While Avraham is given the directive lech lecha “go into yourself and understand who you are” by G-d, Yaakov, out of free will, engages in a Vayetze, a leaving of his internal place to an external mindset. This is because Avraham and Yaakov had two different missions. Avraham had to build himself from the inside out to create an inner core that could take on a world of atheism and convert it to a state of monotheism, while Yaakov had to engage in external battles with his brother and the yetzer hara that is a constant force trying to thwart Torah learning.
My late relative, Rav Avrohom Genechovsky zt”l, told me a drash related to this parsha. Esav, out of need to fulfill his immediate desires in this world, surrenders the bechor rights for adashim. Rav Avrohom said that these adashim are alluded to in Rav Yehuda’s acronym on Pesach for the ten plagues in the form of detzach, adash be’achav. Rav Avrohom explained, that based on drash Rav Yehudah’s statement can be understood to mean that one who engages in detzach, symbolic of ditza rina, and chedvah – manifestations of enjoying this world for short term purposes, as evidenced by “adash” the adashim by Esav, will be in a situation of be’acah, ba chov – the debt will have to paid – meaning that this type of ephemeral happiness will ultimately be reckoned for and have to be paid back.
After his son’s funeral, Rav Avrohom zt”l was concerned about one of the attendees receiving a ride home and arranged for his transportation (Agan Hasahar Chelek Beis).
It says in Bereishis 23:2, “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is in Chevron, in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry over her.” It seems from the Passuk that Avraham did the opposite of what most people do. Most people first cry over the Niftar and then give their Hesped.
Why did Avraham do it in this order? Another question is why is the letter כ in the word ולבכתה written in a small size?
Maavor Yabok answers the question with the following explanation. The eulogy for the deceased serves an important purpose. The reason we have Hespedim is because it is very crucial for the person who was Niftar that the people listening as well as crying are opening the Gate of Tears, while redirecting the Din away from the Niftar. The Gemara in Berachos 32B says that Hashem never closes the Gate of Tears. In truth, the focus for the crying and the sadness that one is feeling should be focused on the spiritual loss of the person’s Neshama and not on the physical loss of the person’s body.
The Zera Shimshon says that the Torah wrote the letter כ small in the middle of the word to show that Avraham held back from crying over of the physical and only exhibited sadness regarding the loss of Sarah’s spiritual essence as well as his partner in life in making the world realize that Hashem is in the world, which was the subject of his eulogy.
There happens to be another explanation of why the Torah does not mention Avraham Avinu crying for his wife before the Hesped. We all know that when one hears about a tragic loss of a loved one, that tears come to their eyes automatically as this is a normal human reaction to a loss or tragedy. When Avraham Avinu learned that his beloved wife Sarah had passed away, he too had this reaction. This type of reaction was not considered an act of crying or mourning the death of Sarah Imenu, for this is what happens to everyone who hears tragic news. What the Torah is doing is explaining that Avraham Avinu’s reaction and the fact that he cried for his wife was something much greater and more meaningful than the natural reaction that every individual has when he/she is confronting a loss.
It is for this very reason that the Torah uses the word ולבכתה is to let all of us know that even after the days of mourning were over Avraham Avinu continued to cry for Sarah Imeinu every time he recalled all her good deeds, involvement in her household, and her fear of Hashem. It was this type of memory that would cause his eyes to well up with tears as well as when anyone mentioned her name, this even after the funeral, Hespedim and burial.
The question is, can we say the same thing about ourselves? We should also take this prime example from Avraham Avinu that this is how one should react when one hears about another Yid passing. Whether you knew the person or not, it is a loss for all Klal Yisroel as each one of us is an important component that makes up our Nation. With this we can connect ourselves with one another and reach a level of Achdus and herald the Final Geulah.
Tonight’s vaad was based on the sefer Orchos Yosher by R’ Chaim Kanievsky.
The gemara at the end of Mesechta Sanhedrin tells of many Torah scholars who were very wicked people despite their great wisdom in Torah. The purpose of those stories is to demonstrate that knowledge of Torah is no guarantee that a person will perform good deeds. A deed is defined as “good” if it follows the dictates of the Torah.
How can we ensure that our learning of Torah will make us good people? The answer to this question can be found in the commentary of the Medrash Shmuel to a mishnah in Pirkei Avos.
The Medrash Shmuel notes a contradiction between a baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin and a famous mishnah in Pirkei Avos. A baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin states emphatically that Torah study takes precedence over performing good deeds since Torah study automatically leads a person to the performance of good deeds. On the other hand, a famous mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us that it is possible for a person to have great wisdom in Torah and at the same time not perform its dictates. To quote the words of the mishnah verbatim: “If a person’s Torah wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his Torah wisdom will not endure.” How can these two sources be reconciled?
The Medrash Shmuel offers a profound insight into the aforementioned mishnah in Pirkei Avos that clearly reconciles the apparent contradiction. The Medrash Shmuel notes that the mishnah describes the individual not as someone who doesn’t perform mitzvos altogether, but rather as someone whose good deeds are merely “exceeded” by his Torah wisdom. In other words, he only performs those commandments of the Torah that appeal to his sense of reason. His deficiency is that he does not really believe in the Divine origin of the Torah. Therefore, his Torah wisdom does not have any real value.
The proper attitude that one must have when he learns Torah is that he is learning the Torah that was transmitted directly by G-d at Mount Sinai, and therefore it is true, and therefore he will perform its dictates whether or not they appeal to his sense of reason. The baraisah in Mesechta Kiddushin is dealing with a person who learns Torah with such an attitude.
This profound insight of the Medrash Shmuel sheds light on five other questions:
Pirkei Avos begins with a detailed description of how our mesorah was transmitted from Moshe Rabbeinu at Mount Sinai throughout the rest of the generations. Why are those details so important? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to begin the Mesechta with the basic principles of Judaism?
The gemara in the first mishnah in Perek Chelek in Sanhedrin tells us that a person who denies the Divine origin of the Torah has no share in the next world. What is the significance of this sin?
The gemara in Mesechta Avodah Zarah tells us that one who learns but doesn’t perform mitzvos is comparable to a person who doesn’t have a G-d. What is the connection between these two qualities?
In the famous story of Chanukah, the Greeks had no intention to exterminate the Jewish people. They merely wanted to destroy the sanctity of the Torah. What was the significance of this conflict?
The gemara tells us in Mesechta Kiddushin and Mesechta Chagigah that Elisha ben Avuya left the Jewish faith after he saw two disturbing incidents. In one incident he saw a young man die a tragic death as a result of following his father’s command to perform the great mitzvah of sending away the mother bird before taking its young. In the other incident he saw the tongue of a great Torah scholar being dragged in the mouth of a dog or a pig. Elisha ben Avuya was convinced that such tragedies and atrocities could not take place if there was really a G-d in the world and therefore rejected his faith. What do we learn from these incidents?
The significance of Pirkei Avos beginning with a detailed description of the Torah’s transmission from Mount Sinai is to emphasize that Torah study only has value if a person recognizes its Divine origin.
The significance of the sin of denying the Divine origin of the Torah is that one thereby destroys the entire foundation of the Torah.
One who learns Torah but doesn’t perform mitzvos is comparable to someone who doesn’t have a G-d because, if he really believes that the Torah he learns has a Divine origin, he would automatically come to perform the mitzvos.
The Greeks tried so desperately to destroy the sanctity of the Torah because they knew that it was the kedushah (sanctity) of the Torah that gave it its value.
Elisha ben Avuya made the mistake of believing that he had to understand everything. He refused to acknowledge that G-d’s wisdom is too profound for a human mind to fathom.
The gemara in Mesechta Chagigah presents an apparent difficulty to the insight of the Medrash Shmuel: The gemara tells us that Rabbeinu HaKadosh was punished for referring to Elisha ben Avuya as a wicked person. What was more disparaging about Rebbi’s comment than the very mishnah in Pirkei Avos? Furthermore, how could the gemara in Chagigah indicate that Elisha ben Avuya had a share in Olam Hobah if the mishnah in Sanhedrin indicates otherwise?
The answer to this question is that Elisha ben Avuya repented at the end of his life (Yerushalmi). Thus, he no longer fell in the category of the mishnah in Avos of someone whose Torah wisdom exceeds his goods deeds and maintained his share in Olam Hobah through accepting the Divine source of the Torah.
One final difficulty: If the value of Torah study is that it brings a person to the fulfillment of good deeds, what is the interpretation of the gemara’s maxim of “expound and receive reward” in Mesechta Sanhedrin? Why should a person be rewarded for studying the halachos of the rebellious son, the wayward city, and house tzaraas if these halachos can never be applied in practice? The answer to this question, given to me by R’ Shapiro in Bayswater, is that there are two purposes to Torah study. While the primary purpose of Torah study is that it should lead to the performance of good deeds, Torah study is also an end in itself. The baraisah in Kiddushin only meant to indicate why Torah study is greater than performing good deeds, not the entire purpose of Torah study.
Oil is probably the most politically incorrect of all liquids. It simply refuses to compromise its uniqueness.
If oil were a person it would almost certainly be condemned for its stubborn unwillingness to blend in with others. It chooses to remain aloof, separate and distinct. Mix it with water and it stays apart and maintains its own identity.
No matter how hard you try, oil stays true to itself and just won’t assimilate.
Perhaps that’s why it deserved to become the ultimate symbol of the Chanukah miracle.
When we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks, we need to remember what was really at stake in this major confrontation. This was a war unlike any other. It wasn’t fought to conquer more territory. It wasn’t meant to capture more booty or bodies. This was ultimately a conflict between two totally different ways of viewing the world.
The story of Chanukah is all about a clash of cultures. The Greeks weren’t out to kill the Jews. Their intent wasn’t genocide of a people. It was rather a battle against those who threatened their commitment to hedonism, their infatuation with the body, their obsession with athletic competitions to prove superior worth. In these they found beauty – and the very meaning of life.
Keats summed up well the Greek ideal in his magnificent Ode On A Grecian Urn:
For beauty is truth and truth is beauty; that is all ye know and all ye need to know
What the Greeks worshiped was the holiness of beauty. What the Jews wanted to teach the world instead was the beauty of holiness.
It was the battle between these two ideas that defined the war of the Maccabees. Sad to say, there were Jews who were seduced by the seductive wiles of secularism and forsook their ancient heritage. They sold their blessings for a mess of pottage. They renounced the message of the prophets for the glory of the games. They chose the temporary rewards of the body over the eternal blessings of the spirit. They are known as the Hellenists. They assimilated – and haven’t been heard from since.
The victory of the Maccabees was the triumph of those who exemplified the unique characteristic of oil and refused to assimilate, and instead chose to remain steadfast in our mission to bring the moral vision of Judaism to the world.
That is what makes the story of the Maccabees so very relevant to our time.
In the past we’ve been witness to a rather bitter debate about a provocative advertising campaign sponsored by an Israeli Ministry. It seems that the Ministry of Absorption thought it would be a good idea to convince Israeli expatriates living in the United States to come back home by dramatizing the risk of assimilation of their children and grandchildren in the Diaspora. The theme of the ads promoted the idea that living outside of the Jewish homeland threatened their link with the Jewish past, with Jewish tradition and with Jewish culture.
That led to huge fireworks. A prominent Jewish spokesmen declared, “I don’t think I have ever seen a demonstration of Israeli contempt for American Jews as obvious as these ads.” Critics assailed the campaign as a vicious attack on “the Jewishness” of all those outside of Israel.
So strong was the hue and cry of outrage that the ads were quickly removed. The campaign obviously touched a delicate nerve. In what may very well have been viewed as an over wrought slander on the possibility of Jewish life outside of Israel, the reaction nevertheless vividly demonstrated the powerful fear generated by the thought of assimilation.
And if the ads were wrong because of the way they seemed to differentiate between life in America as opposed to Israel, their message should surely be acknowledged as a wake-up call to Jews no matter where they may be living.
Because the bottom line is that after more than 2000 years, the spirit of the Maccabees seems to be losing in its battle to prevent Jews from assimilating into a fervent embrace of secular culture and ideology.
The Greeks gave us the Olympics. In an irony that defies all logic the Maccabees, who fought for the supremacy of the Temple over the sporting arena, were chosen as the name for the Maccabiah, the international Jewish athletic event similar to the Olympics held in Israel every four years.
Athletic contests are wonderful venues for physical recreation. They cease to be admirable when they take over our lives, as they sometimes do, not only in professional settings but even in collegiate contexts.
Please don’t distort what I’m saying. Sporting events are fine if they are understood as adjuncts to a spiritual life. But when they become an end unto themselves, we adopt a foreign value and assimilate.
Assimilation today takes many forms.
We’ve assimilated when all we want is to party, never to pray.
We’ve assimilated when all we care about is what we look like on the outside, not what we feel like on the inside.
We’ve assimilated when our greatest goals are fame and fortune rather than love and learning.
We’ve assimilated when more than anything else we want to envied by the eyes of our fellow man instead of being treasured in the sight of God.
We’ve assimilated when our chief goal is to accumulate more goods rather than simply to be good.
We’ve assimilated when we are far more interested in our inheritance than in our legacy, by what we get from the past rather than what we give to the future.
We’ve assimilated when we consider our children burdens rather than blessings and when we believe the best things we can give them are valuables rather than values.
Our tradition teaches us to revere the beauty of holiness. That was what the Maccabees fought for as they confronted an alien culture that stressed the body over the soul, the material over the spiritual. That remains our challenge.
Like the oil of the Chanukah story, we dare not assimilate.
As we bring ever greater light into our homes every night with its flame, we affirm our belief that we will succeed. We will maintain our uniqueness that has enabled us not only to survive but to be the torchbearers of morality and civilization for all mankind.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech has been a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University since 1966 and was the Rabbi of Young Israel of Oceanside for 37 years. In addition to his work in the rabbinate, Rabbi Blech has written 19 highly acclaimed books with combined sales of over a half million copies and speaks on Jewish topics to communities around the world.
We say in Ashrei, Malchutcha malchut kol-olamim, umemshaltecha b’chol dor vador. The common explanation of this verse is that, “G-d’s kingdom will last forever, and You (G-d) will rule in all generations.” However, based on drash, we can understand the verse to be saying, “G-d’s kingdom will last forever, but “we” rule You (G-d) in all generations.”
In this week’s parsha, we are familiarized with the language of “dominion” as it says by the episode of Avraham’s swearing of his slave Eliezer, that Eleizer was moshel (ruled) on all of Avraham’s possessions.
This Biblical verse can shed light on the drash in Ashrei because Eliezer was labeled as Avraham’s eved – slave and the verse says that Eliezer ruled over everything. The message is that if you are a true eved you can rule over your master. So too, if we are full-fledged avadim to Hashem, G-d would have no greater pleasure then embracing our rule.
When visiting friends, I remarked that their main floor looked like it had quite a makeover. The wife laughed, saying there was a funny story behind it. “Our living room carpet was old and worn so we took the plunge and chose a replacement for $3,000. Then I realized the paint in the room wouldn’t match and was 15 years old, so we decided to paint the living room. Next, I couldn’t help noticing our old couches. And then there was the adjacent dining room—how would it look next to our new living room? So, we painted the dining room as well. In the end, we had entirely redone our living room with new carpet, paint job and furniture. And our dining room was repainted, a new hardwood floor was installed, and a brand-new dining room table and chairs were purchased. Our modest carpet replacement ended up as a $40,000 makeover!”
I am reminded of this story when I think of the mission Eliezer was sent on by Avraham to find a suitable wife for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer decided on a sign: he would ask an unmarried girl for some water to drink. If she then gave him water and volunteered to draw water for his camels as well, she would be the match for Yitzchak. Soon after, Rivka came by and he asked for a little water to drink from her pitcher. She gave him water, then refilled the pitcher for his whole entourage. Rivka then proceeded to draw buckets and buckets of water to fill the trough for all their camels to drink. Eliezer’s prayer had been answered.
Rav Hirsch explains this was the definitive sign of a future matriarch of the Jewish nation. She possessed the sterling attribute of kindness, part of the Jewish DNA, so she merited to be part of the foundation of klal Yisrael.
The Alter of Novardok asks a penetrating question. Certainly, Rivka demonstrated great hospitality and kindness. But maybe this was the one area in which she excelled, but other aspects of Rivka’s character might not be so praiseworthy.
The Alter of Novardok answers that when someone demonstrates perfection in one area, it shows they are on the path to perfecting other areas as well. Our inner qualities, he says, are all intertwined. Rivka’s display of perfection in the area of chesed (kindness) was proof she aimed for overall perfection. Eliezer was correct: her great chesed at the well showed she was the right mate for Yitzchak to become one of the matriarchs. Just like when someone starts to redecorate a room, it often ends up with an entirely new facelift, so too, when someone demonstrates refinement in one area, it indicates they are refining themselves in all areas.
Let me share another story of perfecting chesed. A close friend in Israel had to have a serious medical procedure to remove a growth. He was advised to have it performed in New York, as they had a technique that could hopefully remove the growth without the need for any other treatments. He managed with help to connect with a top specialist, flying in to visit this doctor at his home on a Sunday afternoon. The doctor reviewed the many scans and advised him that another surgeon from a different hospital would be a better choice to do this special surgery. This kind doctor refused any payment since he would not be performing the surgery, and personally contacted the other surgeon to make the arrangements.
As we were sitting in the waiting room at 6:45 a.m. to meet the other surgeon, the referring doctor walked into the waiting room. We were incredulous! This was a very busy specialist, head of a department in a competing hospital and someone who was not getting paid for this case. What was he doing here? He walked over to us and said, “This surgeon is the best. I want to make sure he is clear on what I recommend, to ensure you have a completely successful surgery without the need for any other treatments and a quick recovery.”
That’s called chesed to perfection. When a person strives for perfection in one area, it leads to a path of striving to perfect all areas.
All of us have areas we struggle with. We all want to improve! Often, we just don’t know where to start and we feel immobilized. The lesson we learn from Eliezer in choosing Rivka is that it doesn’t matter where we start. Start anywhere; once we work on perfecting one area of our character, that positively affects our attitude and approach to all other areas. May we all go from strength to strength.