Shemot

January 19, 2017

In his introduction to Sefer Shemot, the Meshech Chochmah writes as follows:

Understanding Moshe’s role and his uniqueness plays an important part in our relationship to all of Torah.

Know that Moshe’s prophecy differed from that of all other prophets. We relied upon all other prophets because they established their credentials as speaking for Hashem through signs and miracles that they predicted and performed, or through a previously credentialed prophet certifying another navi, as Eliyahu did for Elisha.

As the Rambam writes, belief that is born of miracles is ultimately deficient. The working of a miracle does not prove that the miracle worker speaks in the Name of God. Rather, the Torah commands us to obey a prophet who has predicted and performed miracles on multiple occasions. It assigns legal credibility to such a person, even though what he tells us may not in fact be a message he received from Hashem. He is presumed to speak the truth, much as we rely on two eyewitnesses, even though we realize that witnesses occasionally lie.

Moshe was the sole exception. Hashem elevated the entire nation at Sinai. They rose to the level of prophecy. In that state, they witnessed Hashem speaking directly to Moshe. This explains the causal relationship in a later pasuk: “I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.’ The end of the verse seems to be a non sequitur.

The plain sense meaning of all of this, however, is that because they all prophetically witnessed the conversation between Hashem and Moshe, his role as the Divinely appointed conduit of Hashem’s wishes could never and would never be doubted. While all other prophets could be challenged by other miracle workers, no number of them would ever be able to cast doubt on a single letter of Moshe’s Torah.

Actually, however, this does not follow! While the people knew of Moshe’s reliability at the instant they saw him conversing with Hashem, how could they know what he would do or say in the future? Perhaps he would exercise his free will, and interject his own thoughts and ideas later in his career!

Chazal tell us that all is caused by Heaven other than the fear of Heaven – meaning that humans make free-willed choices without interference from Above. Even God’s knowledge of the future does not interfere with the human capacity to make choices without compulsion.

We are left with an inescapable conclusion: After ma’amad Har Sinai, Moshe ceased to possess the freedom to choose! He lived on in a state comparable to the angels, who exercise no choice between good and evil.
This is less surprising than it sounds. Chazal speak of King David taking considerable pride when he finished writing his Tehillim. He believed that no one had ever done a better job. Then he encountered a frog, which claimed to indeed do the job far better than David could. Every second of the frog’s life was perforce a song of praise, in that he was incapable of anything but doing the bidding of his Master. David, endowed with free will, could never match that constancy.

While David accepted the mussar value of that encounter, we can still appreciate the advantage that the bechirah-endowed human being has over the frog. Our struggle to vanquish bechirah – to rise above the temptation to choose evil – affords us opportunities for spiritual advancement that no animal will ever know.

This was Chazal’s intention in teaching that if one who learns not with the intention of putting his learning into practice, it would be better if his embryonic sac had been turned on its face. In other words, there was no purpose for him to come into this world. We do not spend our time here in order to reach new levels of understanding. The neshamah comprehended far more than we do in its previous state, before it descended from Heaven. A person who learns for the sake of the knowledge alone, and not for the purpose of turning his knowledge into action, has gained nothing. Had his embryo’s development been stopped, he would have had access to even greater knowledge! Our journey in this world has no purpose other than the vanquishing of our desires. Learning alone does not confer any advantage, unless it is the kind of learning (i.e. when pursued with the intent to implement it) that itself demonstrates a victory over the yetzer hora.

Given that bechirah’s value is not absolute but instrumental, we understand that Moshe got to a point where it was of no further use to him. He had reached the summit of accomplishment in pushing back against the choice of evil. Having purified his physical nature to the full extent possible, he had turned it into a spiritual instrument through which Hashem and His truth could be discerned. Bechirah at this point would have been a distraction. It had served its purpose in facilitating his growth. Having achieved that growth, bechirah became irrelevant to his needs.

None of this applied to the rest of the people. They had been elevated to a level of prophecy, of clear understanding, only for the purpose of establishing the authenticity of Moshe’s message so that it would never be doubted. They had not struggled up the mountain of human striving to arrive at the peak as Moshe did. Their absolute clarity at Sinai was not something they had earned, but was given to them in order to firmly establish the rule of Torah.

This clarity is what Chazal really meant when they spoke of Hashem lifting the mountain over their heads to tell them that if they refused to accept the Torah, they would perish. The “mountain” means the incontrovertible understanding that without Torah, Hashem would have no purpose for the world, and everything would cease to exist. They understood so perfectly, that they rationally had no other choice but to accept it. Failing to do so would mean the end of existence.

For all the people besides Moshe, bechirah remained the key element in their game-plan for growth. Their moment of sublime, angelic existence had achieved its purpose. They would now have to revert to their previous role of battling some of the options that bechirah would put on the table. Their experience at Sinai momentarily stripped them of their bechirah. They comprehended the nature and role of Torah so perfectly that their very understanding forced them to accept the Torah! But without bechirah, there is no opportunity for reward. The rest of the nation could enjoy their moment of angelic existence in order to establish the reliability of Moshe – but they needed to revert to ordinary existence thereafter.

This is what the Torah meant by “Return to your tents.” The tent is the body, together with the myriad forces, wants and desires that surround the neshamah that it hosts. This tent provides abundant room for bechirah, and for reward and punishment. Moshe, however, was told “You shall stand here with Me.” He did not revert to the ordinary human state, but remained aloof from all physical needs and distractions. This allowed him to comprehend things with uncommon clarity – albeit, without bechirah. (Freed of any attachment to the physical, he separated from his wife.)

For all others, the brief moment of elevation at Sinai served to clarify what would be most important for the continuity of Torah – the role of Moshe as faithful conduit of the Divine Will.

Shabbat shalom

Vayechi

January 12, 2017

I have given you Shechem – one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and my bow. (48:22)

The Meshech Chochmah quotes the Targum Onkelos who translates “my sword” as tzalusi lit. my prayer and “my bow” as ba’usi lit. my supplication.

In a brilliant analysis, known to and used by most rabbis, the Meshech Chochmah then goes on to explain that these expressions of prayer are not synonyms. They reflect two entirely different modes of conversation with HaShem.

Tzalusa refers to our fixed prayer, which is structured, and obeys a given form. In all such fixed prayer, i.e. the shemonah esreh that we daven three times daily, we must precede our list of requests with praise of Hashem, and follow it with thanks. If we tamper with the fixed content or even the formulas that express it, halachah tells us that we have not fulfilled our obligation.

Ba’usa, on the other hand, is free-style. It pops up even where you might not expect it. The gemara (Avoda Zara 8a) allows for it, for example, even within the structure of our fixed prayer. If we wish to innovate, we may add our own thoughts and prayers within each berachah of shemonah esreh, so long as our innovation is related to the specified topic of that berachah. What we say and how we say it, however, remains our choice. There are no givens. We can formulate our autonomous prayer any way we wish.

The two modes could not be more different. Our fixed prayer is part of our designated avodah, our service of Hashem. While kavanah enhances the performance of any mitzvah, it can still be minimally fulfilled simply with the intent to perform Hashem’s commandment. Our fixed prayer is not so different. Minimal intention suffices to at least fulfill the requirement of prayer, namely, kavanah in the first berachah, and a very limited degree of kavanah thereafter.

Personal, optional prayer is subject to stricter demands. To be effective, it requires full focus and attention, and knowledge of the meaning of the words. (This might be the intention of the gemara. that a person’s prayer is heard only if he places his heart in his hands. In other words, he needs to fully direct his heart to Hashem.)

Our fixed prayer revolves around the community, the tzibbur. It is best said together with others; the language is that of the group, not the individual. The gemara points to a seeming contradiction between prayer that is said to be unacceptable without full sincerity and that which is accepted despite shortcomings. The solution, claims the gemara, is that the latter applies to group prayer, to the tzibbur. The point is that the group davening is our fixed, established prayer, which is not as demanding of kavanah as the prayer of the individual.

We now understand why Yaakov spoke of his davening specifically as “sword” and “bow.” He wished to accentuate the differences between the modes of prayer. The blade of a sword is inherently dangerous. It requires very little effort to cause great damage. Simply grazing it can be injurious, even fatal.

Arrows are quite different. They are as potent as the force applied to the bow-string, no more and no less. One’s aim is crucial. A small deviation will cause the target to be missed. The arrows are as deadly as the effort put into them. Yaakov attributed his military victory over the city of Shechem, against great odds, and in standing up to the counterattacks of Shechem’s neighbors and allies, to the success of both modes of davening in which he engaged.

Shabbat shalom

Vayigash

January 5, 2017

Hashem spoke to Yisroel in visions of the night, and said: “Yaakov, Yaakov.” (46:2)

Meshech Chochmah explains that neither of the Patrirchs who preceded Yaakov was a recipient of a nocturnal vision. This is peculiar to Yaakov – and it occurs more than once.
Many years earlier, as Yaakov fled from Esav’s wrath and readied himself to face the uncertainties of living with Lavan, he experienced the prophetic dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder than connected Heaven and earth. There as well the vision occurred at night.

These two episodes share a common element, which we can assume is the reason for this unusual way of communicating information to Yaakov.
In both cases, Yaakov was on the cusp of leaving the land of Israel, and exposing himself to the vicissitudes of galus. In both cases, Hashem wished to reassure Yaakov that He would be with him even in the dark night of exile.
The Sages state the upshot of this reassurance plainly and openly: “When the Jews were exiled to Bavel, the Shechinah went with them.

This motif in Yaakov’s life explains his particular contribution to our fixed prayer. Avrohom established shacharis; Yitzchok minchah. Yaakov – who gave his name to his people – ironically created the model for a davening that is halachically voluntary! Should not the name Yisrael be linked to a daily fixed prayer? Our people’s self-understanding is bound up with constant conversation with Hashem.

Perhaps. But a more vital understanding for that people is that Hashem will never abandon them. This is the unique contribution of Yaakov.

This contribution follows the pattern of the offering of the heavy limbs of animals slaughtered earlier in a given day. While generally the avodah of the beis hamikdosh grinds to a halt during the evening, the offering of the residual limbs is an exception. If the process of offering began by day with the animal’s slaughter and application of its blood on the mizbeach, the burning of the limbs (if not completed by day) may take place at night.

These halachos create an image, whose message is clear: when something is associated with Hashem during the daytime, i.e. connected to Him during times in which He illuminates our lives freely and easily, it remains attached to Him even when His countenance seems to turn away. When a curtain of darkness falls on an animal whose elevation towards Hashem began by day, the avodah of that animal may continue even at night.

Prophecy is subject to the same rule. A navi who once experienced nevuah while in the land of Israel (like Yechezkel) can continue to receive prophecy when he leaves the land.

These ideas yield a crucial bit of instruction to us. When a Jew holds firm to the mesorah – when he follows the ways and lessons of his forefathers who lived at a time of the open connection between Hashem and His people that existed when the beis hamikdosh stood in its place – then he can be treated as a continuation of an ancient and venerable people. The Shechinah continues to dwell among such people. If, however, he forgets the covenant of his ancestors and does not follow in their ways, but lives as if part of a separate people, then the Shechinah is not with him in galus! He is treated with scorn and derision, no longer as part of a proud, ancient group that once saw the glory of Hashem when it was open and manifest.

Shabbat shalom.

Miketz

December 29, 2016

Now let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt. (41:33)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the two dreams do not strike us as equally compelling. If we had to choose one of the two to convey the essential message, we would pick the one featuring sheaves of grain. After all, grain was what this was all about – its abundance, followed by its scarcity. Why, then, is the dream of the grain preceded by one about cows, which seems only marginally related to the message that Paroh was meant to receive?

Ramban’s approach to the dreams offers one solution.
He sees the two dreams as a matched set. The cows arose from the Nile, because it was recognized as the source of water – and hence sustenance – to the land. The cows themselves were used as draft animals; they pulled the plows that readied the land for sowing. The sheaves represent reaping – the other end of the growing cycle. The cows and the sheaves, therefore, bookend that cycle. Both contribute equally to the idea of the availability of food.

A Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5) relates a fascinating story that suggests a different solution to our original question. Alexander the Great visited a far-off kingdom, not in search of riches, but to learn how others dispensed justice. He observed a court case presided over by the local king. One party sold a garbage dump to another. The buyer discovered treasure that had been hidden away in that dump. The buyer and seller disputed whether the sale included the hidden treasure, and turned to their monarch for a just resolution. He learned that the two litigants had unmarried children, and suggested that they marry each other, and in that way, both sides would enjoy the treasure.
Alexander laughed, prompting his royal colleague to challenge him and ask how he would have ruled in his own kingdom. Alexander said that he would have had both litigants killed, and kept the spoils for himself. The king asked whether the sun shone and the rain fell on Alexander’s kingdom. Alexander responded affirmatively. “Do you have small cattle?” asked the king. “You had better own cattle. You survive in the merit of your cattle, as is written, ‘You save man and animal!’” (Tehillim 36:7)
The king upbraided Alexander concerning his ease with gross corruption of justice. Such a society, he argued, would surely not be sustained by G-d. It survived, he reasoned, because Hashem’s compassion reached the animals. He sustained them – and the humans along with them!

We know that Paroh established himself as a deity. He fully played the role, staying aloof from the petty affairs of man. He did not involve himself with the problems of ordinary mortals, not oversaw the running of his kingdom. The hands-on leadership of Egypt he left to layer upon layer of government bureaucracy. As the saying goes, woe unto the land whose government officials are many!

Such governments are notoriously inefficient and given to corruption. They almost beg for miscarriages of justice, especially by the powerful who can act as they please without fear of consequences. Thus, it was acceptable for defenseless foreigner like Yosef to be thrown into prison indefinitely and without recourse to justice, all because of what was essentially a private matter that affected a person in a position of power. Each official could do what he wished, without fear of reprisal.

Hashem’s message to Paroh with the dream of the cows was the same as the king to Alexander: Justice has been so corrupted in your realm, that the primary focus of the good years will be the animals. They are the ones worthwhile saving. Furthermore, if you expect real relief from the upcoming famine, you must first address the endemic corruption in your realm. The cow-dream came first to instruct Paroh that his first order of business was to make his subjects – not just their animals – worthy of Divine compassion in their own right.

Yosef jumps in with advice. ”Let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man.” Having a deity sit on the throne and absent himself from the pedestrian affairs of real people virtually ensured corruption. Egypt needs an ordinary human being to judge and to guide it citizens, not a god-man whose sanctity prevents him from attending to the affairs of his realm, leaving it lawless and corrupt. This man’s capability should be in his grasp of accepted practice, and of efficiency.

Yosef continues: “Place him over the land of Egypt.” This, too, is a reaction to the frequent miscarriage of justice in Egypt. With an uncaring monarch on the throne, many a nobleman could trample upon the law and expect to get away without penalty. Yosef tells Paroh that the antidote to this is someone of authority over the entire land of Egypt, who will serve in an oversight position, and will be the ultimate recourse for those who feel they were mistreated. He will be motivated to act responsibly, because he will also be given ultimate responsibility in the event of any wrongdoing.

Yosef’s position dictated the charges he leveled against his brothers. He accused them of being spies – a crime against the State, and therefore governed by extrajudicial policies. He did not have to subscribe to any rules or protocols in dealing with a crime against the State. Sitting at the top of the pyramid of power, he did not have to submit to any oversight in this matter.

Paroh agrees to the arrangement. “I am Paroh. Without you no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”

He meant that he would continue in his guise as the river-god, and hold himself aloof from the everyday affairs of the realm. All those goings-on would be subject to the approval and oversight of his appointee, Yosef.

Shabbat shalom

Vayeishev

December 22, 2016

“Then they took him, and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (37:24)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that the mishna teaches us about a relatively rare berachah, one that is recited upon seeing a place where some miracle occurred. The gemara explains that it is recited even for a miracle experienced by a single person. When he returns to the place of his deliverance, he recites the berachah, “Blessed is the One Who worked a miracle for me at this place.”

The Abudraham limits the berachah to a miracle that breaks the usual laws of Nature. Miracles that occur within the ways of teva are not treated the same way. We recite a berachah on the miracle of Chanukah, he continues, only because of the miracle of the cruse of oil, which was a violation of the laws of Nature as surely as the miracles of Eliyahu and Elisha.

Now, there is no question to us that the primary miracle of Chanukah was the deliverance of the community from the enemy oppressor, which resulted in Jewish self-rule for some two hundred years, until the destruction of the beis hamikdosh. It would be appropriate to mark such an event, to celebrate it yearly, through the burning of lights. It would not make much of a difference where one placed such lights, so long as they were visible.

This, however, is not the halachah in regard to the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lights. Chazal ratcheted up the observance, effectively combining our awareness of Hashem’s miracles inside and outside of teva. They mandated that the ner Chanukah stand within twenty amos of the ground, at a height that lies within the common field of vision. In other words, they saw to it that the neros Chanukah would attract focus and attention, not just awareness. In doing this, they had us look to the menorah that stood in the Heichal, whose opening to the outside was exactly twenty amos. Miracles within and without the bounds of the laws of Nature are not so different, they are telling us. They are both sourced in the mikdosh, the place chosen by Hashem for His Shechinah, from which all kinds of miracles radiate.

We see this pattern in the life of Yosef as well. Returning from his father’s burial with his brothers, Yosef finds the pit into which had had been thrown, according to R. Tanchuma,mand stares intently into it. His brother were seized with anxiety. They worried that Yosef was not plotting his revenge against them. In fact, continues R. Tanchuma, his gaze focused on the pit because he wished to recite the blessing praising Hashem for the miracle that he experienced.

Here, too, we could challenge Yosef’s behavior. The miracle that Yosef thought to pay homage to was the sequence of events that led from the pit to his role as viceroy of Egypt. This chain of events, however wondrous, did not involve any subverting of the laws of Nature, though. A beracha, then, would not be warranted.

As in the case of Chanukah, however, one element of the story did involve an overt miracle. R. Tanchum (who is the same person as R. Tanchuma of the midrash cited above) taught that the pit in our pasuk may have been dry as a bone, but it was filled with snakes and scorpions. Yosef’s survival in it was nothing less than an overt miracle – and Yosef was therefore justified in reciting a berachah when he returned to the site decades later.

As in the case of Chanukah, HaShem created an overt miracle within the context of a more important (but less dramatic) turn of events, in order to underscore the role of Divine Providence in engineering an outcome. In relation to Yosef that outcome was his rise to power and dominion in Egypt; centuries later, the outcome would be the victory of the Chasmonaim over the numerically superior oppressors. In both cases, the Author of the overt miracle is the same One Who engineered a desired outcome without suspending the laws of Nature at all.

Shabbat shalom

Vayishlach

December 20, 2016

Yaakov arrived whole at the city of Shechem…and he encamped before the city. (33:18)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the Sages Chazal ( Pesikta 23) see an allusion to Yaakov’s observance of Shabbat in the latter part of our pasuk. By encamping “before” the city, but not quite reaching its limits before twilight, Yaakov was forced to observe the laws of techum Shabbat in regard to travel within the city. While a person who encamps within a city can go anywhere within that city, well beyond 2000 paces, Yaakov could go no further than 2000 paces from the place he encamped. Since he only reached “before” the city by dark, his later entry to the city did not allow him full access to it.

This is rather unusual. It is Avraham whom we usually credit with observance of Shabbat and other mitzvot, and then extend the assumption to the other avos who followed. Why would there be an allusion in our pasuk to shemirat Shabbat specifically to Yaakov, and none to Avraham? The answer may have much to do with the historical roles that the two Patriarchs embraced for themselves.

As things progress through the hierarchy of domeim, tzome’ach, chai, medaber ( inanimate, vegetable, animal, human (lit. Talking) , we see nutritional needs and preferences getting more complex. Spiritual nutrition is no different. The vast majority of human beings can subsist on a diet of the seven Noachide laws. No more is necessary. The Jewish soul – sourced in a higher place, a place within Hashem Himself – needs the Torah, in general and in all of its detail. Without it, a Jewish soul finds itself in an unsustaining environment.

The Jewish people is charged with serving as the host to Divinity in the lower world. This mission can be discharged only collectively, not individually. We find, therefore, that certain numbers are critical. For the Shechinah to take up residence, a minimum of twenty-two thousand are needed; 600,000 varieties of soul-types present themselves to the Jewish nation.

Understanding this aspect of spirituality, Avraham devoted himself to widening his base. Yishmael’s decision not to follow in the path of his father increased Avraham’s concern. He reacted by creating his eshel/ hospitality center, for the purpose of bringing in the greatest number of people to the cause of Hashem’s truth. Because his intention was to subordinate his followers to the Torah, Chazal speak of a two-millennia long epoch of Torah that begins with Avraham amassing those followers in Charan. Even Avraham’s move to Egypt (rather than any of a number of other neighboring countries where food was available) was inspired by his mission of reaching numbers. Known for its purported wisdom, Avraham was eager to engage them in debate – and win over his audience.

Yaakov, on the other hand, came to the opposite conclusion. Unlike Avraham, he saw children perfectly united in loyalty to his mission, and suitable to continue it. He determined that his own family could host the Divine message, without recourse to others. (This is the significance of Hashem standing over him in Yaakov’s vision of the angels on the ladder. Hashem indicated that Yaakov himself sufficed to bear the Shechinah) He therefore determined to go a very different route.
He understood the need for his children to isolate themselves from others, rather than deliberately mingle with them. He circumscribed his mission, and drew limits and boundaries around his nascent proto-community.

Despite living in close proximity to Lavan, he made no attempt to wean him away from his idolatry, and was displeased when Rachel stole Lavan’s terafim when she wished to help him give up his avodah zarah habit. The separation was destined to continue on in time, beginning with the exile in Egypt, where Yaakov’s family preferred to isolate themselves in their own Goshen neighborhood.

Chazal allude to all of this in speaking about Yaakov’s dealing with techumim in regard to the city mentioned in our pasuk. They mean to introduce this as an innovation of Yaakov’s drawing boundaries, borders, limits – virtual fences and barriers that prevent free association. Such boundaries were foreign to Avraham, who promoted ease of access so that multitudes could come, learn, be inspired, and change their lives because of it.

Techumim would become part of the working vocabulary of Yaakov’s descendants at Sinai – but not before. Even though the Bnei Yisrael received the mitzvah of Shabbos at Marah, weeks in advance of matan Torah, the gemara teaches that eiruvei techumim was not part of the early instruction. This is consistent with our approach. On the road to Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael were still riven with dissension and dispute. They could not yet serve as a national bearer of the Shechinah and its message. Boundaries and limits to keep others out were simply inappropriate.

This changed at the Sinai encampment. In loving anticipation of the giving of the Torah, they became a single people, their hearts united in purpose and intent. They became a capable vehicle for the Divine , bearing Hashem’s message through the history that would follow. Like their forefather Yaakov, they then needed techumim, boundaries and limits, to keep them separate, distinct, and apart.

This approach is crucial to our understanding of the role Hashem prescribes for us. Whereas Avraham and Yitzchok are promised the Land – an area with boundaries – the promise to Yaakov exceeds all boundaries. “You will break out to the west, the east, the north, and the south.”

Only because Yisrael would set up and live within boundaries do they merit unbounded blessing.

Vayeitzei

December 8, 2016

Often the comment of the Meshech Chochmah can be long and intricate based on his reading of a Talmudic passage. But often he has very short flashes of original inspiration.

This week, I have chosen a very short comment which I think is powerful in its simplicity. I hope that you like it and leave a comment on the blog.

“Lavan returned to his place. Yaakov went on his way.” (32:1-2)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the difference between the way Lavan and Yaakov continue on from their encounter is significant. We would expect that someone who hosted a holy person like Yaakov in his house for years would be affected for the better. He would learn to better his ways somewhat, and become wiser through his prolonged exposure to wisdom.

Lavan, however, took leave of Yaakov and “returned to his place.” He went back to his previous position of beliefs and personality characteristics. Nothing positive had penetrated.

Yaakov, on the other hand, persisted on “his way.” The journey never ends for the tzadik. He is always in process, always looking to improve himself with still greater spiritual accomplishment.

His quest was immediately answered, as the Torah follows with “and God’s angels met up with him.”

Shabbat shalom

Toldot

December 1, 2016

He built an altar. (26:25)

Meshech Chochmah explains that people in the Tanach built such altars when they wished to publicize a miraculous occurrence or an episode of prophecy. Thus, we find “Hashem is my miracle,” and “Hashem made whole.” (Shoftim 6:24)

The Torah does not tell us about any altar built by Yitzchok upon the occasion of his earlier prophecy, in which he was promised that he and his descendants would inherit all the lands of the region. This was not something that Yitzchok wished to publicise. He did not want to incite a jealous backlash from the local inhabitants, who would certainly find such a claim arrogant, offensive and dangerously hostile.
Yitzchok understood that he was not a warrior. Additionally, even ignoring the physical danger to which such a claim might expose him, it was not the right thing to do. Yitzchok lived peaceably with his neighbors. It would be boorish to announce to them that one day his descendants would take over their lands.

Yitzchok’s later nevuah was different. It made no mention of inheriting land. It told him not to fear, and that he would be blessed. Here was something that he could trumpet to his neighbors, without fear. He therefore built an altar to draw attention of his prophetic experience at that place.
The sharing of information succeeded. His neighbors responded with, “We see that Hashem is with you!”
Building the altar amounted to announcing in advance that Hashem had promised him success. When that success materialized, the people were able to relate his astounding success to his earlier claim that Hashem had appeared to him, and assured him that his efforts would be hugely successful.

According to the Meshech Chochmah, it was Yaakov’s hurried departure that led to Yitzchok giving an additional berachah to Yaakov, beyond the one for material, earthly success over which he contended with Esav. Part of the blessing to Avraham had been the forecast of a long, dark galus. Yitzchok now saw Yaakov leaving his home, ready to live the life of an exile. He realized that this was the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy, and that it was specifically in Yaakov that the rest of that berachah would be realised. He reasoned that if it was Yaakov who was willing to pay off the “debt” in the contract offered to Avraham, that he would become the owner of the “document.”

Many years later, the generation of the wilderness would send a proposal to the King of Edom, asking for safe passage through his land, in order to enable them to reach Canaan. Surprisingly, their proposal to the king recounts much early history which seems irrelevant to their request. Why do Moshe’s emissaries relate that their forebears descended to Egypt, and there endured terrible hardship? And why do they refer to their people as “your brother Yisrael?” Why the politically-correct brotherhood? Rashi explains that as brothers because of their common descent from Avrohom, the burden of galus should have been shared. Rashi means what we proposed above: because the Bnei Yisrael assumed responsibility for the contract’s “debt,” they were entitled to the proceeds. By shouldering the burden of the Egyptian exile, they were entitled to collect the deed for the Land of Israel.

Chodesh tov veShabbat shalom

Chayyei Sarah

November 24, 2016

“Rather to my land and to the place of my birth you shall go, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzchok.”

The Meshech Chochmah asks when speaking to his servant Eliezer, Avraham calls it “My land” . after all, Avraham had turned his back on it decades ago, when Hashem told him to leave it all behind and move to Eretz Yisrael. In what way did Avraham relate to it as “his” land?

Avraham had in mind something much more important than nostalgia for a country he had once called home. He alluded to the future conquest of Syria by King David. At that time, Avraham would be able to truly call Aram Naharaim “my land.” Eliezer would tactfully not make reference to this allusion, not wishing to take any chance about antagonising Betuel and Lavan, who might resent such grandiose forecasts about the future. Eliezer wasn’t taking any chances about jeopardizing the shidduch. He therefore skipped that part of Avraham’s instructions, and spoke only about his father’s house and his family.

It is also possible that Eliezer used Tippex even more dramatically than we thought. He not only left out crucial details when necessary, he enhanced the story by manufacturing a few himself. It might very well be that Avraham told Eliezer nothing at all about turning to his closer family. He may have said nothing more than what is contained in our pasuk, namely to go to the region of his origin, and the people in his extended family in the place of his birth. Avraham never insisted that spousal candidates for Yitzchok come from his immediate family.

Given all that latitude, Eliezer chose a reasonable test to identify suitable candidates through demonstrating great chesed. There was no divination involved in this at all, saving us from the trouble of dealing with what has looked to others like a form of nichush, of prognostication that the Torah forbids. It was Eliezer who massaged the story when he presented himself to Besuel and Lavan, hoping to convince them not to stand in the way of the match. He therefore added to Avraham’s instructions words that had never been uttered: “my father’s house and my family.”
With those words he hoped to convince them that the marriage had been made and ordained in heaven, through Divine providence. (There was nothing deceptive about this. The providence indeed was at work, and the conclusion that the marriage was destined to occur was accurate.)

According to the way he told the story to Rivka’s father and brother, Eliezer’s plan to pick the appropriate woman for Yitzchok by posing the camel-watering-at-the-spring challenge was indeed a form of divination. Somehow, his selection of a “sign” from above was answered by God. This was certainly going to impress the audience.

Following that script, Eliezer had to make one other small change in relating the story to Besuel and his son. To them he reported (although it was not the way things really happened) that he, Eliezer, did not offer the jewelry to Rivka until after he had inquired of her name. (In fact, Eliezer had been so confident that Hashem would quickly attend to the needs of Eliezer’s great master, that he gave Rivka the bracelets, etc. before ascertaining her name.) After all, Avraham had insisted that the woman come from his own family!

In fact, however, there was no divination. Abraham had not specified that Yitzchok’s wife come from his own immediate family. Eliezer’s test – looking for a young woman with a superlative sense of kindness to others – was a logical, not a supernatural one.

Shabbat shalom

Vayeira

November 17, 2016

“Avraham returned to his young men”. (22:19)

The Meshech Chochmah asks: How did Avraham proceed with Yitzchak after the Akeidah? From the text alone, we have no clue, because Yitzchok disappears. The narrative continues with Avraham and his servants, but Yitzchok is nowhere to be found.

That is because, Chazal tell us that Avraham sent him to the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

They see the situation as analogous to a woman who became rich through her skill in spinning wool. Although wealthy, she argues to herself that her spinning-spindle was responsible for her success, and she becomes determined never to part company with it. Similarly, Avraham reasoned that he owed everything he had to Torah and mitzvos. He therefore wanted to ensure their continuity in his offspring.

.A Jewish parent can but dream that he might educate his child to achieve a fraction of the greatness of Avraham and Yitzchok. Those two made it to the pinnacle. Why would they need Torah, if Torah’s function is simply to get people to be what they already were?

That, apparently, is the point. Chazal are trying to get us to think more precisely about what Torah is, and what it does for people.

You must know that Torah is the way – indeed, the only way – in which a Jew can fulfill himself, improving every part of his body and every level of his soul. It counters and eliminates all kinds of shortcomings that are consequences of his physical self.

But it does much more than that. Certainly it is true that Torah provides us with practical advantage in overcoming all our deficiencies. It also, however, is inherently good in and of itself. We find Hashem and apprehend Him only through Torah, which is His place of residence.

This Divine influence – which exists on a different plane within Torah itself, will be important even during the messianic future, when the deficiency in Man will be sharply muted. Indeed, it remains important even after death, in the world of the spirit. Thus we find depictions by Chazal of the righteous sitting in the heavenly Mesivta, debating fine points of halachah. Those souls are certainly not in need of refinement, yet they still involve themselves in Torah study.

Similarly, we are told that a person should not desist from Torah study even at the time of his death. Now, if the function of Torah would be to release us from the clutches of the yetzer hora, what need would there be for Torah at the time of death?

Chazal prescribe a number of remedies for a person who is ensnared by the yetzer hora, with remembering his mortality being the ultimate weapon in weakening its grasp. If thinking of one’s day of death is effective, all the more so is going through the actual process. Rather, we must understand that Torah elevates a person even when it is not needed to offset deficiency or the yetzer hora.

Nonetheless, the effect of Torah practice upon one who is commanded in it is incomparably superior to the one who is not commanded, but practices of his own volition. In regard to the removal of deficiency effect the two are more or less comparable. Chazal phrase this beautifully when they say that a non-Jew who immerses himself in Torah is like the kohen gadol. The kohen performs the crucial avodah on Yom Kippur of purging the people of their sin – their deficiency. Similarly, the non-Jew who studies, even though not commanded, can expect to see his deficiency lessened.

When it comes to the aspect of achieving spiritual elevation and perfection, however, the commanded and non-commanded divide sharply. The connection with the Divine comes far more powerfully to those who are commanded, relative to the non-commanded who practices or studies for the express purpose of finding some Divine illumination.

We have now arrived at the choice of words in the passage with which we began. Avraham sent Yitzchok to study Torah, in the manner of the woman who succeeded in her wool-spinning endeavor. She no longer needed the money, but could not bring herself to let go of the process that so enriched her. Similarly, Avraham and Yitzchok in the aftermath of the Akeidah did not require any removal of deficiency. They were well beyond that. On the other hand, voluntarily observing the Torah would not elevate them in the same way that it would people who were commanded to observe.

Rather than accept this rational line of reasoning, Avraham grasped the Torah, which had given him everything that was important to him. He expected neither deficiency-purging nor Divine illumination. He could not, however, let go of the beloved Torah that had already offered him so much. His thoughts after the Akeidah turned to keeping that Torah in the family in the next generation.

Shabbat shalom