Friday, November 23, 2012

Parshat Vayetze - פרשת ויצא

"וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep."
(בראשית כח:יא)

One of the focal events of this week's Parsha happens when Ya'akov lies down to go to sleep. He dreams a dream, in which he sees a ladder above him and also receives prophecy that the entire land of Israel would become an inheritance for Am Yisrael.

Many commentators on the Parsha choose to discuss the exact details and the precise meaning of these events, but a seemingly "minor" point is the focus of this D'var Torah. Rashi points on the verse above that the words, "וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא - And [Ya'akov] lay down in that place to sleep" are an expressed in a way that suggests a measure of limit. Rashi goes on to explain that whereas here Ya'akov lay down to sleep, for the duration of previous fourteen years, when he learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, he refrained from going to lie down to sleep.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes the words of Kovetz Sichot by Rav H. Shmulovitz, that after Ya'akov's fourteen years restless pursuit of Torah, he doesn't go to sleep on a plush king-size bed with soft cushions. No, he lies down on the ground. He does prop up his head, but with what - a rock?

Moreover, Ya'akov takes more rocks and sets them around his head in order to protect himself "from wild beasts." Here too, we have a problem as Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm points out. Why would a few rocks stop an animal from getting to Ya'akov while he sleeps - surely the rocks could be knocked away with ease.

The answer to be found is a lesson taught by Ya'akov's behaviour. Ya'akov's actions are an example in how to conduct oneself; after massive sleep deprivation, Ya'akov realised that if one pushes himself to the limits, he can do tremendous things. As such, he was able to deal without sleeping properly for all this time. Indeed, Ya'akov has conquered his natural desires and instincts to the extent that after this episode, he felt no need to use anything more than a few rocks to lie on. Similarly, when he placed these stones around his head, ostensibly to protect himself from animals, he was fully aware that they didn't offer proper protection.

Seemingly happy with this relatively insecure barrier, Ya'akov goes on, in the opinion of at least one commentary, to enjoy his best ever night's sleep that night. It seems that he was completely satisfied in his act of השתדלות (acting in a way to demonstrate one's commitment to a cause while accepting that one's own role is always beneath that of God). Nevertheless, the assertion that he was entirely comfortable with this most minimal of safeguards remains troubling. To resolve this difficulty we have to understand that Ya'akov chose to employ this simple barrier in the knowledge that in reality, everything that one does is essentially a miracle. Man is incapable of doing anything himself - he is only permitted to by God. As such, Ya'akov knew that he had no need to place stones around his head. The reason he put them there was to reduce the miracle, as it were. His action was an attempt to limit the need for a miracle. We may tender that in this merit, Ya'akov deserved to experience the bigger miracle of waking up to see the multiple stones unite to become one.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Parshat Toldot - פרשת תולדות

This week's Parsha opens with the words, "וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son: Avraham begot Yitzchak."

There is a golden rule in the study of Torah that, as the Torah is perfect, there are no supefluous words anywhere. Each and every word has a meaning. Why, therefore, are we twice told that Yitzchak was Avraham's son?

Rav Machlis of Ma'alot Dafna in Jerusalem proposes an interesting insight as to why the seemingly needless repetition is warranted. The first mention, "יִצְחָק בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם," is meant to refer to Yitzchak. We may learn from these words that Yitzchak defined himself as "Yitzchak, the son of Avraham." Yitzchak's respect and love for his father extended to him determining himself by his father.

The next phrase, "אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק - Avraham begot Yitzchak" can be understood as Avraham, the father, referring to himself by mentioning his son. While it is inspiring for the son to realise his position by defering to his father, I find it beautiful, and rather poetic, that Avraham Avinu found himself to be fulfilled through his son. Of course the positions of father and son should never be confused, and the son must always defer to the father, but I personally find this expression of mutual love and respect in Avraham and Yitzchak's relationship to be a true measure of the appreciation and depth of their love for one another.

Another interesting phenomenon I'd like to point out comes in response to an academic article I read last year during my studies. Written by feminist Susan Moller-Okin, the rhetorical question (more of an attack, really,) is asked why we read of "all those endless begats" such as the one found above, whereby a father (Avraham in our case) has a son (Yitzchak here), born to him without the mother being mentioned at all. When I first heard this, it really bothered me. Truth be told, it still does, but I'm sure that I'll find an answer if I do my searching. People told me that while it is clear that we wouldn't write things in such a way today, at the time that Avraham lived, women were very much marginalised by society. Whether the Torah is divine or not, (and I firmly believe that it is,) it was suggested to me that we can "excuse" this uncomfortable phrase as a sign of times past.

Nevertheless, reading through the parsha this last week, I realised something that does provide an answer of sorts to the allegation that Judaism is intrinsically sexist and discriminatory. Only a few verses after the one quoted above, we read that, " וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב - Yitzchak loved Esav, for trapping was in his mouth; and Rivkah loved Ya'acov."

It is intriguing to note that the two parents developed favourites at all, but I'd like to focus on the fact that while Yitzchak chose Esav, Rivkah favoured Ya'akov. Rivkah chose the 'right' son - the son from whom the Jewish people would emanate, the son who would turn out to be righteous. Responding to claims that Judaism is entirely discriminatory to women, it is important to note that no excuses are given for Yitzchak's "misjudgment" - women are regarded as typically being more insightful and in possession of the trait of בינה, proper understanding. I think that the right conclusion to draw is that there are no explanations given for this simple verse because none are really needed. Yitzchak, great as he was, could never have a woman's perception and understanding. During the Shmonah Esrei we speak of the three forefathers, but we don't mention the four foremothers. But this absolutely doesn't mean that they are of no value, that they had no contribution, and that we don't learn things from them. A glance further ahead in this week's parsha bears that out: Ya'akov, whom we learn represented absolute truth, was forced to bend somewhat after his mother compels him to disguise himself in order to "steal" a bracha from under his brother's nose. It is important not to underestimate the strength of Rivka's role here. She hoodwinked her own husband and forced her son to act against his will, but for a very good reason - she perceived that which the male characters couldn't. Without her guidance this whole episode could never have happened. Although it might seem as if women's roles are very low, if we closely analyse events and view them as a chain, rather than as isolated occurences, we may see just how vital women's contributions are. On a personal note, I may not have all the answers, but I feel that if I learn more about this, there are answers to be found.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Parshat Chayei Sarah - פרשת חיי שרה

"ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything."

This week's Parsha begins with Avraham Avinu setting out to bury his wife, Sarah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes in Michtav M'Eliyahu that out of all the challenging events in Avraham's life this episode was the most troubling. He had just passed the test of the Akeidah, whereby he intended and prepared himself to slaughter to his only son on God's word, and now he hears that his beloved wife had passed away.

Avraham set out to bury his wife in a spot in Hevron that we now call "Ma'arat Hamachpela," in a manner that was befitting of such a righteous woman. Unfortunately though, the people of Hevron, the Chitites, knew that Hashem had given Avraham the land of Israel and did their best to inflate the price. The leader, Efron, was a base man who at first told Avraham that he would give the land away for nothing but when Avraham told Efron that he wanted to pay for the burial plot, Efron raised the price well over the acceptable rate. The Yalkut Lekach Tov notes that Efron's name is composed of the root letters "עפר," - dust. Dust is common and representative of the physical; exactly Efron's nature - all he cared about was that which was physical. Efron's initial "polite" refusal to accept any money was soon revealed to be a front for his true nature. (Indeed, toward the end of this episode, the letter ו is dropped from עפרון's name so that it spells "עפרן," which we may note happens to be numerically equivalent to עין-רע; evil eye.)

In the face of this, and despite his intense pain at his wife's passing, Avraham remained calm, respectful and truly polite. He even bows twice to the Chitites. His behaviour is a real lesson for us to learn - even when in the most terribly depressing moment of his life, Avraham was staunchly pious. While it would be hard for us to emulate him, we can learn from his actions.

Later on in the Parsha, we read, "ואהברהם זקן בא בימים וה' ברך את אברהם בכל - And Avraham became old of age and Hashem blessed Avraham with everything." The word everything seems a bit vague. What is intended? The stock answer is that בכל has a gematria of 52. The word בן, son, also has a gematria of 52 and so we learn that Avraham's reward was his son, Yitzchak.

There's a problem with this though - Yitzchak was born years ago! Another way to read this word resolves our problem. בכל, "with everything," can instead be replaced with בן, but not in the sense of a son. Rather we can read it to mean "with the number 50." Without going too far into things I don't understand myself, I have learned that Kaballah (Jewish mysticism) teaches us that the number 50 has a special significance. There are 50 levels of Kedushah, spiritual levels in which we may ascend. For this reason, for example, we count 50 days until the festival of Shavuot, each day ascending a spiritual level, so that we may arrive at the pinnacle of holiness. Avraham's blessing here was not merely that he was given a son, but also that he attained this fiftieth level of holiness. In that sense, he was completed and we can say that Hashem truly blessed Avraham בכל - with everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Parshat Vayera - פרשת וירא

"ויֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ - And said: 'My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant."
(בראשית יח:ג)

The words above form Avraham's request of God after his circumcision: please don't leave me now, even though I have to leave.

The days after a circumcision are supposed to be the most painful, with the pain at its most intense on the third day. Although the pain was great, Avraham was preoccupied with other things; he was desperate to welcome guests into his tent, and sat watching for weary travellers he could welcome in to his abode.

But if we think about this situation over, something seems amiss. Avraham was sitting in the presence of God, and yet he was searching for people he could bring into his house. What more could he need? Surely being with Hashem is better than being with mere mortals!

The Talmud in Gemara Shabbat (127) learns from this episode that: "מכאן שגדולה הכנסת אורחים יותר מקבלת פני השכינה - from here [we know] that hosting guests is more [important] than receiving the heavenly presence." This still leaves a question, though. How did Avraham know how he should act?

In the book Mayanei HaTorah (a compilation of various teachings) a few Rabbis point out the answer to this question. We have to recognise that Avraham Avinu was a tremendous person. He devoted his life Torah and becoming close to Hashem and he had an incredible level of control over his natural desires and instincts. Avraham was so accustomed to defeating his own will and attuned to Hashem's that his body gravitated towards doing mitzvot. When there was an opportunity for performing a mitzvah, he would find that his body "wanted" to take him there. Avraham was aware that his body wanted to take him there, and so he came to the realisation that the proper conduct was in fact to leave Hashem's presence and seek out people to take into his home.

Personally, I learn a great deal from this. If ever there was an example in the whole Torah of the lengths to which we have to go to make other people happy, this is it. To Avraham, nothing in the world mattered more than being with God. Yet he understood that to become closer with God, there are times when one has to do the simple things.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!