Have you ever brought an awesome proposal to your boss – one that would make your work easier, the company more efficient and bring in more clients – only to have it REJECTED? You are convinced it’s a winning idea, so you present it again. You lay out all the data, explain the principles behind the changes and believe the chief “gets it.” And again, you are REJECTED. You’re disappointed, but you try again. Should you now be surprised when he throws you out of his office, saying, “Stop wasting your time and get back to your job. No means NO!”
Our Parsha opens by telling us that Yitzchak and Rivka were extremely persistent people: “Vaye’etar Yitzchok lenochach ishtoh“, “Yitzchok entreated Hashem opposite his wife” (Toldos 25:21). The word vaye’etar is rare, so Rashi defines it: Yitzchak and Rivka kept imploring Hashem, over and over, to grant them a child. This seems to border on being disrespectful and insolent: why keep asking after Hashem has clearly said “NO!”?
Let’s be honest. This question doesn’t just apply to Yitzchak and Rivka. It applies to the tefillos (prayers) of each and every one of us. We daven three times a day and repeat the same requests over and over- perhaps for a sick person, perhaps for a marriage partner, or perhaps for one’s livelihood. Why is it okay to ask for the same things over and over; shouldn’t we just make our requests and trust that Hashem has heard them and will do as He wills? I believe the following story (from With All Your Heart by Rabbi Binyomin Pruzansky) will help us understand.
There was a young boy named Dovi who had difficulty keeping up with his class. Dovi tried hard, but his mind would constantly wander; he simply could not follow the reading and discussions. When Dovi’s class started learning Gemara, he was completely lost. To make matters worse, the boys in his class teased and made fun of him. Finally, the day came when he told his mother he just could not go to school. After much cajoling, Dovi reluctantly went back to school, continuing to suffer.
One day, the Rebbe asked a question and Dovi uncharacteristically raised his hand to answer. The Rebbe called on him, jumping at the opportunity to build Dovi’s confidence. To everyone’s surprise, Dovi gave the correct answer. The next day, his Rebbe noted that Dovi followed along in the Gemara for most of the class. He was steadily improving. The Rebbe was very pleasantly surprised and he called Dovi’s mother to ask what had led to this wonderful transformation.
The mother told him, “A few weeks ago, the situation was so bad that Dovi refused to go to school. On that Erev Shabbos, I called Dovi over and suggested that since candle lighting time is an opportune time to daven for Hashem’s help and I was about to light candles, we should daven together that he will merit from Hashem to see the light of Torah in his learning. We davened and cried together. We did this for a few weeks and, with Hashem’s help, it worked!”
The Gemara in Yevamos 64 explains that the sole reason Hashem created both Yitzchak and Rivka biologically unable to have children, is that Hashem desires the tefillos of the righteous. Rav Shimshon Pincus zt” l explains there is a big difference between asking a person for something and requesting something from Hashem. A person who considers a request and says “no” usually means no. However, when Hashem does not answer our tefillos for something that is essentially good for us, it’s not because Hashem wants to deny our request. Rather, it’s to prompt us to ask again. . Hashem wants us to pray to Him and get close to Him, so when we get what we prayed for, we realize that it came from Hashem.
Rav Pincus learns a novel idea from this. The term “masmid” is generally used for someone who sits and studies Torah at every opportunity, with diligence and without interruptions. From the Rashi defining Vaye’etar, we now learn of a new type of “masmid“: a “masmid” in tefilla!
Hashem does not get annoyed at such a masmid. On the contrary, this is what He wants, that every one of us should be turned to Him at all moments for all of our needs, asking and asking. Our very first request, even before the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, is: “Hashem sefosai tiftach…” – Hashem, open my lips. – Hashem, give me the ability to turn to you and pray to you.
Hashem’s door is always open. His appointment book is never full. We just have to ask and if it’s really important, to keep asking.
To illustrate the greatness of my father’s first cousin is not difficult. The difficulty lies in taking the liberty to express it, as Rav Avraham would likely protest. Nonetheless, the life of a Gadol is to instruct and that’s what he did for me. During my four year study in Israel, I came to know him well. From that happenstance point of when we met up until the end, I had the great fortune to witness greatness wrapped in the blankets of humility.
Where shall I start? Shall I begin at the Shabbas table where often a young man that was blinded by an operation would come to share his Divrei Torah. Rav Avraham listened to his words and responded in admiration and enthusiasm to the young boy’s Chiddushim. Or should I start by discussing my travels with Rav Avraham during bein hazmanim to cities all over Israel. The brilliance of the shiurim which were likely ensconced in his mind as a child were not what left an impression on me. But his one hundred percent dedication to the taxi driver who drove us did leave an impression.
Every shabbas, Rav Avraham gave a shiur in Bnei-Brak. Once we were walking to one of the shiurim. He wasn’t sure which shul he was giving it at. He thought he located the right one so he asked me to look if that was the one. Yes, indeed – he was right – It said Harav Ha’Gaon Avraham Genachowski is giving the drasha. Often on the way to a shiur, Rav Avraham would present me with a question and ask my thoughts. Sometimes I presented an idea and whatever the idea was he loved it. It was always exciting when the shiur would arrive because I knew he always discussed the question he had asked me to address. After the shiur and after the multitudes queried him, he would ask me how I liked the shiur and what I thought about it. I was Rav Avraham’s critic. The lowly boy who accompanied a giant was given a say.
In terms of Torah, it’s appropriate to convey the two concepts that Rav Avraham told me that personify his essence. He said to me that one’s behavior should mimic the physical makeup of the world. The outside is water. Just as water is malleable and agreeable so must one be with his fellow man on the outside. The center of earth is fire, symbolizing the Torah which must be one’s center of gravity. Lastly, the inside of the world is rock, symbolizing that on the inside one must be steadfast and unwavering regarding his beliefs. This was Rav Avraham for anyone who knew him. I listened to his brachas of hamotzi every Friday night. It felt like the skies were thundering when he made the bracha. He wouldn’t waver on that. His Torah need not be spoken of. He was chavrusas with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Rav Avaraham, however, was known for his middos. All of Israel knew of Rav Avraham and what a special person he was. This was his gift to the world.
The last thought relates to Eshet Chayil we say Friday night. Rav Avraham asked me – why is it that we say gemolto tov velo rah? There seems a redundancy – if the Torah is all good then by inference it is not bad. Rav Avraham answered in parable fashion. He said that it can be compared to a dish that has some ingredients that are good and some bad, thus producing a final product far from perfection. It’s not so with the Torah. The Torah that has no imperfections. It’s not only good but it has no element of rah or imperfection attached to it.
My condolences to the family. All of us have taken a great loss. But I know very well that Rav Avraham was known around the world as well, and it is a great loss for the nation of Israel.
Everyone would love to be trained by the best experts, be it in school, college, work, or Yeshiva. People pay top dollar and even intern for free to be trained by the best in their profession. Often that can mean the difference between success and failure in what we do.
After learning about Avraham Avinu, wouldn’t we want him to be our spiritual guide and anchor as we attempt to grow in our closeness to Hashem? The truth is…we can. Looking at a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos, we discover how. “Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our forefather Avraham … a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul.” (5:22)
There’s a flipside to the Mishnah: “Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.” Apparently, the time gap is not an issue and we can join the “academy” of either Avraham Avinu or Bilaam, learning from the qualities of either individual. The Parshiyos of Lech Lecha, Vayeira and Chayei Sarah are replete with lessons we learn from Avraham. Conversely, Parshas Balak is replete with negative lessons that can be learned from Bilaam!
Why are Avraham and Bilaam singled out? What’s the common denominator of the three positive qualities of Avraham and the three negative qualities of Bilaam?
The Maharal explains that both Avraham and Bilaam were founding fathers. Avraham is an acronym for “av hamon goyim,” a father of a multitude of nations (Rashi, Lech Lecha 17:5). Bilaam was also a leader and father of nations. He was the first gentile prophet. However, their ideologies and lifestyles were polar opposites. They represented a distinct fork in the road for a person choosing his direction in life.
The Maharal opens our eyes to the root of the ideologies of these “founding fathers” by examining a seemingly inconsequential detail about both Avraham and Bilaam. The Torah mentions that Avraham and Bilaam rode on a donkey. However, different Hebrew words for donkey are used in each case. Avraham saddled his chamor – male donkey, while Bilaam saddled his asson – she-donkey. This small difference highlights the basic difference in their ideologies. The root of the word Chamor is the same as the root of Chomer – physical matter/ physicality. The donkey in effect represents physicality.
The Torah is depicting a very fundamental difference in how Avraham and Bilaam related to the physicality of the world. Avraham Rochev al Hachomer; he rode on top of the physical. He showed an ability to harness the physical world as a tool for spiritual growth. Conversely, Bilaam related totally to the physicality of this world, in a very intimate, very attached and deeply connected manner. He even harnessed the spiritual to feed his desire for the physical.
Keeping in mind the Maharal’s analysis, having a “good eye” means using one’s efforts to help others and to be humble and content, instead of seeking to please oneself. To Avraham, that meant setting up a free “bed and breakfast,” housing and feeding all passersby and using that opportunity to nourish their neshamos (souls) as he introduced them to the realization that Hashem is really the One who blessed them with food and housing.
Bilaam was the paradigm of selfishness. His three motivating qualities–evil eye, arrogant spirit, and greedy soul, are manifestations of the three base negative urges: jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor. Bilaam always felt he was missing something and always sought to feed his desires. This exemplifies someone who is interwoven with the physical. He always feels he is lacking and wants more.
We see the end result of their divergent paths when the Torah describes Avraham and Bilaam toward the end of their lives. Avraham died at a good old age, mature, and content and left this world with a multitude of positive accomplishments. Conversely, “Bilaam rose and returned to his place,” lame, blind in one eye and disgraced as a result of his total failure to accomplish anything positive.
The lesson for us is clear. Many people would love their children to attend their alma mater, be it yeshiva or university. The Mishnah, however, lists only two academies, Avraham or Bilaam. Our perspective towards the physical world will determine of whom we are disciples and which academy we are attending and learning from. Let us adopt the warm and giving personality of Avraham and utilize our efforts for true tikun olam– using the physical world for the spiritual development of ourselves and our fellow man. May we merit to be not just children of Avraham, but his disciples as well.