Thursday, November 16, 2017

l'nochach ishto

"Va'ye'etar Yitzchak laHashem l'nochach ishto..."  Rashi paints a picture for us: Yitzchak was in one corner of the room, Rivka in the opposite corner, each one davening for a child.  The description is vivid, but what bothers me is why it is necessary at all.  Who cares if Yitzchak and Rivka were standing in opposite corners, in the same corner, in different rooms, in the same room?  Since when is the chumash concerned with painting a scene for us?  What matters is that they davened, period, full stop -- not where they stood in relation to each other.  I'm not sure what according to Rashi the point here is (assuming you understand Rashi literally -- see Maor vaShemesh for a kabbalistic derash).

I actually started thinking about this phrase "l'nochach ishto" two weeks ago when we read the haftarah of VaYeira.  The navi there describes how Elisha put his mouth on the mouth of the dead son of the Isha Shumanis, placed his eyes against his eyes, his hands on his hands, etc.  It sounds like he is doing CPR, but the child was brought back to life miraculously, not by medical intervention (according to most views).  So why did Elisha need to go through this whole act?  Radak answers that Elisha was doing it to arouse his kavanah.  He need the child in his proximity, he needed the physical closeness to atune himself to the situation and focus on it.  Continues Radak, this is just like Yitzchak daveing "l'nochach ishto."  Yitzchak needed Rivka's presence there to focus himself on her plight.  (Parenthetically, for those who pace during davening, I think you have a makor in that haftarah -- "vayashav va'yeilech babayis achas heina v'achas heina.."  See Radak there as well.)  Maybe this is why we place our hands on our children when we bless there before Shabbos or before Y"K.  The physical closeness is there to bring our kavanah to its maximum. 

The simplest pshat in "l'nochach ishto" is, I think, the Rashbam, who writes that it means simply "bishvil ishto," for Rivka's sake.  But this begs the question: doesn't that go without saying?  For whose sake other than Rivka's could he have been praying?  "Ishto" as opposed to who?  Seforno anticipates the question and writes that Yitzchak prayed that his children he would come from Rivka, the most suitable wife for him.  In other words, he wanted to avoid having to take another wife to have children. 

Maybe there is more to it, however, than that.  The Taz in Divrei David raises two (actually more - take a look) fundamental questions on the parsha.  1) Before telling us about Yitzchak's tefilah, the parsha reminds us that Rivka was "bas Besuel ha'Arami... achos Lavan."  Rashi comments that the Torah comes to praise Rivka.  She grew up in a home of idolaters, and nonetheless was a tzadekes. Yet, just one pasuk later the Torah tells us, with respect to Yitzchak's tefilah, "va'yei'aser LO Hashem," Hashem listened to HIS tefilah.  It was to Yitzchak that Hashem responded, not Rivka (according to Rashi, who assumes both were praying independently).  It seems incongruous.   On the one hand, the parsha opens with lavish praise of Rivka, only to set us up for her prayer being rejected due to a shortcoming in her background, at least in comparison to Yitzchak. 2)  We already know who Rivka is from last week's parsha.  We know she grew up in the home of Lavan and Besuel and rose above their bad influence.  Why inject a retelling of her background here?  

The Yismach Moshe suggests a radical pshat in "l'nochach ishto" that will resolve both problems.  Yitzchak viewed himself as continuing the legacy of his father -- there was nothing original or groundbreaking in what he was doing.  Rivka, on the other hand,  had forged her own path to avodah.  The opening of the parsha recounts Rivka's background perhaps to set up the tension between these two approaches.  On the one hand, "Yitzchak ben Avraham" and "Avraham holid es Yiztchak,"  the parsha emphasizes Yitzchak's connection with his father, with the past, with a path that was already forged, vs. "Rivka bas Besuel... achos Lavan," coming from nothing and forging a new path.  

Yitzchak believed, says the Yismach Moshe, that Rivka had the edge on him.  He davened, "l'nochach ishto," invoking her merit as the basis by which G-d should grant them children.  Originality trumps mere fidelity to the past.  "Ishto" here is not to the exclusion of some other potential wife, but rather to the exclusion of Yitzchak himself, to the exclusion of his own merits, which he thought insufficient.

How does G-d respond?  "Va'yei'aser LO," G-d responded to Yitzchak's own prayer.  Three possible ways to read this: 1) According to Rashi, G-d responded to Yitzchak, not Rivka.  The zechus of the tzadik ben tzadik in facts trumps the merit of the tzadik ben rasha.  Following in the footsteps of the past trumps those who must make their own way.  2) Given the Yismach Moshe's understand of the first half of the pasuk, perhaps the meaning here is that G-d responded to Yitzchak davka because he invoked his wife's merits.  3) Finally, and most radically, the Yismach Moshe's own reading is that G-d responded "lo," to Yitzchak as an individual, as opposed to Yitzchak the extension of his father Avraham.  G-d's message to Yitzchak was that his avodah was not merely a replay of his father's life, and therefore devoid of originality, but rather he too stood on his own merits, had his own path, he too had his own way to carve just as Rivka had carved her own (albeit in a more extreme set of circumstances.)

To take one more step, perhaps the tension here between the zechus of following in the foosteps of the past vs. carving a new path is davka highlighted in the context of Yitzchak and Rivka's tefilah for children because the Torah is asking us to consider what we expect from our children -- do we want them to merely walk in our foosteps, or are we davening for a new generation that will carve their own path and move off in a new direction of their own?  And perhaps the better question is not which approach we expect from our children, but which approach we aspire to ourselves.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

root cause

"Hinei yaldah Milkah gam hi banim l'Nachor achicha..."  We know that Nachor is Avraham's brother -- why does the Torah mention it again in recounting the geneology of Nachor's family at the end of last week's parsha?

We learn an important yesod from here.   Even though Avraham had no contact with Nachor for decades (Netziv explains that this was the intent of "Lech lecha... m'beis avicha"), a brother is still a brother, and all the shefa, bracha, and benefits that came into the world because of the tzidkus of Avraham Avinu overflowed and benefited Nachor as well.  They of course probably never suspected that as the cause, but, "Nachor achicha...," when you are related to the tzadik ha'dor and have even a small connection, good things rub off and come your way.  

It is nice to pat yourself on the back and think that if things are going well it is because Hashem is getting nachas ru'ach from your avodah.  But the truth may be that your second cousin twice removed, or even a stranger who you don't even know, is such a tremendous ba'al chessed, ba'al avodah, etc. that the whole world benefits from -- including you.  

On the other hand, who knows?  It could be your tefilos, that you don't think are having any effect, are benefiting a Jew somewhere in the world who really needs it.

We see the same idea in our parsha.  "Hinei Rivka yotzeis asher yuldah l'Besuel..."  Why the passive voice, "yuldah?"  Kedushas Levi explains that Rivka may have biologically born to Besuel, but what caused a girl like Rivka to come into the world was the chessed of Avraham miles and miles away.  Besuel reaped the results, but the cause of events was Avraham Avinu.

Eliezer says that if the test he devised to find the right girl works out it proves, "ki asisa chessed im adoni." (24:14).  G-d was not doing chessed "l'adoni"  = for Avraham, i.e. giving him a gift, but rather "im adoni" = with Avraham, i.e. the chessed Avraham himself did was what created and set in motion events leading to Rivka.

How does this work?  The way Hashem interacts with a person mirrors the way that person interacts with the world.  For example, Chazal say that a person who is ma'avir al midosav, who is forgiving, will have his/her own sins forgiven.  But it goes beyond personal benefit.  The way Hashem interacts with the whole world changes.  The chessed of Avraham opened a channel of chessed -- there was more chessed coming down to the entire world.  That abundance of chessed caused a Rivka, another ba'alas chessed, to develop.

This idea can also shed light on how Eliezer managed to have such tremendous success Eliezer had on his mission.  Ya'akov Avinu, the paragon of emes, had to spend 14 years in Yeshivas Shem v'Eiver preparing himself to deal with the cheat and liar Lavan.  Here, Eliezer walks into the lion's den and walks out with Rivka on the same day.  How did that happen?

Chazal tell us that Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age who he would have loved to see married to Yitzchak.  Shem m'Shmuel writes that this was not a coincidence.  Hashem was using reverse psychology in placing him in this situation.  Davka because Eliezer faced the temptation of not being true to Avraham and to his mission made him that much more on guard and dedicated to carrying out his shlichus faithfully.  When a person makes such a great effort to be true to his master, his mission, in turn Hashem mirrors that and more truth and faithfulness come into the world.  That extra burst of truth energy, if you will, is what enabled him to overcome Lavan.

Monday, November 06, 2017

better than a free gift

After passing the test of the akeidah Avraham is told his reward: "V'hisbarchu b'zaracha kol goyei ha'aretz eikev asher shamata b'koli." (22:18)

Some of the meforshim ask: what kind of a reward is this?  Avraham had already been promised this by G-d at the beginning of Lech Lecha: "V'nivrechu becha kol mishp'chos ha'adamah." (12:3)  Now, ten tests later, he is promised the same thing all over again -- that's it?! 

I want to suggest a solution based on a beautiful Netziv elsewhere in our parsha.  B'pashtus, the story of the angels being welcomed by Lot and being invited into his home in contrast to the attack upon them by the rest of the populace of Sdom serves to establish a zechus for Lot so that he would merit being saved and seals the fate of the people of Sdom by their wickedness.  Yet that can't be.  As we discussed last post, the fate of Sdom was already sealed before the malachim even got there.  Hashem had already refused Avraham's prayers on their behalf and one the angels was on a mission to destroy the city.  The other angel that came to Sdom was there to save Lot, so his fate too was already sealed.  The reaction of Lot and the reaction of the people of Sdom to the arrival of the angels did not make any difference to the outcome.  So why is this story interjected?

Netziv (Harchev Davar) answers that there is something even better than G-d given you a free favor and rescuing you in a time of need.  What's even better is earning that gift and reward.  G-d would certainly have saved Lot no matter what; Sdom would have been destroyed in any case.  However, by sending the angels, Hashem provided Lot with the opportunity to do chessed and earn the rescue that he was going to be given (see also Ohr haChaim 19:1).  Hashem have the people of Sdom the opportunity to demonstrate their wickedness so that there was no question of their deserving everything they got. 

The greatest gift that Hashem can give is the opportunity to serve him and earn the bracha and yeshu'a that is needed and not have to get it as a handout.

Perhaps the key difference between the bracha in parshas Lech Lecha and the bracha in VaYeira is the end of the pasuk: "Eikev asher shamata b'koli."   EIkev means you've earned it; it's not a favor, but rather it's a justified outcome.  That could only come after the tenth test. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

a pardon for the guilty

The Rambam writes in Hil Teshuvah 3:2

אדם שעונותיו מרובין על זכיותיו מיד הוא מת ברשעו שנאמר על רוב עונך. וכן מדינה שעונותיה מרובין מיד היא אובדת שנאמר זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה וגו'. וכן כל העולם כולו אם היו עונותיהם מרובין מזכיותיהן מיד הן נשחתין שנאמר וירא ה' כי רבה רעת האדם.

A person, city, or country whose sins outweigh its merits is immediately sentenced to death and destruction; a person, city, or country that has a majority of merits gets to keep going. 

Lechem Mishna asks: The Rambam proves that this calculus applies on the broader level to the city or country, not just to the individual, from the fact that G-d destroyed Sdom.  But if that is true, then why did Avraham bother to daven on their behalf?  Either the numbers add up to their being spared or they don't?!

Two weeks ago R' Eliezer Eisenberg discussed a similar question. If the calculus applies even to the entire world, as the Rambam writes, then why was Noach spared during the flood?  Why wasn't the entire world destroyed?  See here.

It's a great kasha, but the answer is even better.  Lechem Mishna suggests that tefilah overrides the calculus.  Mipnei tefilas Avraham ha'ya mochel af al pi she'ain ha'din kach.  Some of you I am sure are thinking that what he means is that the tefilah itself is a zechus that comes in and tips the scales.  Maybe tefilah creates a tziruf between the one who davens and the city and his merits now get counted for them.  A nice sevara, but that's not what the Lch"M is saying.  That sevara would mean the city legitimately deserves to get off.  What the Lch"M is saying is that the scales are still tipped in the direction of destruction -- the city does NOT deserve to be spared.  Nonetheless, G-d is willing to spare it anyway.  There is, so to speak, an override button.  (Does that mean the judgment is not true?  I would say see Mei HaShiloach in P VaYeishev end of the first piece on the difference between emes and emes l'amito.  G-d's justice is emes l'amito, not just emes.)  The power of tefilah is so great that G-d puts aside what justice demands.

So we see the issue raised in Noach, we see raised in connection with Sdom. One more place: Lot begs the angels for permission to flee to the city of Tzo'ar to seek refuge there, meaning they would have to spare the city.  Or haChaim (19:20) asks: if the Tzo'ar deserved to be destroyed because its sins outweighed its merits, then why should it be spared just because Lot wanted to take refuge there?  And if it's sins did not outweigh its merits, then shouldn't it be spared even if Lot didn't take refuge there?   Take a look at his answer as well as Shem m'Shmuel (5678).

Now for the flipside.  G-d says that the cities of Sdom and Amora will be destroyed because, "Za'akas Sdom v'Amora ki rabah, v'chatsam ki kavdah me'od."  (18:20)  The Netziv and Brisker Rav note the redundancy.  If "chatasam" seals their fate, why add the beginning of the pasuk about "za'akas Sdom v'Amora?" 

Netziv quotes Tos B"K 93a d"h echad that when the poor cry out in oppression, G-d responds much more quickly than when there is no one crying out.  Ramban writes that "za'akas Sdom v'Amora" refers to interpersonal crime.  The people of Sdom sinned against each other, not just against G-d.  If a person commits idolatry, it is essentially a victimless crime.  Not so when a person commits theft, arayos, and other such evils.  Sdom was filled with the cries of victims. 

The Lch"M taught us that if you, or even someone else, cries out in tefilah to G-d, that averts din.  The Netziv is teaching us that if the victim of sin cries out to G-d, that hastens din. 

It's an amazing thing -- G-d kavyachol us moved by the pleas of we puny human beings.  Our words matter more than we can imagine.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lot: can't you live in beautiful pastures without giving up G-d?

Our parsha tells us that there was a dispute that broke out between the shepherds of Avraham and the shepherds of Lot.  The Torah immediately tacks on, "V'ha'K'na'ani v'haPrizi az yosheiv ba'aretz." (13:7) Note the use of "yosheiv," as opposed to earlier in the parsha when we were told (12:6), "V'ha'K'na'ani az ba'aretz."  "Yosheiv," means our enemies were settled in the land, not just temporarily there or there by happenstance.  When Jews fight with each other, even if it is just fight, even if it is a fight against the injustices committed by a Lot, even if it is a fight where one side is defending the interests of an Avraham Avinu in all his tzidkus, the net result is a gain for our enemies, who as a result are bolstered and have a greater sense of security and a stronger foothold.  It's the Chasam Sofer who says this, someone who knew how to fight when he perceived a threat to Orthodoxy, but here he is telling us to be careful.  Apply as you like to current events.

Getting back to the story, Avraham tells Lot that they must separate, and wherever he chooses to go, Avraham will head in the opposite direction.  Lot sees the land of Sdom and its beautiful fertile pastures  before him, and he makes the logical choice to move there with his flocks.  "Va'yisa Lot m'kedem" (13:11) -- literally, he headed away from the east, where Avraham was camped (see Seforno,) but the Midrash reads much more into the phrase and tells us that Lot was moving away from G-d, the "kadmono shel olam."   Lot was running away from religion, abandoning his faith.

Asks the Alter m'Kelm: in next week's parsha we are going to read how Lot, despite living amidst the wicked people of Sdom, risked his life to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.  We are going to read how he baked matzah for his guests because it was Pesach (Rashi).  Unlike his sons in law, he did not doubt the malach's message that Sdom would be destroyed, and he immediately abandoned his home when he was told to flee.  Does this sound like someone who has run away from G-d and religion?!  OK, so he wanted to move to the best pasture land, he cared maybe too much about his flocks and his wealth, and so he ended up is Sdom, but why does that mean he is someone trying to escape from religion?

The Alter answers that we see from here that even if you eat the most kosher matzah, do mitzvos, dress the dress and walk the walk, if what really anchors your life is the almighty $ instead of the Almighty, then you are on the wrong path.  Then you are a Lot.  

Is it too early in the year for me to write about advertisements for Pesach vacations in  luxury hotels with pools and beaches and every amenity one can dream of, including a 24 hour a day tea room because you never know when you will be hungry, as if the banquet size meals were not enough (don't worry -- there is a gym and exercise room too, probably with a personal trainer available to help you)?  Of course they all have the best hashgachos, non-gebrokst food, daf yomi shiurim daily (maybe poolside?).  This is what Lot wanted -- the beautiful pastures of Sdom! -- while doing mitzvos.  

You can dress it up in hashgachos and mitzvos and other nice frum things, but it's still Sdom, far away from the values of kadmono shel olam.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

ba'avur vs biglal

Both the Malbim and Netviv distinguish between the words "biglal" and "ba'avur," both of which can be translated as "because," but which actually have different connotations.  (The Malbim throughout his commentary assumes there are no synonyms in Hebrew and there must be at least subtle differences between words that seem at first glace to mean the same thing.) 

"Ba'avur" implies doing something because there is some tangible benefit to be gained.  Rivka tells Ya'akov to prepare a meal and bring it to Yitzchak, "ba'avur yivarechicha lifnei moso."  Prepare a meal because you want to get a blessing. 

"Biglal" is about logical causes, not gain/loss.  G-d promised to remove the 7 nations from Canaan and give us their land "biglal ha'toeivos ha'eileh" which they did -- because of their wrongs. 

Interestingly you have a pasuk in our parsha (12:13) that contains both words.  Avraham tells Sarah that when they enter Egypt she should say he is her brother "l'ma'an yitav li ba'avureich" -- there is a tangible gain of wealth that Avraham will accrue, hence "ba'avur." He then adds, "v'chaysa nafshi biglaleiach" -- Sarah will be the cause of the Egyptians avoiding the crime of murder.  (Shouldn't the latter point have come first?  Good question, but not for this post : )

Turning back two weeks to parshas Braishis, which "because" word would you use in the sentence telling us that man was giving the earth to toil because of his sin?   You would think it should be "biglal," -- sin is a logical cause.  But we know that's not what the pasuk says -- it says "arura ha'adaman ba'avurecha..."  (3:17)  What's going on?

Malbim and Netziv explain that the pasuk is in one word giving us a beautiful lesson: man's punishment forcing him to toil is to his benefit -- it is something he can gain from and grow from.  Work and toil will serve to curb his yetzer ha'ra so that the sin of eitz ha'da'as can ultimately be rectified.  The punishment is itself a bracha in disguise. 

Homework: check your concordance -- does the Malbim"s distinction work in all the places these words are used?  I was a bit puzzled by a number of examples... 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

the one word diffence between ya'aleh v'yavo in tefilah vs bentching

Over Yom Tov I reminded my family of a halacha that will come up once again on Rosh Chodesh when we have the addition of ya'aleh v'yavo in our davening and bentching.  If you look in your bentcher, you will see one little difference in the way ya'aleh v'yavo appears there from the way it appears in the siddur: the word melech in ki K-l melech chanun v'rachum atah is in parenthesis.  This is based din in O.C. 188:3  The Shulchan Aruch says that when you mention malchus beis David (rachem... al malchus beis David m'shichecha) in the third bracha of bentching you should not mention the malchus of Hashem along side it, e.g. a person should not say malchuscha u'malchus beis David, as if one were to do so it would give the impression that one is equating the malchus of Hashem with another malchus.  Adds the Rama, that the same principle holds true at the end of the bracha as well and the word melech should be left out of ya'aleh v'yavo.  That being said, the Rama continues and says that he has noticed that the minhag does not follow this recommendation.  Achronim (see Taz) try to justify the common practice, but the Aruch haShulchan writes that has noticed that where he lived people do in fact follow the Rama and leave the word melech out.  Now that I've made you aware of the issue, you can start leaving it out too : )

One other interesting note on the parsha: Chazal (Sanhedrin 58) darshen from the words "yom v'layla lo yisbosu" that an aku"m who observes a day of shabbos is chayav misa.  Achronim say pilpulim to explain how it is that the Avos were able to keep Shabbos (the gemara in Kiddushim tells us that Avraham kept even dinim derabbanan) when technically they might still have had the status of bnei Noach and not been allowed to set aside a day of rest. 

Shu"T Binyan Tzion (126) suggests that the key word is "yishbosu."  Resting means avoiding hard labor.  That is very different that our definition of Shabbos, which is based on the word "melacha," referring specifically to the 39 actions done in the construction of the mishkan.  An aku"m who moves a heavy couch between rooms in his house has broken his "shabbos" because he has done hard work, not kept it as a day of "shevisa", but a Jew who does the same action on our Shabbos is not liable because it does not fall into the category of melacha.