The Ra’avad points out a contradiction in the Rambam (hilchos Melachim) which is connected to this week’s parsha. In one place the Rambam says that Avraham Avinu came to a recognition of Hashem at age three, while in another place, the implication is that he came to realize Hashem’s presence at age forty-eight. What could be the explanation to these Rambams?
Rav Wolbe in his sefer Alei Shiur is medayek the Rambam and comes to the following answer. At the age of three, Avraham had already started asking questions about the world which led him to realize that the world has a Creator. However, the knowledge he possessed at this time remained as a mere intellectual knowledge of Hashem. Rav Wolbe calls it a “yedia b’mocho,” that is, “a knowledge of the mind.” When he became forty-eight years old, this knowledge went through a maturation process and entered his heart.
A common theme when learning Sefer Bereishis is to realize that the foundation of our neshomos and who we truly are today are found in our Avos (Drashos Ha’Ran on Parshas Toldos). Therefore, when we learn about Avraham and the rest of the Avos, we’re really opening up a portal of understanding about ourselves. The question then becomes, what point is there to take out of this yesod of Rav Wolbe that we can relate to?
One thought came to mind when I saw this piece in the Alei Shur. The Ramban says on the pasuk of “v’kedoshim tiheyoo” that even after a person does all the mitzvos, he still has an obligation to become kadosh. Meaning, there could exist people in the world who fulfill all the mitzvos in the Torah yet are still considered a “neveilah” (carcass). Achronim say that the Ramban could mean people who live lives of Halacha yet whose hashkafa stands diametrically opposed to da’as Torah. I think the pshat could be a little different. The wording of the Ramban, is that someone who performed the mitzvos can still be considered a neveilah. What’s the connection to a neveilah? There are many people who believe that fulfilling the action of a mitzva suffices to fulfill our obligation, but it’s not true. People could do the mitzvos and still be considered dead. Why? Because the mitzvos are supposed to accentuate a change. They’re supposed to make a person feel differently than he did before. Doing the mitzvos out of rote and habit, without any feeling whatsoever is considered doing the mitzvos; however, the person doing them is still considered dead. We are required to infuse our mitzvos with feeling and without that, we’ve done the mitzvos, but we’re still so far from being kadosh (which is a tachlis of yidden, as the pasuk says –You should be a goy kadosh…).
I think this may be the point of the Alei Shur. Avraham achieved a level of recognition about Hashem as early as age three, but it wasn’t enough. It’s not enough to just know about Hashem. We have to feel it.
Additionally, we see from Avraham that it took him forty-five years to come to this type of knowledge. Forty-five years! It’s possible this is coming to teach us that feeling the Ribbono shel olam’s presence is not just something that happens overnight; rather, it’s an avodah. It’s not something that just comes about if you happen to know Hashem exists. Rather it’s an avodah to work on- to repeatedly realize and recognize shvisi Hashem L’negdi Tamid. Only by doing that can one really feel Hashem’s presence.
The truth is, that we inherited this gift from Avraham. It’s in our genes to be able to constantly live with Hashem. But living with Hashem like Avraham doesn’t just mean knowing He’s there. It means feeling He’s there. It means not just saying words of Tefilla as fast as we can, but to realize that we’re actually speaking to Someone. There’s Someone on the other end of the line! I once spoke to a Rebbe of mine about this. He said that this avodah takes a lifetime. To feel as if one is doing a mitzvah right in front of Hashem is no small feat. To not just understand that we’re talking to someone during tefillos, but to feel it? It’s a lifetime of work. But that’s what we’re here for. So, we have a lifetime to achieve it.
In 1887, a British Member of Parliament, Lord Acton, wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” These words may well describe what drove the builders of the Tower of Babylon.
According to one Rashi, they wanted to wage war against Hashem! Rav Hirsch explains it a bit differently. He says the building of the tower itself was not a sin, but rather the purpose of the tower was the crime. Their goal was, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4). This statement was directed against Hashem’s control of the universe. Their intent was to create a society with their own goals and morality, a society in which they would decide what is right and wrong and not based on the dictates of Hashem. They knew they could organize themselves well as a community and wanted to use that power for a nefarious purpose.
More recently, Rav Sorotzkin in his sefer Oznayim LaTorah offered a novel explanation for the tower project. That generation was living on top of Mount Ararat, where the ark of Noach landed. The land was rocky and difficult to cultivate. Many wanted to find lush pastures in the valleys. However, they were afraid to move to the valley, since they knew they were not living their lives the way Hashem wanted and were afraid the valley made them easier targets for punishment, such as flooding. On top of Mount Ararat, they felt relatively safe. But life was rough. Their “brilliant” idea was thus to build a huge tower in the lush valley. This tower would be higher than the mountain, and even if a massive flood came, they would be safe on top and wait it out!
They worked together as a community and indeed made great progress. They were proud of the fact that as a community, they could accomplish much more than each individual. Indeed, throughout history, we’ve seen that a society can unite to protect its way of life, even if it is corrupt. It was the goal of the generation of the Tower of Babylon to create a society independent of Hashem’s will, as expressed in their declaration, “Let’s make a name for ourselves.” Be it waging war against the Almighty, or making all their own rules, they wanted absolute power over their lives and no accountability to a higher source.
Unity is indeed a powerful and effective tool when used for serving Hashem! A united society, community, shul or yeshiva holds individual members to the proper standards they set. The people want to be part of the community, which means they must endeavor to be a part of the high level of spirituality and Torah observance maintained in that community.
The power of unity and the creation of a tzibur (community) is highlighted in multiple places in the Torah. “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – each Jew is responsible for one another. There is the requirement to daven with a minyan, which is facilitated by a tzibur. The middle twelve blessings of Shemoneh Esrei in which we pray for intellect, forgiveness, health, livelihood, etc. are all requests in the plural – grant us, heal us, bless us. The reasoning for this requirement is that praying on behalf of yourself is not in the same league as praying for all of Klal Yisroel.
Rav Chaim Friedlander further explains the difference between unity in general and the unity desired by Hashem. The generation of the Tower of Babylon was similar to partners who join together to finish a project and make money. Yes, they are working together as a team to accomplish their goals faster; however, they are working for their own self-interest. This unity is good and has tremendous power. In fact, many companies promote team effort in their operations, just like sports teams, as studies prove it helps people work better However, Hashem asks more of mankind than just serving their own self-interest. There is only one Absolute in this world — Hashem. Building towers or amassing fortunes alone, are efforts that fall short of Hashem’s mandate. True success and true happiness, come from submitting ourselves to the will of the Creator.
Joining a group is healthy whenever it serves a positive purpose. However, let’s ensure that one or more of the groups we join help us fulfill our lives as Hashem has instructed us.