Nov 13 2015

The Appropriate Blessing


This week we read that Yitzchak (Isaac) wanted to bless his older son Esav, but Yaakov came instead, as advised by his mother Rivka. As a result, both sons were blessed — and though Yitzchak was deceived, he was Divinely Inspired to give each child the right blessing.

In his blessing to Yaakov, Yitzchak says “And G-d should give you from the dew of Heaven and from the fat of the land, much grain and wine” [27:28]. But he blesses Esav by saying “from the fat places of the earth shall be your dwelling” [27:39]. Why does Yitzchok say that G-d should give Yaakov “from” the fat of the land, yet ask that Esav be blessed to always live in fertile places?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains the difference — and that the blessing of Esav is indeed greater, in a way. The word “Elokim” [G-d] refers to the Divine attribute of justice. With regards to Esav, Yitzchak asks that G-d give him blessing whether or not he is truly deserving, but asks that Yaakov receive when it is correct and just.

Yaakov is required to demonstrate a higher level of trust in G-d. Often, Divine Justice is hidden from us. We don’t see the reasons why each person is receiving what is appropriate. But Yitzchak expects Yaakov to accept the Divine Will, and not complain that G-d is being “unjust,” as it were, even if it appears unfair to human eyes. He does not have the same expectation of Esav, and thus asks that Esav have abundance at all times.

Rashi points out that King Solomon learned from this, and pronounced similar blessings when the Temple in Jerusalem was completed. With regards to Israel, he said “give to every man according to his ways, whose heart You know” [I Kings 8:39] — give according to that person’s heart, according to what You know to be true deep inside. But then Shlomo HaMelech says “concerning a stranger that… comes out of a far country for Your Name’s sake” that G-d should “do according to everything that the stranger calls upon You [to do]” [8:41, 43].

Shlomo explains why he asks that G-d fulfill everything the non-Jew asks for during his prayers: “that all the people of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, like your people Israel [do], and to know that Your name is called upon this house which I have built” [8:43].

The People of Israel interacted with G-d directly, so Shlomo HaMelech takes for granted that they will fear G-d, even if G-d gives according to that person’s heart rather than his or her words. But Shlomo knows that if an idolator makes an offering to G-d and his request goes unanswered, and then he makes an offering to an idol and what he asks for actually happens, then the idolator might reach the conclusion that the idol actually has power, power that G-d does not!

The Jewish nation is expected to trust G-d and follow Him at a “higher standard.” Both Yitzchak and Shlomo ask G-d to favor the requests of all the people of the earth — even more than He favors the prayers of His own nation (!) — in order that every person on earth comes to recognize his or her Creator.

Nov 05 2015

Big Talkers and Big Doers


Career-Tip-10-GraphicAt the beginning of this week’s reading, Sarah passes away and Avraham goes to find a burial place for her. He would like to bury her in the burial place of Adam and Chava (Eve), which is the Cave of Machpela near Hebron. So he goes to the Hittites to ask for that cave.

The Hittites show him great respect and deference, because he was renowned. And when he asks about a burial place, the Hittites tell him “you are a prince of G-d among us, in the best of our gravesites should you bury your dead; no man among us would withhold his gravesite from you, for burying your dead.” [Gen. 23:6]

Rabbi Yisroel Mayer Kagan zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, asks: if this was their response, why did Avraham find it necessary to ask for the specific field from Efron, or to even speak with Efron about it? If they told him to take any site he wished, why did he need to negotiate further?

The Chofetz Chaim answers: Avraham knew that if he would go to any particular place, the owner of that field would suggest a different one. Avraham needed to negotiate with the owner of that site, so that he wouldn’t be pushed off when he went to the place he wanted.

We see that Efron, as an individual, engaged in similar behavior. First he told Avraham to take the field, then he hinted to a price, and then he took the price in international currency — in that era, currency that could be used in different places was much more valuable than “local” currency.

Efron shows us that Avraham was right not to trust the Hittites answer — for they were big talkers, not big doers. What they promised was much greater than what they delivered. In the Chapters of the Fathers (Chapter 1), Shammai advises us to do just the opposite: “say little, and do much.”

As we all know, there are many people who are big talkers. They claim they can do many things, but at the end of the day nothing happens. And then you have those individuals who are precisely the opposite: they don’t make promises, they just get things done. And we all know with which type of person we would prefer to work!

Using the lesson of the Hittites, and Ephron himself, we learn what not to do. We should strive to deliver more than we say, to be like Shammai rather than Efron.

Oct 30 2015

The Source of Moral Virtue


danfador / Pixabay

It is as predictable as sunrise. At roughly this time of the year, someone claims the mantle of religious authority in order to announce that Avraham “failed” the test of the Akeidah, of sacrificing his son. Why? Because, the speaker insists, Avraham should have told G-d that murder is wrong, and refused to follow the Divine Command.

This neatly turns Judaism on its head.

The Torah teaches us that we are not at liberty to make our own judgments about what is morally justifiable or correct. Why? Because a person judging his or her own moral behavior is similar to the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop. There is a famous adage about Aristotle deviating from his own philosophical principles, and defending his conduct by saying that “now I’m not Aristotle.” Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it is certainly logically consistent — temptation and personal bias can lead a person astray, even from his or her own teaching.

In Avraham’s time, child sacrifice was a common practice. He was the one who recognized the authority of a single G-d over Heaven and earth, rose to the level of prophecy, and, with his prophetic insight into G-d’s Will, taught humanity the principle that every life is sacred.

The supreme test of Avraham’s loyalty was to ask him, in one fell swoop, to do away with decades of teaching about proper moral behavior, a career encouraging belief in the one true G-d, the son who was following in his path, and the promise of generations of descendents. He was called upon to destroy everything he had worked for in his entire life, and what did he say? “Hineni,” I am here. He knew that what he thought about morals and virtue, and all his other biases and wants, must be set aside in favor of what G-d demands of him.

It is precisely that commitment to place G-d’s morality ahead of our own judgment that has enabled us to follow Jewish values under incredibly trying circumstances. Where did we get the strength necessary? We inherited it from our fathers!

Oct 23 2015

Out of the Comfort Zone


on-the-moveDo you like your house? “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” It is human nature to find comfort in familiar surroundings, friends and neighbors, even habits.

What does G-d tell Abraham? Go. Leave your home, go out “from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your fathers.” And to where will Abraham be going? “To the land which I will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

All Abraham knows is that wherever he is going, it’s where G-d wants him to be. For Abraham, that is enough, which is what makes him the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. His closeness to G-d, his spirituality, is his priority.

Have you heard the expression, “no pain, no gain?” It actually comes from the Chapters of the Fathers, at the end of the 5th chapter: “Ben Hei Hei says: according to the pain is the reward.”

People often use this expression with regards to sports and building muscle. But in that realm, this simple adage can often be terrible advice. It’s possible to strain and cause permanent injury by doing something until it’s painful.

Maimonides reminds us that the Chapters of the Fathers were written by Sages rather than personal trainers. Ben Hei Hei was talking about Torah. The more one tries to understand, the more one delves into learning in order to internalize Torah, the greater the reward.

This is part of what makes Torah unique. The reward is not based upon how much knowledge one acquires, how great one becomes. The reward is based upon how hard you try.

G-d tells Abraham: I need you to leave your comfort zone. I need you to make efforts to come to me. I need you to make changes in your life. And without a second thought, Abraham follows — so much so, that the Torah records Abraham as describing himself as “walking before G-d!” [see Gen. 24:40]

This is what spiritual growth is all about — leaving our comfort zone, to be closer to G-d. And thanks to the strength bestowed upon us by our forebears, G-d knows we are up to the task. We merely need to put one foot in front of the other, to make the effort to go towards Him.

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