Thursday, October 29, 2015

499 - Vayeira

The parsha begins with Avraham inviting three angels guised as Arabs into his house and offering them a royal feast. The Torah describes the encounter in great detail thereby revealing an entire handbook for the proper performance of chessed. While most of the narrative focuses on the way a host should treat a guest, the story ends with the chessed a guest should perform with his host.

After the angels finished their meal, they asked Avraham where Sarah was, and he responded that she can be found inside the tent. Rashi explains that the angels certainly knew where Sarah was. The intent of their query was merely to endear Sarah to Avraham. Their question would prompt his answer, "She is in the tent," thusly highlighting her middah of modesty. Avraham's articulation of Sarah's qualities would bring him an added level of appreciation for his wife.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Parshas Vayeira 18:9) comments that it is amazing to think that there was a necessity to endear Sarah to Avraham. Chazal tell us that when Avraham married Sarah he was twenty five years old. When the angels paid their visit he was ninety nine - nearly seventy five years after their wedding. Endearing one's wife upon her husband would seem to be something necessary for a couple who were just married as opposed to a couple many years past their golden anniversary! Nevertheless, the Torah tells us that an essential aspect of marriage is ensuring that the husband and wife appreciate each another.

Interestingly enough, writes Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol. II p. 281), the closer the relationship between two people, the more difficult it is to show and voice appreciation for each other. The pair becomes so used to each other's contributions toward their relationship, that they begin thinking that the other party is indeed obligated to contribute all that he does. Thus, he is blamed if he fails to provide these services. This puts a damper on their relationship.

This is an idea which is particularly important in marriage. The house is a place of mutual chessed. Whether the husband works or learns, he spends his days toiling to bring material or spiritual sustenance into the house. The wife spends her days taking care of the house and looking after their children. Each of them must constantly find ways to show their appreciation of their spouse for all that they do. Focusing on the many things the spouse does, as opposed to focusing on the few things that they do not do, brings one to appreciate the numerous qualities of their spouse and the many contributions that they make. If the angels felt it necessary to endear Sarah to the elderly and holy Avraham, we can be certain that acknowledgment and appreciation of a spouse's qualities is imperative to a good marriage no matter how long one is married!

498 - Lech Lecha

When Avraham was already an elderly man, he received the long awaited tiding that he would bear children. The Torah tells us, "He believed in Hashem and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Bereishis 15:6). Rashi explains that the fact that he believed that he would bear children was a merit. The Ramban contends that there must be a different explanation because Avraham heard a prophecy directly from Hashem to this end, so what was so great about the fact that He believed what he heard straight from G-d? The Maharal counters that perfect belief isn't so simple because we find that even Moshe was taken to task after hitting the rock as the pasuk tells us, "Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the nation..." (Bamidbar 20:12). In light of this, Avraham's total belief was indeed meritorious.

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Noach 7:7, Alei Shur vol. II pg. 338) elaborates that there are many levels of emunah. While we might refer to emunah simply as believing that there is a Creator, this is only the most basic level of emunah. The Torah is discussing a much greater level of emunah. Avraham believed in Hashem that he would bear children when all of nature belied such a possibility. He and his wife were well past their childbearing years, and moreover, Chazal tell us that Sarah did not even have the physical organs needed to bear children! The scientific impossibility did not sway Avraham even an iota from complete faith in what he was told.

In contrast, in Parshas Noach we read how Noach was forced into the teivah by the rainwater heralding the beginning of the deluge. Rashi (Bereishis 7:7) comments that Noach was lacking in emunah. He did not believe with full certainty that the flood would come, and consequently, he did not enter the teivah until the intensity of the rains precluded the possibility of him staying outside. He, too, had received his information regarding the future via a prophecy directly from Hashem. Nevertheless, he needed to experience something tangible in order to truly believe that the prophecy would come to fruition.

One who possesses total belief in Hashem's word, believes in everything Hashem said even if he has not heard the prophecy himself. His belief is so ironclad that he is even willing to put his life on the line should the need arise. The Gemara (Gittin 56b) relates that during the siege of Yerushalayim just prior to the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh, R' Yochanan ben Zakkai arranged a secret meeting between himself and the Roman general Vespasian. As they met, he extended his greetings, "Peace unto you, king." Vespasian replied that such a greeting warrants the death penalty because it implied that he had rebelled against the reigning emperor and wished to coronate Vespasian in his stead! R' Yochanan replied that indeed he must be a king, because Chazal inferred from a pasuk that the Bais Hamikdosh would be destroyed only by a king. (Immediately thereafter, a messenger arrived from Rome with the news that the emperor had died and the higher echelons in the Roman government decided to coronate Vespasian as his successor!) The fact that R' Yochanan saw a general in front of him did not influence his behavior in any fashion. He was willing to valiantly address Vespasian as king; knowing that had he erred, his mistake would be fatal.

This idea has many practical applications for every one of us, and is especially relevant in light of the terror attacks in Israel. Earlier in this week's parsha, after the war with the four kings, we read how Avraham agreed to accept payment for the food eaten by the soldiers who fought the war and those who sat watching the vessels. Rashi infers that those who fought in battle and those who manned the base received equal portions of the spoils. Accordingly, David Hamelech would apportion the spoils of the battles that he fought, in a similar fashion.

Why do they both deserve the same amount of booty? Doesn't the soldier fighting the war deserve more than those sitting effortlessly at the base? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, Lech Lecha 14:24) cites the meforshim in Shmuel (I, 30:24) who explain that soldiers only deserve more if they are fighting a "natural" war. However, when wars are fought by Hashem, it makes no difference who puts in more or less effort, so long as each person is doing what is incumbent upon him to do. Thus, while the soldiers are the ones holding the weapons, it is us who have the ability to bring them (and all the civilians) home safely each night. If our emunah would be concrete and we genuinely believed that, although it appears as if the guns decide the outcome, the truth is that our Torah and tefillah call the shots, then our prayers would be with an intensity that rivals the intensity of a soldier in battle!

497 - Noach

Following Noach's exodus from the teivah, the Torah tells us, "Noach became mundane and planted a vineyard" (Bereishis 9:20). Chazal (Bereishis Rabba 36:4 cited by Rashi) explain that he should have first planted wheat or another more essential food. In other words, the planting of the vineyard was not a problem per se; rather, the planting of other crops should have taken priority and only afterward should he have planted a vineyard. Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) comments that an error simply in the proper order of events, caused Noach - referred to earlier in the parsha as "righteous and pure" - to become mundane!

It appears that acting with seder (proper orderliness), is not merely an added plus, it is an imperative aspect of one's avodas Hashem. Chazal tell us (Shabbos 31a) that when one arrives in the Next World, the very first questions he is asked are, "Were you honest in your business dealings?" and "Did you designate time for learning?" However, in Sanhedrin (7a) Chazal assert that the judgment in the Next World focuses first not on a person's honesty in business; rather it focuses on one's Torah learning.

Tosafos deals with this seeming contradiction, and explains that the Gemara in Sanhedrin is referring to someone who had not learned Torah at all, while the Gemara in Shabbos deals with someone who learned Torah but did not set aside a specific time for Torah study. While he might have studied Torah regularly, he is judged specifically whether or not he set aside a designated time for learning, because seder is so crucial. Whether the subject is planting crops or learning Torah; random performance leaves room for error.

Furthermore, in tefillas ma'ariv we praise Hashem for, "setting the stars in a specific order in their heavenly constellations as He wills." Orderliness testifies to the will and intent of the one who arranged the order. (Parenthetically, Rav Wolbe adds, that this idea is one of the clearest proofs that there is a Creator. The fact that the entire universe is arranged so methodically and all of nature runs so systematically proves that there must be Someone who organized it all.) If a person lacks orderliness in his Torah study or his avodas Hashem, he must make an honest reckoning whether he has a genuine interest in serving Hashem or perhaps his Torah and mitzvos are performed without a clear sense of direction.

The month of Cheshvan affords us the opportunity to "get back on schedule." For some, the return to Yeshiva or Kollel allows them to designate specific times for Torah learning that might have been lacking during bein hazmanim. For others, the steady weekly schedule of the winter months that was absent during the month of Tishrei, provides them with continuity that enables them to actualize their kabbalos for the new year. Cheshvan is the time to take the spiritual gains of the Yamim Noraim and create seder in our avodah, thereby showing Hashem that it is our true desire to serve Him!

496 - Bereishis

The Torah begins with the account of the six days of creation. On the fifth day Hashem created the animals: "Hashem made the beast of the earth according to its kind, and the animal according to its kind and every creeping being of the ground according to its kind" (Bereishis 1:25). If one would take a cat, raise it in solitary confinement and then set it free, it would establish companionship only with other cats. Did the cat ever see itself in the mirror? How does it know where to find a home? The cat has what we call instinct, but who put the instinct into the cat? Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) explains that when Hashem made all the animals "according to their kind," He gave each animal a spiritual intuition to enable it to determine its own species.

There is no way to deny that the instincts possessed by animals clearly point to the hand of a Creator. A fly lays its eggs in a soft pod and then it bores a hole in the pod, because if it doesn't, the pod will harden and the offspring will not be able to exit their cocoon. There is a type of wasp which lays eggs and covers them with a thin layer of sand to protect them from other creatures. To ensure food for its offspring it catches flies, paralyzes them and leaves them in the nest together with the eggs. It does not kill the flies since they would spoil by the time the eggs hatch! Additionally, pigeons have an extraordinary sense of direction which guides them to their nests. A study was done in Germany where they flew pigeons to Brazil in an airplane and the birds made their way back to Berlin on their own. Then they flew them to London and the story repeated itself! The rooster, armed with an uncanny sense of when dawn is about to break, has acted as an alarm clock for innumerable generations. Who gave these creatures all this knowledge?

In a similar vein, Chazal assert that had the Torah not been given, we would have been able to learn modesty from a cat, and from an ant we would learn not to steal (Eiruvin 100b). The Torah delineates the proper procedure for one who must relieve himself: "You shall have a shovel with your tools, and it will be that when you sit outside, you shall dig with it; you shall go back and cover your excrement" (Devarim 23:14). The cat instinctively does what the Torah instructs us to do. Furthermore, people understand that it is incumbent upon them to refrain from stealing because the Torah restricts it and their intellect understands that it is wrong. Yet, Chazal inform us that most people violate this prohibition in one way or another. In contrast, the ant is instinctively meticulous not to take what does not belong to it! From where do these animals derive these amazing intuitive tendencies?

Instincts in reality are nothing less than clear revelations of Hashem in our world. There is no other explanation for an instinct other than a spiritual asset implanted in them by their Creator. Avraham Avinu discovered the Creator through contemplation of our awesome world, and the Rambam writes that every person could use the world as means of connecting to Hashem. All of creation screams emunah, so long as we do not close our ears to their cry!

495 - Yom Kippur

The following is an excerpt from a letter written by Rav Wolbe (Iggros U'Kesavim vol. II p. 158) to his "dearest loved ones."

The Ramban writes (Vayikra 23:24) that Rosh Hashana can be described as a yom din b'rachamim - predominately a day of strict judgment, yet Hashem adds a measure of compassion to the judgment. In contrast, Yom Kippur is a yom rachamim b'din - a day of abundant compassion notwithstanding the judgment which also takes place. Additionally, by means of the five restrictions of the day, Hashem elevates us to otherworldly levels. Chazal tell us regarding Olam Haba (Brachos 17a), "There is no food, drink, procreation...jealousy, hatred or competition...the righteous sit...and enjoy the radiance of the Shechina;" an apt description for Yom Kippur.

Just as the day is overflowing with Heavenly compassion and love, similarly, Klal Yisrael must act with compassion and love toward one another. Accordingly, Chazal tell us that a lack of love can have serious repercussions, for Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between man and his fellow man unless the offended party is appeased (Yoma 85b). Thus, the most essential preparation for this holy day is for people to forgive and appease each other, and the more one does in this area the more praiseworthy he is. Therefore, I am asking of you: On Erev Yom Kippur please call to wish each other a good and sweet year, appease each other and sincerely forgive each other.

Yes, I know that sometimes a person has feelings of anger bottled up inside himself. The way to quell these feelings and overcome the anger is by arousing feelings of compassion toward the other party - see what I have written in Alei Shur vol. II p. 221. After all, as mentioned, this is the avodah of the day: to arouse feelings of love and compassion toward our fellow man. Moreover, Chazal tell us that Heaven will act compassionately toward one who has compassion on his fellow man - and who does not need a big dose of Heavenly compassion?!

Hence, please prepare for this tremendous avodah which is much greater and more important than searching for white chickens for kaparos and the like. Furthermore, hurry to carry out this endeavor and don't wait for the other party to call you. Rather, you should be the first one to pick up the phone to call. Don't make calculations such as, "I am angry at him, why should I be the one to initiate?" Many have the custom of learning the sefer Orchos Chaim L'HaRosh during these days and he writes (Siman 61), "Do not hold your anger against a fellow Jew for an entire day. Bend over toward him and be the first one to ask for forgiveness." Similarly, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, "Even if he has sinned toward you, you should go to him to obtain appeasement and don't say, 'He wronged me, he should initiate the appeasement.' Rather subdue your yetzer and go over to him" (Sefer Hayirah 175).

Everyone is in need of Heavenly mercy during these Days of Awe, whether it be in the area of health, livelihood, children or any other spiritual or material lacking. What I have written is a wonderful way to arouse mercy upon oneself and his family: be compassionate and merciful toward another person, and run to be the one to appease and make amends. The timing is especially significant, because in light of the seriousness of these days, one often finds that he might not have been as right as he thought he was when the incident occurred in the middle of the year.

My dearest loved ones, I am guaranteeing you that if you follow my instructions you will b'ezras Hashem have a feeling of utmost pleasantness on this Holy Day which is approaching. However, Chazal guarantee that if you follow these instructions, Heaven will have mercy upon you!

May you all be blessed with a sweet year and a bounty of success in body and soul!

494 - Rosh Hashana

The Ramban, in his introduction to the story of Akeidos Yitzchok (Bereishis 22:1), explains the purpose of a nisoyon. A person is tested for his own benefit: so that he can be rewarded for a good deed and not merely a good heart. Although Avraham Avinu succeeded in purifying his heart to the nth degree, nevertheless this greatness remained merely potential (b'koach). The ten nisyonos with which Avraham was tested, were a means of turning his greatness from potential into concrete actions (b'po'el), because the ultimate objective is perfecting one's actions.

Rav Wolbe (Ma'amerei Yemei Ratzon pg. 97) writes, with this in mind let us try to understand the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (2, 13). R' Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his disciples to, "Seek out the proper path to which a man should cling." They returned with various answers: a good eye, a good friend, a good neighbor, one who considers the outcome of his deeds and a good heart. Said R' Yochanan ben Zakkai, "I prefer the words of R' Elazar (who chose a good heart), for your words are included in his words."

The other four responses all focused on tangible actions and a practical way of life (b'po'el). A good eye rids one of much evil. He judges others favorably and he is cleansed from hatred and jealousy. A good friend will perform kindness, share in another's grief, forgive and forget and many other positive middos. A good neighbor surpasses a good friend, for he contains all those qualities and, moreover, he acts beneficially to even those who are not his closest confidantes. Someone who considers the outcome of his actions fears Hashem, and his every action is made with an acute awareness of its ramifications. If so, in what aspect does a good heart, which represents potential (b'koach), supersede all these other positive qualities?

Rav Wolbe explains that a good heart is the best preparation for life, because it encompasses all good actions. The actions are the most important aspect of one's avodah, and they properly portray the goodness of the heart of one who is performing those actions. A lack of an ability to perform reflects a flaw in the "goodness" of the heart. He who truly possesses a good heart will in time come to be a person who possesses a good eye, is a good friend and neighbor, and one who considers the consequences of his deeds. Because Avraham possessed a good heart, he had the ability to pass all ten nisyonos with which he was tested.

Rosh Hashana is the day on which we are supposed to accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heavenly Kingship. Accepting this yoke is akin to possessing the good heart mentioned in the Mishna; it is a general concept that encompasses all aspects of our lives. However, just like a good heart, accepting the yoke of Heaven cannot remain only b'koach - it must translate into actions. We must make an effort to focus on Hashem's loftiness, His Kingship and the great advantage gained by accepting this yoke upon oneself. However, it can't end there. This knowledge must translate into actions, and the b'po'el of accepting the yoke of Heaven fine tunes our middos to act solely in accordance with the will of Hashem.

We should not try to be someone we are not. In each person's specific situation - with his friends and family, his house and necessities - he must make an effort to act in accordance with the will of Hashem. Our actions after Rosh Hashana will mirror the extent to which we accepted the yoke of Hashem on Rosh Hashana!

May we all merit a Kesiva V'Chasima Tova!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

493 - Ki Savo

A large portion of this week's parsha is dedicated to the tochacha (chastisement). Ninety-eight curses in all are spelled out for those who fail to abide by Hashem's commandments. It is scary to read it and even scarier to know that these prophecies all came true when the curses materialized into a reality during the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh (see Ramban to Vayikra 26:16). The severity of middas ha'din is overwhelming and one must stop and ask, "What could possibly be the reason behind all these calamities?"

Rav Wolbe (Daas Shlomo) explains that the world was created with an option for wickedness and iniquity. Our goal is to remain righteous despite the many challenges, temptations and enticements offered by the various evil forces present in the world. When one strays from the proper course, the purpose of middas ha'din is to alert the transgressor that he has veered from the beaten path.

Dovid Hamelech declared, "The judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous" (Tehillim 19:10). Rav Wolbe explains that just as this declaration refers to the rulings and penalties found in the Torah, it applies as well to Hashem's judgments manifested through middas ha'din. The numerous persecutions and expulsions which the Jewish People have suffered over the past two and half millennia are actually the very secret of their survival (Rashi to Devarim 29:12).

Rav Wolbe related a most astounding conversation he once had. He was talking to man who was in Auschwitz and worked near the gas chambers for two years. This man had the terrible misfortune of witnessing complete transports of Jews being led to their deaths. He related that many of the Jews barely even knew that they were Jewish but every single Jew,without exception, cried out at the last second, "Shema Yisrael!" Jews who, had their lives continued peacefully, would have had no chance of earning a proper portion in the next world, due to middas ha'din earned themselves a ticket to Olam Habba in their last moments of life! While it does not explain all the atrocities that occurred, it gives us a whole new outlook on middas ha'din. It drives home the reality that we have no way of comprehending the depth of Heavenly calculations.

Although middas ha'din also strikes the other nations of the world, there is a fundamental difference between their punishments and the punishments meted out to the Jewish Nation. Other nations suffer from middas ha'din only after the fact. When they have already failed their purpose in creation and lost their right of survival, Hashem metes out a punishment that obliterates them from the face of the earth. In contrast, the Jewish Nation is castigated and disciplined before things get too out of hand. The result is that we are punished more than once, but this suffering is the key to our continuity.

The Yomim Ha'Noraim were given to us to prompt us to evaluate if we have veered from the proper path and enable us to straighten ourselves out should the need arise. This yearly occasion prevents the buildup of sin and enables us to start each year with a clean slate. Take a moment to review the various manifestations of middas ha'din this past year: the Har Nof massacre, the Sasson Family tragedy, the Arab hostilities worldwide to mention a few. These jolts might very well have been sent to prompt us to improve our davening, Shabbos observance or our relationships bein adom l'chaveiro.

Chazal tell us (Megillah 31b) that we read the curses in parshas Ki Savo before Rosh Hashana so that "the year and all its curses should end." Our heartfelt tefillah to Hashem is to please put an end to the tragedies - but allow their message to remain. We have an opportunity to clear the slate and start anew. Let us grab the opportunity and run with it before these holy days are behind us!