindness in redeeming us from Egypt. It is a kind of praise that we give Hashem before we make our thirteen requests in the Shmone Esrei.

This acknowledgement of our redemption from Egypt serves two purposes according to Rabbeinu Yona. The first is that our freedom from bondage was to drive home the message that as free men, we are only meant to be עבדי ה׳, servants of G-d, and not servants to anything else. The Rabbis say that one who is truly free is עוסק בתורה, involves himself in Torah study.

The second point in remembering the Redemption is that we enforce the idea that it is good to put our trust in Hashem. Just as we were redeemed from Egypt, we will also be redeemed at the time of Mashiach.

We should now think about this when we say the blessings of גאל ישראל in the morning and evening.

Investigate G-d’s Uniqueness

There is another interesting point emphasized by the Ramchal in דעת תבונות. He says that Hashem’s ultimate greatness is unfathomable by man. The more one gets a glimpse of G-d, the more he realizes that his real knowledge of Him is like a drop in the sea. This should cause the seeker to become exceedingly humble.

The real pursuit in man’s quest to know G-d, should be to focus on His Oneness. He should reinforce to himself that Hashem’s uniqueness is far different than anything that exists in the universe. Such study is productive and bears fruit.

The Talmud in מסכת חגיגה alludes to this idea by cautioning people not to delve into מעשה בראשית, the act of creation. We are also warned not to try to understand מעשה מרכבה, the incident of the chariot in the Book of Yechezkel. Such studies need special care and guidelines.

However, delving into how Hashem is unique and One, does not require such preparation and care. It is more of a direct means towards getting closer to our Creator.

Incomplete Man

The דעת תבונות or The Knowing Heart of the Ramchal is an excellent book on Jewish philosophy. In it, he explores some basic questions regarding our faith in G-d.

He emphasizes the importance of remembering Hashem’s inherent goodness. One who is good, has a need to share his good with others. The Ramchal writes that it would not have been difficult for Hashem to create perfect human beings. But because of His goodness, we were created imperfect with the potential of acquiring perfection.

For the same reason, G-d Himself created good and evil. By giving us challenges to make the right choices, and the spiritual work, we are charged to do, there is the greatest potential of reward. In this way, He is able to share His goodness on a much higher level.

Interesting thoughts from the Ramchal in דעת ותבונות.

Incomplete Man

The דעת תבונות or The Knowing Heart of the Ramchal is an excellent book on Jewish philosophy. In it, he explores some basic questions regarding our faith in G-d.

He emphasizes the importance of remembering Hashem’s inherent goodness. One who is good, has a need to share his good with others. The Ramchal writes that it would not have been difficult for Hashem to create perfect human beings. But because of His goodness, we were created imperfect with the potential of acquiring perfection.

For the same reason, G-d Himself created good and evil. By giving us challenges to make the right choices, and the spiritual work, we are charged to do, there is the greatest potential of reward. In this way, He is able to share His goodness on a much higher level.

Interesting thoughts from the Ramchal in דעת ותבונות.

שמא יגרום החטא

Shavua Tov. The Talmud in Masechet Brachot mentions that both King David and Yakov Avinu worried that their own personal sins may have canceled the blessings already given by Hashem. The term used in Hebrew is, שמא יגרום החטא, that the sin caused the loss of the blessing.

The Rambam asks how it was possible for these two great Tzaddikim to ever feel that Hashem could possibly renege on a promise. After all, we identify a false prophet by seeing that his prophecy of “good” never came true.

The Rambam makes an interesting distinction between a blessing given by G-d on behalf of עם ישראל by way of a prophet, and a personal blessing given by G-d directly to a Tzaddik. In the first case, the positive prophecy given by way of a prophet, will, indeed, come true. But blessings given directly to people like King David and Yakov Avinu could be diminished because of sin.

We must never feel there are any guarantees in life and we must always strive to go higher and higher in our Avodat Hashem.

Special Role of Jewish Mother

We are introduced in פרשת לך לך and the special relationship between Avraham Avinunand Sara Imeinu. Rabbi Soloveitchik writes that all of the Avot were very attached to their spouses and without them, they did not function on the same level.

Avraham lived thirty eight years longer than Sara but his career was over when she died. The same applied to the Yitzchak-Rivka relationship and Yakov and Rachel.

Rav Soloveitchik goes on to explain the very different roles that the father and mother have in educating their children. The father’s teaching is mostly intellectual in passing on lessons of Torah and morality.

The teachings of the Jewish mother are multi faceted. The following is a direct quote from the Rav: “The warmth and tenderness of Judaism is taught by the mother. The mother creates the mood. She is the artist responsible for the magnificence, solemnity, and beauty. She tells the child of the great romance of Judaism. She somehow communicates to him the tremor, the heartbeat of Judaism, while playing, singing, laughing, and crying.” Shabbat Shalom