Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

Why didn’t Avraham bless Yitzchak?
Why was Yitzchak unaware of whom he was actually blessing?
Neither Yaakov nor Moshe required savory dishes before offering their respective blessings.Why did Yitzchak require a savory dish before blessing his son?

Yitzchak, who dined on Esavs game, loved him while Rivkah loved Yaakov.

— Bereishis 25:28

And it was as Yitzchak aged and his eyes grew too weak to see that he summoned his older son Esav and said “My son” and he [Esav] responded “I am here.” … “go out in the field and trap me some game and make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat, so that my soul will bless you before I die.”

— Bereishis 27:1,3-4

And Elokim said “the earth should issue forth flora; seedbearing grasses and trees that are fruits that produce seed infused fruits along species lines upon the earth.” and it (almost) happened. The earth issued forth flora, plants bearing their seedbearing own species and trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits …

— Bereishis 1:11-12

and trees that are fruits [The Divine Creative Will was] that the taste of the tree should be identical to the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth was insubordinate and] did not do so but “the earth issued … trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits,” but the trees themselves were not fruit. Therefore, when man was cursed because of his Original Sin, it [the earth] too was punished for its sin (and was cursed.)

— Rashi Ibid from Bereishis Rabbah 5:9

HaShem Elokim said to Adam “Because you hearkened to your wife’s voice and ate of the Tree regarding which I specifically commanded you ‘Do not eat from it’ the earth will be cursed on account of you. All the days of your life you will eat of it [the earth’s produce] with sorrow. It will sprout thorns and thistles for you … “

— Bereishis 3:17,18

HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  “Eat from all the trees of the garden. And from the Tree of Knowledge /Union of Good and Evil do not eat from it. For on the day that you it from it you will definitely die.”

— Bereishis 2:16,17

The woman saw that the Tree was good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.  She took from its fruits and ate and also gave some to her husband with her — and he ate.

— Bereishis 3:6

… but you shall not sever it; for man is a tree of the field

— Devarim 20:19

The Biskovitzer poses several pointed questions about the brachos-blessings; that Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov, while under the impression that he was Esav:

Why, in fact, did Yitzchak deliver his brachos erroneously and unconsciously? Why was Yaakov’s worthiness for benediction concealed from Yitzchak, the conduit of blessing? Even with his physical vision impairment and the willful blindness caused by his love for his eldest son, as a prophet, Yitzchak could easily have been informed by HaShem that Yaakov is the son deserving of blessing.

We find two other great figures in TeNaK”h who bestowed brachos; Yaakov — first on his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe — and then later, on his deathbed, on his sons. Immediately preceding his death Moshe blessed the Tribes of Israel as well. Yet neither Yaakov nor Moshe requested mataamim-a flavorful dish; in order to elicit their brachos; so why did Yitzchok?

In order to appreciate the Biskovitzer’s approach to resolving these questions we must first examine how some of the great Torah thinkers understood the roots of blessing and curse.

The Original Sin of the first human beings was not merely the first in a long unbroken chain of transgression on the part of humanity; it was qualitatively different from almost all subsequent sins.   The magihah-writer of the annotations; in Nefesh haChaim explains that while the original humans were endowed with bechirah chofshis-free will; there was still a paradigm-shifting difference between their bechirah chofshis and ours.

While our yetzer hara-inclination to evil; is internal and presumes to be, at minimum, a component of our essential identities, the yetzer hara of Adam and Chavah was extrinsic to their beings and distilled, clarified, unadulterated evil. Our yetzer hara’s “pitch” to us is: “here’s what I want to do.”  Whereas the nachash hakadmoni-the primordial snake; said “here’s what I think you ought to do.” The nachash hakadmonis powers of seduction and persuasion were delivered in the second person.  Like a presidential candidate from the opposition party trying to unseat the Incumbent kivyachol-as it were; the nachash hakadmonis exhorted Adam and Chavah to vote for the yetzer and against the Yotzer-the Creator; yet the “voters” never conflated the identity of the opposition candidate with their own.  When they exercised their bechirah chofshis to sin they understood that they were submitting to the will of the nachash hakadmoni — not acting on their own initiative.

However, as the Original Sin was the ingestion of the fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil the first humans incorporated evil into their very beings.  It is not merely that the Original Sin was qualitatively different from all subsequent sins; it was that, by its very nature, it effected that transformation. Man became what he ate, a tangled amalgam of good and evil. For the remainder of their lives Adam and Chavah, and all subsequent generations of human beings (until our patriarchs blazed the trail and the nation of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai) have been conflicted and ambivalent. Even when humans use, rather than abuse, their bechirah chofshis by choosing to do good and shunning evil they are often convinced that they have gone against their own desires. Once internalized, the yetzer hara becomes as inextricably linked with all human thought, speech and deed as a conjoined twin.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner taught that the meaning of the passuk (Koheles 7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on earth, that does good, and doesn’t sin,” is that even the greatest of tzaddikim-righteous people; do good with “something lacking.”  There good is not clarified, distilled unadulterated good. It may be miniscule, but on some deeply concealed subconscious level there is an admixture of self-interest — of a tad less than lishmah-for its own sake; — in even the noblest persons Torah learning and mitzvah performance.

Conversely, Rav Chaim and some other thinkers have argued that there is no evil perpetrated by even the wickedest people that does not incorporate some tiny smidgen of goodness. This is the meaning of the passuk (Iyov 7:20) “If there will be even one angel among a thousand, an advocate, to vouch for a man’s uprightness.” The better angels of our nature may be testifying to a 1 tenth of one percent amount of noble intentions against 99.9% of evil drives and motivations, nonetheless, it is there.

As man is a microcosm, or more accurately as the cosmos is a macro-man, the Original Sin brought about a merging and mixture of good and evil on a cosmic level. An overt manifestation of this effect on the cosmos are the presence of weeds, thorns and thistles growing in the same fields that grow the good, delicious and nourishing produce. The earth cursed through the Original Sin brings forth a jumble of good/nutritious and evil/noxious.

The Biskovitzers approach is predicated on the concept that, after the Original Sin, merely choosing good and rejecting evil is insufficient.  To effect a genuine tikun-repair; of the Original Sin birurim-sifting and selections; must take place. The hodgepodge of good and evil in both the microcosm and the macrocosm must be untangled and clarified. Until and unless evil is distilled and expunged from the muddled fusion, man and the cosmos will not have been rectified. It is not enough to bestow blessing on man still conflicted and ambivalent and on an earth still cursed and pregnant with the thorns and thistles of evil.

When Chavah was first tempted to commit the Original Sin she made three observations: that the Tree was “good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.”   The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:13) says that while Chavah yearned for gratification of the palate, visual stimulation and intellectual satisfaction, Yitzchak declared that he would derive pleasure from taste alone. As he commanded his son “make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat.” Yitzchak was blind and he was ignorant i.e. he lacked knowledge of the factual events surrounding his bestowing of blessing. The Biskovitzer asserts that eliminating the elements of attractiveness to the eyes and the mind that initiated the Original Sin was indispensable to the tikun process.

It is striking and noteworthy that while the Divine Creative Will was that trees and their fruits should share an identical flavor, there was never an expression of the Divine Creative Will that trees and their fruits should share the same qualities of visual attractiveness or extend the same benefit to cognition. Yitzchaks blindness and ignorance of the facts removed two of the three factors of Original Sin. This cut things to the chase by leaving only the element that had been corrupted and broken even before the creation of the human beings; the dissonance in flavor between tree and fruit, between producer and product.

Paradoxically the earth’s anticipatory, pre-Original Sin contained within it the seeds of tikun at the very moment of kilkul-deficiency and ruination; for the Tikunei Zohar (99B) reveals that the Tree of Knowledge itself was entirely good. It was only in the fruits of this tree in which good and evil merged together. The Tree was created as clarified, 100% pure good while its fruits required birurim.  While Adam became what he ate, the Biskovitzer understood the Midrash to be teaching us that Yitzchak became what Adam had never ingested or tasted; the Tree itself. Yitzchak, the bark of the Tree of Knowledge itself, avoided the ill effects of the bite of its fruit. But like the Tree of Knowledge itself, Yitzchak the man-tree bore fruits of good and evil united in utero. These human fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil required birurim.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:6) teaches that Avraham abstained from from blessing Yitzchak because, as both evil Esav and good Yaakov existed within him in potentia, blessing him would have been comparable to cultivating a “tree of life attached to a tree of lethal poison.” Now, in Yitzchak’s advanced age, maintains the Biskovitzer, the time had come for the tikun of the Original Sin by threshing away evil from good and bestowing blessing exclusively on distilled goodness and life. As the Zohar (Volume I, 143A ) reveals, when Yaakov received the blessings the earth finally emerged from its curse. The blessed Yaakov manifests man restored to his pre-Sin state. As death is the wage of Original Sin this is why, per our sages (Taanis 5B) our patriarch Yaakov never died.  Adam is rectified and restored through Yaakov and — as teshuvah and tikun always reach back into the past and modify it — we now have, as the Izhbitzer taught, an alternate narrative and a new reading of HaShem’s command to Adam:  “HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  ‘Eat from all the trees of the garden and [also eat] from the Tree of Knowledge of Good … (And) [But] Evil do not eat from it.’”  Yaakov is that clarified-by-birurim soul of man that reveals retroactively that Adam was nourished exclusively by the good of the Tree.

Only those who are purely good, with no admixture of even the slightest trace of evil, can be safely and truly blessed. To do otherwise is to irrigate and fertilize a field of weeds, thorns and thistles. This is why Yitzchak bestowed a blessing while Avraham did not. When Yitzchak tasted the savory dish that Yaakov and Rivkah had prepared for him he discovered his own fruit with no difference in flavors, the taste of the bark and the taste of the fruit were identical. Yitzchak, needed to be blind to, and ignorant of, the fruit of evil and to discern the uniformity of flavors, and the blessing worthiness of his “fruit” only through his palate.  This is one of the meanings of the gemara (Taanis 8B) that teaches that “blessing is not to be found other than in a thing hidden from sight.”

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Bereishis D”H Vayetzav
Neos Deshe Toldos
D”H Vayehi
Nefesh HaChaim 1:6 in
the Hagahah

Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?

HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.

— Bereishis 18:1

Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre?  [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.

— Rashi ibid

… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …

— Bereishis 17:1,2

This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.

— Bereishis 17:10,11

The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.

— Bereishis 14:13

Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram

— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4

When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you?  Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ?  Do as He commands.

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3

הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world

— Pirkei Avos 4:28

The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”?  What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.

The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.

Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?

Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity?  If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result.  On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.

Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not.  Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27).  Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright.  As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”

As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.

The approach of Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, takes to demystifying the Tanchuma requires some background divrei Torah:

There are three basic, deep-seated drives and yearnings of the human spirit/ psyche: The drive for pleasure and sensual gratification AKA taavah-lust; the drive for control and domination of others AKA kinah-jealousy; and the drive for transcendence and eternal perpetuity AKA kavod-the pursuit of honor.  Honor and transcendence accrue to those who produce progeny. As the passuk (Mishlei 17:6) declares “Children’s children are the tiara of grandfathers.”

All of these drives can be sublimated and harnessed for Avodas HaShem and, in a broad sense; each of the Patriarchs embodies one of these drives that have been refined and distilled into an essence of kedushah-sanctity; and Avodas HaShem. Avram, the pillar of chessed-lovingkindness; is the spiritual “hedonist” who seeks the ineffable pleasure of uniting with his Creator. Yitzchok, the pillar of gevurah-might and self-control; is the holy warrior who fights, controls and dominates his internal foe; the inclination to evil. Yaakov, the pillar of emmes-truth; is the father of twelve tribes and morphs into Yisrael. His progeny, who bear his name, are an eternal Nation that transcends time and space for truth is, by definition, eternal and transcendent.  That which expires and fades away cannot be true. As the passuk teaches “The lip of truth shall be instituted forever” (Ibid12:19).  That said, while each of the Patriarchs may have “specialized” in a particular drive every one of them was motivated by, and refined elements of, all three of these primal drives.

The drives toward pleasure and sensual gratification and for control and domination can metastasize into the pure evils of murder and fornication. In contradistinction, every yearning for transcendence and eternal perpetuity, i.e. honor, is essentially good and holy, it can never devolve into something truly evil.  At worst this drive can be less than perfectly lishmah– for the sake of Heaven. It can sometimes be underpinned by ulterior motives settling for ersatz honor that may outlast the split second but that is not truly eternal.  This helps explain why, in the development of kedushas Klal Yisrael-the holiness of the Nation of Israel; Avram and Yitzchok sired sons who were incarnations of the evils of kinah — culminating in murder (Esav) and taavah — leading to fornication (Yishmael), while all of Yaakov/ Yisrael’s sons were good and holy.

The mystery of HaShem’s covenant of circumcision is veiled in the passuk of “Walk yourself before Me and become perfect.” For we know that this alleged “perfection” was achieved through self-mutilation. The pre-circumcision Avram was imperfect although his entire physical plant was unblemished and intact. The letter hei was added to his name post-circumcision to express his new control of the five limbs/ organs that were beyond his control pre-circumcision  (see Bereishis17:1 Rashi v’heyei.) The covenant of circumcision, accomplished through excision of the foreskin, is an act of addition by subtraction, of perfection through deficit and maiming.

By loving and attaching themselves to Avram, by becoming the masters of his covenant, the three Emorites; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre were drawn to Avodas HaShem and the sublimation of the three primal drives. Aner was drawn to sublimating kinah, Eshkol to refining taavah and Mamre to purifying kavod.  Nevertheless in waging these cosmic, spiritual battles they were never more than the knight/warrior-Avram’s squires and weapons bearers (cp. Rashi Bereishis 14:24).

The Lubliner Kohen explains the Tanchuma in light of Aner, Eshkol and Mamres specialties in terms of the three primal drives. Perhaps subconsciously, the advice that they offer Avram gives voice to their own core motivations and drives. The kinah and taavah sensibilities, especially if not fully refined, can never grasp the mystery of milah-circumcision.  For the desire for control and domination would never countenance even a temporary loss or deficiency.  The kinah drive works under the adage of “dominate or be dominated” and lives in mortal terror of every loss, deficiency or temporary setback.  And so Aner tells Avram “the relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you.” If you do not keep yourself whole and healthy, if you do not press every advantage to dominate and subjugate, then you will be the one who becomes dominated and subjugated.

The drive for sensual gratification is fundamentally narcissistic and selfish. The hedonist is a collector and a hoarder and is especially fond of those collectibles that complete, aggrandize and fulfill the self.  The notion of giving rather than taking, of relinquishing rather than retaining is utterly foreign to the taavah drive. And so when asked for his thoughts on milah Eshkol cries “you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood.”  Any loss is an anathema to the one driven by taavah how much more so when the loss of a body part or the bodily fluid containing the very life-force of the hedonist?

It is only Mamre, informed by kavod — the drive for transcendence; who possesses the sensibility that a temporal loss can result in an eternal gain, that nothing can become perfect unless and until it’s incomplete. On the contrary, being defeated and dominated, unfulfilled and incomplete, are the keys to eternity and deathlessness because, ultimately, the other two drives seek that which cannot endure.  Many of the greatest Emperors, who subjugated millions, saw their empires crumble in their lifetimes. All of them died knowing that their dominion would pass to others. Many of the greatest hedonists aged or were impoverished to a point where they could no longer indulge their lusts. All of them died and lost the sensual coil that they spent a short, blink-of-the-eye lifetime gratifying.  Only honor is transcendent. And so Mamre, whose defining middah was kavod, advised Avram to pursue the temporary loss of milah that would lead to the promise of offspring, the vehicle for deathlessness and undying glory.

~adapted from Neos Deshe Vayra D”H Vayera (the first)
Kometz Haminchah 40

Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

She (Leah) was pregnant once again, and bore a son. She said: “This time let me express gratitude to HaShem.” She named the child Yehudah. Then, she stopped having children.

-Bereshis 29:35

Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children. Rachel was jealous of her sister (Leah) and she said to Yaakov: “Give me children, or else I will die.”  Yaakov became furious with Rachel: “Shall I take HaShem’s place?” he said “It is He who is holding back the fruit of the womb”.

-Bereshis 30:1,2

 There are teachings of Chaza”l that, when measured in the crucible of reality, challenge our emunas chachamim– faith in the Torah sages.  Perhaps none so regularly and personally as this one: “If one were to tell you ‘I have toiled but I have not found- tried hard but have not succeeded’ do not believe him.  ‘I have not toiled but I have found- have not tried but have succeeded’ (again) do not believe him” (Megillah 6B).

How many of us have been frustrated by failure in our personal lives, our academic efforts and/or our careers despite having put forth our very best efforts? Conversely, how many times has unanticipated success come our (or our competitors) way, relatively effortlessly?

The Izhbitzer teaches that our two matriarchs Rachel and Leah, are, to all appearances, the exemplars of these two claims, equally lacking in credibility.   Rachel, after years of heartfelt prayer and buying a “fertility drug” (the mandrakes) was still childless. To that point, her life story had been one that veritably shouted: “I have toiled but I have not found”.   On the other hand, Leah named her fourth son Yehuda as a way of thanking HaShem for having “taken more than my fair share” (Rashi ibid). Taking more than ones fair share is another way of saying “I have not toiled… but I have found”.

But the Izhbitzer tweaks the claims of the sisters and, in so doing, answers our questions. For now, we’ll concentrate on Rachel’s claim that “I have toiled but I have not found”.

Imagine a person wanting to enter a home, banging loudly and repeatedly on one of the homes windowless and doorless solid exterior walls the livelong day, but, tenaciously maintaining his position at the solid wall and refusing to move towards the door.  While expending great efforts and burning many calories to achieve the goal of entry, he’s banging in the wrong place, his enormous efforts are misdirected. He may be working hard but he is not working smart. Were he to move a few feet and just rap on the door ever so lightly, it would immediately swing open and he would gain entry.

HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil.

Rachel was toiling mightily in prayer but where she really needed to concentrate her efforts was on the birur-the purification of her particular defining middah.   Rachel’s soul was endowed with a matchless capacity for jealousy. But jealousy can be a stingy, malcontent green-eyed-monster or the engine that drives self-improvement and self-actualization.

Unholy, evil jealousy begins with an attitude of “It’s not fair. You don’t deserve that. I hope that you lose it. Only then will justice be served!”  But jealousy can be sublimated into something good and holy, into the proverbial kinas sofrim –the academic envy of the wise students that spurs them to greater scholarship. The anthem of kinas sofrim is: “Hmmm…that looks good.  You’re certainly entitled to what you’ve gained but I’d like some too.  Some is good so more must be better. There’s plenty to go around and I won’t rest until I’ve gotten it, and more, too.” Kinas sofrim observes a good mousetrap and the boons that it brings  to the mousetrap builder and to society. It then goes out and builds a better one.

The Ramba”n fails to understand Yaakov’s vehemence.  What did Rachel do wrong?  After all, the Gemara advises those suffering from illnesses, in her case infertility, to approach sages and ask them to daven on their behalf (Bava Basra 116A).  Yaakov grew testy over Rachels misplaced yegiah-efforts and exertions. All her prayers, or any that Yaakov might have added, were like knocking on a brick wall instead of on a door.  He recognized that she was jealous, that this was her defining characteristic. But he realized that she had yet to be mevarer– to clarify and purify her middah.  Was her jealousy of the run-of-the-mill, catty, begrudging variety, or, was it the high-minded kinas sofrim that utilizes the irritants of envy to produce the pearls of ever-greater effort, innovation and achievement?

Rachel said: ‘Here is my handmaid Bilhah. Come to her and let her give birth on my lap.  Through her I will then also have a son.’

-Bereshis 30:3

“Isn’t it enough that you’ve taken my husband away?” snapped Leah “Now you’d even take my sons mandrakes? “All right” Rachel responded “Yaakov will lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.”

-Bereshis 30:15

 Rachel offered Yaakov Bilhah, and negotiated a deal resulting in yet another pregnancy for Leah. These concessions brought more “competitors” into the marriage. By doing so she had rid her jealousy of any elements of pettiness and malice and distilled pristine kinas sofrim from her defining middah. With this small, yet significant step, she had stopped working hard and started working smart. She’d stopped pounding the brick wall and began lightly rapping on the door. Unsurprisingly, the door then swung open and she soon conceived Yoseph.

Essentially Yaakov bellowed at Rachel “I’m skeptical when you claim ‘I have toiled but I have not found’ because you’ve toiled, but in the wrong way, at the wrong spot. To unlock the doors of fertility you don’t need to pray anymore.  Purify your jealousy and you’ll be knocking on the doors.  You have not “toiled” smartly and that’s why you have not yet “found”. Work smart and those doors will swing open “

The second Izhbitzer adds that the efforts Rachel expended at working hard were not wasted.  The Gemara teaches that if one sees that their prayers were not answered they should pray again (Berachos 32B). The Divine Will decrees precisely how long we must work our hardest before we attain salvation by working smart. There is no free lunch and there is no free epiphany that allows a person the sudden intuitive leap of understanding to correctly identify precisely which middah is their own leitmotif . Once discovered, one may begin the “working smart” of distilling the goodness of, i.e. being mevarer, their middah.

To carry the allegory further, there is something about banging on walls that eventually, cumulatively points us towards the door. And so, even while working hard and, apparently, ineffectively; claiming “I have toiled but I have not found” is a lie. All the banging on te wall eventually culminates in allowing the wall-banger to see the door that he must knock on. We toil, then we find. We work smarter, davka after working our hardest.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I VaYetzai D”H vaTomer haPa’am

Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261) 

Blinded by the Light

Toldos

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Yitzchak had grown old and his eyes grew dim, so that he could not see.  He summoned Esav his older son.

-Bereshis 27:1

“so that he could not see” alternatively;  “(his eyes grew dim ) on account of seeing”.  When Avraham bound him upon the altar, Yitzchak gazed at the Shechinah-Divine Indwelling…at that time G-d decreed that his eyes be dimmed.

-Midrash Bereshis Rabbah  65:5

 HaShem appeared to [Yitzchak] and said: “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall assign for you.

Remain an immigrant in this land, and I will be with you, and bless you…

-Bereshis 26:2-3

“Do not go down to Egypt.” You are [as] a perfect burnt offering, and being outside the Holy Land is not fitting for you.

-Rashi Ibid

 [Moshe]…Climb to the top of the cliff, and gaze westward, northward, southward and eastward. See it [the Land of Israel/ Cana’an] with your eyes [only]; since you will not cross the Jordan.

-Devarim 3:27

“See it with your eyes”: You requested of Me “Let me… see the good land” (Pasuk 25). I am showing you all of it, as it says: “And HaShem showed him all the Land” (Devarim 34:1).

-Rashi Ibid

And Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: but his eyes had not dimmed, nor had his natural powers faded away.

-Devarim 34:7

The Izhbitzer observed that Moshe and Yitzchak were polar opposites. While Yitzchak was forbidden to ever leave the Land of Israel he was, ultimately, unable to see it.  Whereas Moshe was denied permission to set foot in the Land of Israel but was allowed to look at the Land in its entirety!

His son, the second Izhbitzer adds an enigmatic wrinkle to his father’s thought-provoking observation: Moshe Rabenu is the Talmid Chacham-Torah scholar par excellence of the Jewish People. Talmidei Chachamim are, by definition, beings driven by keen perception and intellectual clarity. They channel the Divine will through precise, acute consciousness.

In contradistinction Yitzchak was, to use the contemporary parlance, “unconscious”.  Even when completely oblivious to his surroundings and what he was actually doing he channeled the Divine will.  Without consciously intending to do so he blessed Yaakov and this was, unknowingly, dare we say-blindly, consistent with HaShems will.

Imagine two archers both hitting one bulls eye after another. One was endowed with 20/10 vision and peerless hand-to-eye coordination while the other was myopic and all thumbs, but every arrow in his quiver had been fitted with a GPS  device guiding it to its target, his arrows were mini “smart bombs”. Yitzchak was like the latter archer. HaShem had granted him the ability to see without seeing, to know without knowing.

While not contrasting Moshe and Yitzchak, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, offers a deeper understanding of Yitzchaks blindness stemming from his binding upon the altar.

The problem with gazing at the Divine Indwelling is that it is fatal. “HaShem said: ‘You cannot have a vision of My Presence, for no man can have a vision of My Presence and live.’”(Shemos 33:20).  This begs the question; we know that the Akedah-the Binding of Yitzchak, was a near-death experience. But if Yitzchak beheld the Divine Indwelling at the Akedah why did it not result in his actual death?

A darkness exists that can become more visible than light “He made darkness His hiding-place, His Sukkah surrounding Him; the darkness of waters, the thick clouds of the heavens” (Tehilim 18:12). The blind can “see” as well in a pitch-black room as in a brilliantly illuminated one. This may be among the meanings of teaching of our Sages OBM that “one who is blind is considered dead” It is the tzimtzum of Yitzchak, his powerful personal restraint/constraint and self-abnegation, his trait of יראה –Awe of HaShem that allowed him a ראיה-a vision, of the invisible. (The two terms, יראה and ראיה, in Lashon Kodesh-Biblical Hebrew, are word jumbles of one another.) Yitzchak’s eventual blindness of the material world was a direct result of his visual perception of the spiritual world. To enter and perceive that supernal World is to cross the threshold of the surrounding darkness.

This metamorphosis of Yitzchak’s vision not only allowed him to see HaShem but to see kiv’yachol as Hashem does. “for it is not as men see: for a  man gazes at the outward appearance, but HaShem sees into the heart.’” (Shmuel I 16:7).  Although he saw into Esavs heart and understood his hypocrisy he still summoned Esav and intended to bless him, and not his younger brother. He knew that Esavs pretense of piety was the homage his vice was paying to virtue and imagined that the blessings could redeem Esav, while Yaakov did not need them.  Yet through his unconsciousness and blindness to the material world he marched in lockstep with the Divine will.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Toldos D”H Vehee

Bais Yaakov Toldos Inyan 35 (pp 223224)

Yisrael Kedoshim page 86 D”H  V’Noda & V’heenei

 

Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

What is the significance of HaShem making promises to an unconscious , sleeping Yaakov?
Why did HaShem allow Yitzchak to be duped by Rivkah and Yaakov to be deceived by Leah?
Why does our mystical tradition refer to Rachel as the “revealed world” and to Leah as “the hidden world?

Yitzchak summoned Yaakov, bestowed a blessing on him and commanded him “Do not marry a Canaanite girl”.

— Bereishis 28:1

Yaakov left Beersheba and headed toward Charan … taking some stones he placed them about his head and lay down to sleep there … Suddenly [he observed] HaShem Standing  over him … [HaShem said] I am with you. I will Safeguard you howsoever you go.

— Bereishis 28:10,11,13,15

HaShem Elokim said “it is not good for man to be alone. I will Make him a challenging helper.”

— Bereishis 12:18

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a Bas Kol-Echo of the Divine Voice; emanates and proclaims, The daughter of A is destined for B.’”

— Sotah 2A

House and riches are the legacy of fathers; but a sensible wife is from HaShem.

— Mishlei 19:14

We see from all segments of the tripartite Torah that the match between a woman and a man is from HaShem[‘s Divine Providence.]

— Moed Katan 18B

There are those who must go after their mates and others whose mates come to them. Yitzchak’s mate came to him, as it is written “(He raised his eyes) and beheld camels coming [transporting his bride Rivkah.] (Bereishis 24:63)” Yaakov went after his mate, as it is written “Yaakov left Beersheba … (Bereishis 28:10) “

— Bereishis Rabbah 68:3

Yaakov loved Rachel and said [to Lavan] “I will work for seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.” … In the evening he [Lavan] took his daughter Leah to Yaakov who consummated the marriage with her … In the morning discovering that she was Leah [not Rachel] he said to Lavan  “How could you do this to me? Didn’t I labor with you for Rachel[‘s hand in marriage]? Why did you cheat me?

— Bereishis 29: 18, 23,25

A reasonable argument can be made that THE greatest enigma in all of Jewish thought is the conundrum of Yediah u’bechirah-HaShem’s perfect infallible Foreknowledge vs. human free-will. But spinning off of this supreme enigma there are many sub-riddles and mysteries e.g. the particular Providential involvement that our sages ascribe to one’s destined marriage partner. Another example are narratives, both scriptural and personal, of “all’s well that ends well.” There are times when what we think, say or do seems to be thoughtless, ethically neutral or even contrary to the Divine Will. However when later chapters of these biographies are written by the Divine Author, with the passage of time and with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we realize that, in truth, what we thought, said or did carried a positive ethical charge and was consistent with the Divine Will.

Our sages divide the Providential involvement in matching men with their destined marriage partners into two broad categories:  those who must go after their mates and those whose mates come to them.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that when the Divine Will ordained the creation of woman as a helper to man that, this help too, would manifest itself in two different ways: There are times when a man is proactive in the pursuit of a woman and chooses a mate based on what his rationale, and the rationale of his heart, dictate. He marries a woman in whom heperceives the qualities that will aid him in his life’s work and mission. Such men are among those “who must go after their mates.”

Then there are men whose mates are not at all in accordance with what would naturally be assumed or expected. They come to their husbands without the latter having invested any intellectual, spiritual or emotional capital in determining whether or not they would “make sense” as a married couple. HaShem sends this woman to this man in ways that are counterintuitive and that, at first, seem to thwart both the Divine Will and hinder or delay the achievement of the husband’s goals.

Read more Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Do animals have rights?
Why was meat-consumption forbidden to Adam but permitted to Noach?
If permitting meat was a reward for Noach saving the other species during the great deluge why is fish-consumption permitted?

… fill up the land and subjugate it. Have dominance over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky and over every living animal that creeps on the land. And Elokim said “I have given you all seedbearing greenery on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seedbearing fruit — it will [all] be yours — for your consumption. And for all beasts of the earth, and for all birds of the sky and for everything that creeps on the land —that contains a living soul — all plant vegetation will be food.” It was so.

— Bereishis 1:28-30

There shall be fear and dread of you instilled in  all of the wild beasts of the earth and in all the birds of the sky, and in in all that creep on the land and in all fish of the sea, I have placed them in your hands. Every living thing that moves will be to you as food. Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.

— Bereishis 9:2,3

Rav Yehudah, quoting Rav, said “Animal flesh (meat) was not permitted to the first Man [nor to subsequent human beings until Noach emerged from the ark] as a food. For it is written [when Elokim spoke to Adam, the first Man] ‘I have given you all seedbearing greenery … it will [all] be yours — for your consumption and for all beasts of the earth.’ But NOT ‘the beasts of the earth’ for you[r consumption. But when the sons of Noach came [out of the ark] He permitted it [meat consumption] to them, as it says ‘Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.’

 — Sanhedrin 59B

All the rivers run into the sea

— Koheles 1:7

Hillel would say: … “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die!”

— Avos 2:4

Once, Rabi Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to [perform the great mitzvah of] redeeming captives, and came to the river Ginnai. “O Ginnai” he said, “part your waters for me, so that I may pass through you”. It replied “You are about to do the will of your Maker; I, too, am [presently] doing the will of my Maker [by flowing naturally]. You may or may not accomplish your purpose; I am sure of accomplishing mine.”

— Chulin 7A

HaShem has made all things for His own purpose i.e. to praise Him.

— Mishlei 164 and Yalkut Shimoni ibid

Elokim saw the world and it was ruined.  All flesh had perverted its way on earth.

— Bereishis 6:12

 Even domesticated animals, wild animals, and birds would mate with those who were not of their own species.

— Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Noach 12

 

All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature and capacities, their full assent, and their full beauty, as it says, “And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the of their legions” [tzeva’am]( Bereishis2:1). Do not read the word as tzeva’am, but tzivyonam [their beauty].

— Rosh Hashanah 11A

Many great commentaries and thinkers have weighed in on whether or not meat-consumption was permitted to the first ten generations of humankind and if, indeed, it was not, why was it permitted to Noach, his sons and to all subsequent generations of humankind?

Sundry approaches maintain that early man was too exalted to be a carnivore (Abarbanel, Rav Kook) or that early man was too debased to be a carnivore (Keli Yakar).  Some argue that the pragmatic nutritional concerns of the weaker, postdiluvian human bodies combined with a simultaneous dwindling in the capacity of botanic life to provide nourishment necessitated a switch to a meat-supplemented / based diet (Malbim, Tzeror Hamor).  One school of thought maintains that the dispersion of mankind across the globe to far-flung habitats lacking reliable plant-food supplies rendered vegetarian/ vegan diets a recipe for starvation (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman). Still others assert that mankind had “earned” the right to become carnivorous due to Noachs righteousness and/ or herculean efforts in saving and feeding all of the animal species (Ramban, Meshech Chochmah et al). This last approach begs the questions of why fish, which survived the mabul-great deluge; without Noachs intervention, are permitted for human consumption?

What all the widely divergent opinions do seem to agree upon is a human-centric line of reasoning. All concur that the solution to the riddle of why Adam and his descendants were prohibited from eating meat — while Noach and his descendants were not — inheres in some way or another in qualitative differences that occurred in those doing the eating; not in those being eaten.  The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, develops an approach that is, at least partially, animal-centric. However, to understand it we first need to appreciate the relative advantages in being human or in being animal.

Read more Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Why was Yehudahs approach to saving Yoseph so different from that of Reuvens?
Why do the sages condemn those who find merit in Yehudahs tactics?

Reuven heard these words [the brothers’ plot to murder Yoseph] and tried to rescue him saying “Let’s not kill him.” And he said to them “Don’t commit bloodshed … “

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

Reuven responded and said “ didn’t I tell you not to commit a sin against the lad [Yoseph]? but you didn’t listen. Now a Divine accounting is being demanded for his blood”

— Bereishis 42:22

And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?”

— Bereishis 37:26

And the greedy one desirous of gain [ובוצע ברך] blesses himself … in having infuriated HaShem

— Tehillim 10:4

Rabi Meir says: This passuk  [ובוצע ברך] refers to none other than Yehudah, for it is written, And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” So all who praise/bless Yehudah, the botzeia; infuriate [HaShem] …

— Sanhedrin 6B

There was a small city, with only a few inhabitants; and a great king came against it, surrounded it, and built great siege-works against it.  A poor wise man was present in the city who, by his wisdom, liberated the city; yet no one remembered that poor man.

— Koheles 9:14,15

[The above passage is interpreted as referring to the milchemes hayetzer-man’s internal moral battle to exercise his free will properly. The “great king” refers to the yetzer hara-inclination to evil; while the “poor-wise” man represents the yetzer tov-inclination to good. The Gemara comments:] “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.”

— Nedarim 32B

Rabi Yehudah quoting Rav said  “One should always busy himself with Torah [study] and Mitzvah [performance] even if he does so for ulterior motives for the result will eventually be that, from within the ulterior motives, he will [develop to] attain the level of [Torah study and Mitzvah performance] for its own sake.

— Nazir 23B

Both Reuven and Yehudah tried to dissuade their other brothers from harming Yoseph. But their diverse approaches are markedly different. Reuven is an ethicist exhorting the brothers to avoid sin and spilling the blood of innocents. Reuven appeals the better angels of their natures and argues, in effect, that virtue is its own reward and that they ought to do the right thing for its own sake. Yehudah is a pragmatist.  His tactic to get the brothers to drop their murderous plan is “What’s in it for us? What do we stand to gain either monetarily (Rashi’s interpretation) or in terms of our fathers affection?”  There is no trace of a moral or halachic argument in Yeudah’s words.

The Izhbitzer explains that Yehudah based his approach on the psycho-spiritual dynamic revealed by the Gemara-Talmud; that “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.” When the Divine Will chooses to test us It causes us to completely forget the severity of the prohibition and to put the moral repugnance of the sin out of our minds. HaShem designed the mechanism of bechirah chofshis-human free-will; to function such that, in the heat of the nisayon-test; when the yetzer hara asserts itself, none can even remember the yetzer tov. While enmeshed in the ethical challenge to reject evil and embrace good, exhortations for moral and ethical behavior, to do the right thing for its own sake, will fall on deaf ears.  The time for understanding  and internalizing the lessons of the superiority of good over evil and that virtue is its own reward is pre-need. In the heat of the moment of trial the inclination to do good is nowhere to be found.

It is at times like these when the most efficient tool against embracing evil, abusing our bechirah chofshis, is to appeal to pragmatic considerations and ulterior motives. The Izhbitzer maintains that Yehudah was a down-to-earth “man of the world” well acquainted with hardheaded realities and that he recognized that the brothers were in the very thick of a great nisayon. There internal voices of conscience and morality had been silenced and he understood that any appeals based on morality and ethics emanating from him would be similarly ignored.  And so he forwarded the מה בצע –what’s in it for us?  What will we gain?; argument. Even when the yetzer hara holds sway people “remember” such practical considerations and, if compelling enough, they can dissuade would-be-sinners from doing evil or, at least, affect some damage-control and diminish the intensity of the sin.

The brothers were in the midst of a great nisayon, their collective memory loss of their yetzer tovs was so great that they were convinced that the murder that they sought to do was justified and was, in fact, the moral and ethical thing to do.  Many meforshim-commentaries take the approach that the brothers convened as a Sanhedrin and ruled that Halachah demanded that Yoseph  be put to death.  The Sforno (37:25) opines that they had ruled Yoseph to be a rodeiph-a “chaser” with homicidal intentions. In such cases anyone may kill the rodeiph to save the life of the would-be murder victim. While the Izhbitzer asserts that the brothers ruled that Yoseph, trying to drive a wedge between them and their father was amounted to sundering the unity of HaShem. In so doing Yoseph had committed a capital offense akin to idolatry.

Read more The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Forbidden Kiruv

Why didn’t Yaakov simply pass Esav by instead of engaging him?
Why did Yaakov send Angels to his brothers rather than humans?

Yaakov sent representatives ahead of him to his brother, Esav, to Edom’s Field toward the land of Seir.

— Bereishis 32:4

The representatives returned to Yaakov and told him: “We came to your brother, Esav, and he’s also heading toward you. He has [a force of] 400 men with him.”

—Ibid:7

One who grows angry while passing by a quarrel that does not concern him is akin to one who seizes a [sleeping] dog by the ears.

Mishlei 26:17

Let sleeping dogs lie

Popular idiom version of passuk in Mishlei

Our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2) criticized Yaakov for this [sending representatives and gifts to Easv] comparing it to waking a sleeping dog by yanking its ears: The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov “he [Esav] was going his own way [not considering any hostilities to Yaakov] and you had to send him representatives and remind him [of the old dormant enmity] ‘to my lord Esav. Your humble slave Yaakov says … ’”?

— Ramban Bereishis 32:4

Yaakov remained alone. A man wrestled with him kicking up dust until the darkness lifted

— Bereishis 32:25

… Our Rabbis explained (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3, 78:3) that the wrestling man was the prince (guardian angel) of Esav.

— Rashi Ibid

… Rivkah became pregnant. But the offspring clashed/ scurried inside of her …

— Bereishis 25:21,22

Our Rabbis (Bereishis Rabbah 63:6) interpreted it [the word וַיִתְרוֹצִצו] as an expression of running/ scurrying (רוֹצָה) . When she passed by the entrances of [the] Torah [academies] of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would scurry and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of [a temple of] idolatry, Esav would scurry and struggle to come out. 

— Rashi Ibid

Question: Isn’t it true that the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; is not operative in-utero and that it is not within man until man is born … [if so why was Esav drawn to evil before he was even born]? The answer is that while it’s true that man has no yen and desire for evil, as part of his free-will equation, until after he is born; what Esav was doing here [when scurrying towards the temples of idolatry] was qualitatively different.  Esav was not yielding to the seductions of his yetzer hara, instead he was magnetically drawn towards his source, nature and species, as it were. For all things are aroused by, and inexorably drawn towards, the source of their intrinsic nature and self-definition.

— Gur Aryeh- supercommentary of the Maharal to Rashi Ibid

It is indeed odd that Yaakov would have awakened the sleeping dog/ giant. At first glance, what could possibly have motivated him to do so is incomprehensible.

According to one approach of the Midrashic sages the representatives that Yaakov dispatched to Esav were heavenly angels. Many commentaries have addressed Yaakov’s “need” for angels. Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that Yaakov was on what, in the contemporary parlance, might be called a mission of kiruv rechokim-bringing those distant from righteousness/ G-d closer.  Yaakov was unwilling to stand idly by as his twin brother degenerated deeper and deeper into the hellish depths of evil. He had hoped that the angels would prove equal to the task of discovering and nurturing Esav’s deeply buried goodness until it overwhelmed all his accretions of evil and washed them away in a cleansing wave of teshuvah-repentance.  After all, the passuk teaches us that angels are uniquely endowed with the capacity of advocating for deeply flawed individuals who possess as little as one tenth of one percent of decency and goodness: “If one has even a single angel out of a thousand advocating on his behalf by declaring his uprightness, then G-d will be gracious to him and say ‘redeem him from descending into destruction [i.e. the grave] for I havefound atonement/ ransom for him.’” (Iyov 33:23,24)

His interpretation is supported by a fuller, closer reading of the Midrash of “awakening the sleeping, vicious dog.” After citing the passuk in Mishlei the Midrash continues: Shmuel the son of Nachman  said “this is comparable to a traveler who awakened the leader of a gang of thieves sleeping at the crossroads and warned him of the imminent dangers [from wild animals]. Instead of thanking the traveler, the gang leader began beating his benefactor. The traveler cried foul ‘you cursed man [is this how you repay me for trying to save your life?]’ The gang leader then said ‘[you deserve it, it’s your own fault] I was slumbering comfortably and you woke me!’”

In this allegory Yaakov is represented by the traveler while Esav’s role is played by the gang leader. Nowhere in this allegory do we find a frightened Yaakov devising strategies and tactics to save himself and/or his family.  On the contrary, Yaakov is a selfless do-gooder trying to save the life and limbs of someone else, fast asleep and unaware of the looming, lurking dangers.  Yakkov’s good deed did not go unpunished and not only is he forced to struggle with the malicious ingrate Esav but, later, he was forced to contend with his evil guardian angel as well.

While it’s often said that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” it is still hard to grasp what occurred in this case.  Why did Yaakov’s well intentioned plan to save his twin from the wild animals of spiritual ruin go so badly awry? This is especially quizzical in light of the Zohar’s observation that “praiseworthy is he who takes the guilty/sinful by hand [and leads them along the path of repentance and tikkun]”

The Biskovitzer explains that while kiruv is a most praiseworthy endeavor it is wasted upon those whose evil is intrinsic and incorrigible rather than those whose evil is acquired through the incorrect exercise of their free-will. Echoing the Maharal’s clarification for Esav’s in-utero scurrying towards temples of idolatry and, no doubt, paraphrasing earlier sources, the Biskovitzer goes so far as to identify Esav with the primordial serpent who enticed Adam and Chavah into Original Sin.  In other words; Esav is not a good kid gone bad, he is just plain bad. He is not one who falls prey to the yetzer hara he IS the yetzer hara. Such evil is incorrigible, dealing with it in any way, even for the noble goal of its rehabilitation, is doomed to failure and to vicious, attacking ingratitude.

Read more Forbidden Kiruv

I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Judaism a meritocracy or an aristocracy?
Why do we dwell in our Sukkos on Shabbos but do not fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbos?
Why is a stolen Lulav invalid for performing the mitzvah when one does fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah in anothers Sukkah?

[The nation of] Israel was crowned with three crown: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Ahron merited the crown of priesthood, as the passuk-verse; declares: “And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants following him.”(Bemidbar 25:13).  David merited the crown of royalty, as the passuk declares: “His progeny will continue eternally, and his throne will be as the sun before Me.” (Tehillim 89:37)

The crown of Torah lays at rest; waiting and ready for all, as the passuk declares:  “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4).  Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns are superior to the crown of Torah, consider that the passuk declares: “By me [Torah], kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule” (Mishlei 8:15,16).  Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

Today is to do them (the mitzvos) and tomorrow is NOT to do them. Today is to do them and tomorrow is to receive their reward.

— Eruvin 22A

Judaism contains elements of both an aristocracy and a meritocracy. On the one hand being a Kohen, a Levi or a candidate for Moshiach– the Messiah; is purely an accident of birth.  Jewish identity itself is determined by biological matrilineal descent while tribal identity is determined by patrilineal descent.

But on the other hand our sages teach us that a mamzer-one born from a kares prohibited union; who is a talmid chacam-Torah scholar; takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol-High Priest; who is an am haaretz-ignoramus. Anticipating sociological patterns, Chazal comment “take heed of [the dignity of] the children of the impoverished, for Torah [scholarship] shall emanate from them”(Nedarim 81A) and “[why is it] that the sons of talmidei chachamim are rarely talmidei chachamim themselves?” (ibid).  Some of history’s greatest Jews e.g. Onkelos, Rabi Meir and Rabi Akivah were geirim-righteous converts; or their descendants.  On this level Judaism is the ultimate meritocracy with no glass ceilings that impede upward social-spiritual mobility.

We will see that paradoxically; the aristocratic, heredity-based aspect is actually the more egalitarian, classless of the two elements whereas the meritocracy creates a stratified, multi-tiered hierarchy. Based on two Halachic differences between Sukkah and Lulav-the four species; the Izhbitzer understands the two mitzvos of the holiday in light of the hereditary- and merit-based components of kedushas Yisrael-Jewish sanctity.

On Shabbos the Halachah exempts us from fulfilling the mitzvah of Lulav whereas we are still obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah.  The reason for the contrast is that Shabbos is a scintilla of Olam Haba-the Coming-World wherein avodah-serving the Creator through the exercise of free-will; no longer exists. There (then?) all that the person toiled to acquire in the here-and-now world through his choices and actions are secured in his heart. This is why all 39 categories of creative activity are prohibited on Shabbos. Whether we are speaking of our weekly Shabbosos or “The Day that shall be entirely Shabbos and eternal rest”, only one who has exerted himself on Shabbos eve will enjoy the fruits of his labors on Shabbos (Cp. Avodah Zarah 2A). Sukkah is an effortless mitzvah, one is merely “there.” Sukkah represents the hereditary kedushas Yisrael present in the heart of every Jew passed along like spiritual DNA from the patriarchs. The mitzvah of Sukkah resonates with same the kind of “all our work is done” sensibility that inform Shabbos and Olam Haba.

But Lulav, which we take up in our hands and move in every possible direction of human endeavor, is characteristic of all mitzvos maasiyos– the mitzvos requiring decision-making, exertion and activity. The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Laibeleh Eiger points out that the gimatriya-numerical value; of Esrog is 610. When we count the other three species used to fulfill the mitzvah along with the Esrog the sum is 613, the precise total of all of the mitzvos. The 4 species embody every possible avodah endeavor. There is something very proactive, workmanlike and this-worldly about Lulav that makes it inconsistent with Shabbos.

Read more I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

Why is the Zodiac sign of the month of Sivan the twins?
Why are we often frustrated by failure despite having put forth our very best efforts?
Conversely, why does unanticipated success sometimes come our way, relatively effortlessly?

… Similarly the Holy One, blessed be He, say to [the Children of] Israel: ‘My children! I created the inclination to evil but I [also] created the Torah, as its antidote [lit. seasoning]; if you busy yourselves with the Torah, you will not be delivered to your inclinations to evil.

— Kidushin 30B

Our Rabbis taught: There are two kidneys within Man, one of which counsels him to good, [while] the other counsels him to evil; and it is reasonable to suppose that the good one is on his right side and the bad one on his left, as it is written, “A wise man’s heart /insight is at his right side, but a fool’s heart/ insight is at his left.” (Koheles10:2)

— Brachos 61A

I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies.

—Tehillim 119:59

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes (Vayikra 26:3)” This alludes to what is written in Tehillim “I considered my ways, and retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies” [King] David was [really] saying “L-rd of the Universe every day I used to think ‘I plan on going to a certain place, and to a certain dwelling’ yet my feet walked me [as if of their own accord] to synagogues and Yeshivos.  Thus ‘[I] retraced my footsteps towards your testimonies’ “

—Vayikra Rabbah 35:1

He enthroned the letter Zayin as king over motion and he bound a crown to it and he combined one with another and with them he formed Gemini (i.e. the zodiacal constellation sign of twins) in the Universe (Space), Sivan in Year (Time) and the left foot in Soul of male and female.

— Sefer Yetzirah 5:7

In the above excerpt cited above from Sefer Yetzirah we find an example of, the kabbalistic– teaching that we’ve learned about in recent weeks; that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit.

For Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, the parallel between motion, feet and Sivan are all fairly self-evident.  Sivan is the month of Mattan Torah-the Revelation at Sinai; when Torah was brought from Heaven to earth and the all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. In Parshas Bechukosai we analyzed passages of the Mei HaShiloach in which the kinetic nature of Torah, i.e. how Torah transforms “standers” and “sitters” into “goers” and “walkers” was explored at length.

What is less self-evident is why the motion of the Torah-of-Sivan relates specifically to the souls left foot rather than to the souls right foot. After all, the wisest of all men taught that mans inclination to evil is associated with the left side of his being (heart/ kidney) why should the Torah-of-Sivan, the source of all that is good and the antidote to the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; parallel the foot that is on man’s “bad” side?

Read more Is Torah Everything … OR is Everything Torah II

The Natural, the Supernatural and the Counter-natural

VaEra 5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Therefore say to the Bnei Yisrael-chidren of Israel, “I am HaShem. I will extricate you from the burdens of Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will redeem you with a demonstration of My power and with great acts of judgment.

-Shemos 6:6

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and thus will produce the opportunities to display many miraculous wonders and signs in Egypt.

-Shemos 7:5

At the end of parshas Bo, in validating the centrality of the mitzvos that serve as reminder to the exodus from Egypt, the Ramban famously explains that the makkos– the 10 plagues, were meant to pierce the veil that conceals G-d.  The strands of which that veil is woven are the Laws of Nature. All of the makkos were openly miraculous, flouting numerous Laws of Nature in the most overt way.

The Maharal and the Chidushei haRi”m explain that the 10 makkos , seven of which occur in our Sidra, were the bridge between the asara ma’amoros shebahem nivra haolam– the 10 pronouncements through which the world was created, and the aseres hadibros-the 10 commandments through which the Torah was revealed.  A world that does not perceive god as the Creator is unready to accept G-d as the Divine Legislator.  By laying bare the existence of a Force that superseded Nature, that could utterly manipulate Nature and that could bend Nature to It’s supernatural Will, the makkos removed any the lingering doubts about the existence of G-d the Creator and proved the truth of numerous principles of our faith.

Thus understood, one could jump to the erroneous conclusion that the G-d-concealing, illusion-of-independence-projecting, natural order is constantly at odds with G-d. In fact, nature is the regular and consistent expression of the Divine Will.  Why and when the Divine Will chooses to superimpose the hanhagah nisis– the miraculous management of the cosmos upon and, apparently, against the hanhagah tiv’is– the natural management of the cosmos, is something that only the Divine Mind knows.

In this same vein many of us striving to make good moral/ethical choices and grow spiritually regard our own human natures as G-d-negating, mortal enemies. We are conditioned to fight our natural impulses. We associate them with our yetzer hara – inclination to evil. But the pasuk says “everything that HaShem has made is for His own sake.”(Mishlei 16:4) That is to say for His greater Glory.  All of the works of creation are expressions of the Divine will.

When inanimate objects and living beings behave according to the laws of nature they are fulfilling the will of HaShem. The great challenge with things behaving “naturally” is that they appear to be on autopilot.  The Divine Will that created the Laws of Nature and that continues to direct natural law often becomes obscured by natural processes. This is why Torah numerologists have pointed out that Elokim shares an equal numerical value with  hateva-the Nature (86) and why Torah etymologists teach that the root of the word olam-cosmos, world, is he’elam-concealment.

When Rabi Pinchos ben Yair traveled to redeem a captive Jew (pidyon sh’vuyim-redeeming captives, is the highest form of tzedakah-charity) he reached the banks of the Ginai River and could go no further. He commanded the river waters to interrupt their flow so that he could cross through the riverbed and proceed on his mission of mercy. The river responded “you go to do the Will of your Creator and I go (flow) to do the Will of my Creator.  There is only a chance that you will fulfill the Creator’s Will but, so long as I flow, I’m most definitely fulfilling the Creator’s Will. If so, why should I cease my flowing so that you can get going?” (Chulin 7A).

Ultimately the river split for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair and he accomplished his mission of pidyon sh’vuyim. But the “conversation” between him and the river is significant in that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that even inanimate things functioning according to the Laws of Nature are doing the will of the Creator, HaShem. It belies the philosophy that Nature opposes G-d. Nature is no more G-d’s enemy than the veil is the face’s adversary.

HaShem brought the cosmos into being through the “10 pronouncements”.  All that exists in the cosmos, and the way in which they function, are expressions of HaShems will. We define a mitzvah as a thought, word or act having a positive and ethical charge.  What makes them “good” or positive is that they are consistent with, and fulfillments of, HaShem’s will.  As such it follows that every one of HaShem’s non-free-will-endowed creatures that behave according to natural law is, in a sense, performing mitzvos.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that just as in the macrocosm, a river running downstream is “running to do with the Will of its Creator” so too, in the microcosm known as man, all the natural impulses induce man to “run to do the Will of his Creator.”  When a man thirsts, it is G-d’s will that he hydrate himself.  When a man hungers, it is G-d’s will that he ingest nutrition.  When a man desires intimacy it is G-d’s will that he procreate.  When a man grows fatigued it is G-d’s will that he sleep. When human acts of eating, drinking, procreating and sleeping are done as responses to the dictates of human nature they too are mitzvos.  When they are indulged in excessively, going beyond the dictates of nature, they are not. This is the point that the gemara is trying to get across when it says that when one engages in physical intimacy that he do so “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20B). Absent an irresistible compulsion to act, physical intimacy fails to rise to the level of “running to do with the Will of his Creator”

Over the past decade Perek Shirah has gained enormous popularity. This concept is the deeper meaning of Perek Shira.  When we hear a frog croaking cacophonously we run for a pair of earplugs. We hardly consider this croaking to be the music of a symphony orchestra. But when the frog tells King Dovid that “I sing HaShem’s praises day and night” (Zohar Pinchos 222:B)what it really means to say is that just acting naturally and croaking, in accordance with the nature endowed in the frog by its Creator, is sweet music, a “singing of the Divine praise.”

… [The frogs will be] in the homes of your officials and the people, even in your ovens and in the kneading bowls.

-Shemos 7;28

Why did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah deliver themselves to the fiery furnace, for kiddush HaShem-the sanctification of the Divine Name? They argued a kal v’chomer- a fortiori to themselves: If frogs,[of the second plague] which are not commanded concerning kiddush HaShem yet it is written of them, “and they shall come up and go into your house . . . and into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.” when are the kneading bowls to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot! [Then we must certainly do so.]

-Pesachim 53B

While behaving “naturally” is the default setting for “running to do with the Will of the Creator” it is essential to remember that in some unusual times and circumstances, supernatural and contra-natural behaviors are required in order to “run to do with the Will of the Creator”. The most basic instinct for all species is the survival instinct. Yet, during redemption process, when HaShem chose to superimpose the supernatural hanhaga nisis upon the hanhaga tiv’is, then, as part of the second plague, the frogs threw themselves into the hot ovens flames contravening their survival instinct.

While humans are endowed with free-will and the rest of G-d’s creatures are not, we must nevertheless learn from them and exercise our free-will choices appropriately. While choosing to maintain our lives and responding to the dictates of our natures is often a mitzvah, making choices that are contra-natural, even to the point of mesirus nefesh and self-destruction, can be “running to do with the Will of the Creator” as well.  As the pasuk says “[HaShem] Who teaches us — from the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser — from the birds of heaven.”(Iyov 35:11)

As it goes for the macrocosm so it goes for the microcosm.  There is room for the redemptive and the supernaturally, contra-naturally miraculous within human beings as well.

Adapted from: Tzidkas Hatzadik 173

Dreaming but Not Sleeping

Vayeshev 5774-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 Soon thereafter the Egyptian king’s wine steward and the baker offended their master, who was the king of Egypt.

-Bereshis 40:1

 [Regarding] this one (the wine steward) a fly was found in his goblet, and [concerning] that one (the baker) a pebble was found in his bread.  (Bereshis. Rabbah 88:2)

-Rashi ibid

The kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zohar Miketz 197A

Throughout this Sidra there’s a marked disparity between Yoseph and Yehudah. All of Yoseph’s well-intentioned plans go awry First, he shares his prophetic dream with his brothers and they grow jealous of him. Then he tries to edify his brothers and some are ready to kill him while, in due course, they sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan consigning him to near-certain doom. He serves his master faithfully, resisting all temptations, but then gets framed for an infidelity that he was innocent of. Finally, he makes a minor effort at self-help, asking the Pharaoh’s wine steward to say something favorable about him to Pharaoh and, as a result, ends up spending another two years prison.

On the other hand, Yehudah seems to be living the proverbial charmed life. Even though he was the one who presented Yoseph’s goat-bloodied garment to their father, causing their father overwhelming anguish,  he still merited being in Yaakov’s proximity all those long years that Yoseph was in exile.  In the, apparently, very sordid affair of Tamar, all ended well and the progenitor of the Messianic line was born.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Yoseph envied Yehudah and had grievances about HaShem’s conduct of his own affairs. He wondered why HaShem crowned all of Yehudahs endeavors with great success, even those that were overtly risky or that ventured far into moral and ethical ambiguity.  Whereas all of his own actions, no matter how purely motivated, came under the closest Divine scrutiny, the “precision of a hairsbreadth” and, invariably, were found wanting.

The dreams of the Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker were meant to serve as an allegorical response to Yoseph’s grievances. Every king, including the King of all kings, has a servant like the wine steward and a servant akin to the baker.  The wine steward was restored to his position because he was not responsible for his offense.  There’s really nothing that he could’ve done to prevent a fly from buzzing into the wine goblet.  A fly is animate and has an instinct if it’s own. It’s even possible that the fly fluttered into the goblet after it was already in the Pharaoh’s grasp. However, the baker’s offense was unpardonable as an inert pebble should never have found its way into the king’s bread loaf. Yoseph was like the baker and Yehudah was like the wine-steward.

King Dovid, the quintessence of Yehudah, is described by the Zohar (Mishpatim 107A) as the Kings “jester”. As a powerful king himself how should we understand this unusual title? We know that King Dovid’s songs of Tehilim were sung as the wine libations were poured in the Beis HaMikdash on HaShems “table” kivayochol -as it were. If the purpose of a jester is to dispel sadness from, and bring merriment to, the king’s heart, then jesters and wine stewards employ different means to achieve the same goal. So, the jester designation can be understood in wine steward terms.

But the “jester” designation refers to the something deeper as well. Yehudah’s offenses, and those of his descendants, were deemed to be beyond the range of their  bechirah chofshis– free-will. As our sages taught; “the Angel appointed to preside over desire forced him” to consort with Tamar (Bereshis Rabbah 85:9).  Jesters allow their kings to toy with them and to defeat them at the royal courts’ games. When a person loses his bechirah chofshis he becomes G-d’s plaything, a mere puppet on HaShem’s string, as a jester might, a man who has lost his bechirah chofshis “lets” G-d win kivayochol.  The pasuk states: “that You may be justified when You speak, and be in the right when You judge” (Tehilim 51:6). When expounding on the episode of Dovid and Bas-Sheva the Gemara understands that what Dovid meant to say here was “let them [the people] not say, ‘The servant triumphed  against his Master’.” (Sanhedrin 107A). In other words, Dovid is telling HaShem “I’m your jester, I let my King win”

On the other hand, Yoseph was like the baker. HaShem had instilled Yoseph with a fiery clarity and brilliance and the passionate strength to withstand all tests. After all, the House of Yoseph was to be the flame that would consume the House of Esav (see Ovadiah 1:18). HaShem had placed Yoseph in a crisp, brilliant and immaculate place. He and his descendants needed to stay spotless in order to refute any of Esav’s contentions. As trying as Yoseph’s trials were they were never outside the scope of his bechirah chofshis. Yoseph was in complete control of his choices.

If something unseemly crept into Yehudah’s affairs it was as though the zigzagging fly splashed into the King’s wine goblet after it was already in the King’s hands.  There was absolutely nothing that the jester/wine steward could have done to prevent it.  If something inappropriate contaminated Yoseph’s affairs it was as though a tooth-shattering pebble was in the King’s bread.  The King grew furious and bitterly disappointed because this was absolutely something that the baker could have, and should have, put a stop to.

 

The righteousness of the unblemished will straighten his way; and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.

-Mishlei 11:5

 When an otherwise unblemished Tzaddik sins, the Divine trait of Strict Justice demands the harsh and “precision of a hairsbreadth” punishment to expiate the sin. But the Divine trait of Mercy seeks alternatives modes of Tikun-sin repair and amelioration.  It will not allow the Tzaddik to take the punishment. Instead It allows the Tzaddik to observe someone guilty of a coarser, more overt expression of the same sin taking their punishment.  This sensitizes the Tzaddik to his own misstep.  The Tzaddik sees the retribution being executed and, growing reflective and insightful concludes, in essence, that “there, but for the Grace of G-d, go I”. This is why the pasuk says “and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.”,  when the correct poetic meter of the sentence should have been “and the wicked shall fall by his wickedness.” The truth is that there are times and situations when the wicked fall due to the wickedness of the unblemished! They do so in order the enable the unblemished to straighten his way.

As sternly as Yoseph was judged compared to Yehudah, it could have been even more severe. In fact, mercy tempered the justice that he was dealt. The Pharaoh’s baker became the punishment proxy for Yoseph, the Divine King’s “baker”. The dissimilar dreams of the wine steward and the baker were not just revealed to Yoseph because he happened to be the best dream-interpreter available in the dungeon. They were revealed to him to help him understand the difference between Yehudah’s relationship with HaShem and his own, to help him identify with the baker rather than with the wine steward, to stop grumbling about alleged Divine miscarriages of justice, to realize his own strengths and responsibilities, to shift the responsibility for his tribulations to his own broad shoulders and thus be metaken– repair and repent for his shortfalls. 

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Vayeshev end of long D”H Vayeshev

 And Mei HaShiloach II Vayeshev D”H B’Inyan

 

You Don’t Desire? Then Yearn to Desire!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

For the Mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not beyond your grasp or remote from you…Rather it is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can accomplish it.’  

-Devarim 30: 11, 14

While the closeness of “the Mitzvah” is described as being in our hearts and mouths it is not said to be in our hands. Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, draws an essential lesson about the limitations of human free will from this omission. The precedent for this lesson can be found in the Torahs dissimilar narratives of Avraham Avinus leitmotif.

The hospitality Chesed that Avraham Avinu offered to human travelers is well documented in Chazal and yet in the Written Torah there is only the scantest allusion to it (VaYeetah Eishel-Bereshis 21:33).  In marked contrast the hospitality that he extended to the three angels is described in great detail in the Written Torah.  This is especially odd inasmuch as the Angels were only pretending to eat, drink and rest and needed neither the physical rest and recreation provided to them nor the monotheistic lessons that diners at Avraham Avinus table learned. Avraham genuinely wanted to do kindness to the angels just as he did to all of his visitors. But in reality he did not provide for any of the needs of these special guests.  His desire to do Chesed went unrealized. But the Torah places the greatest emphasis precisely on the episode of desired Chesed, in which no actual Chesed took place.

In truth all that HaShem demands of us, all that is really within the parameters of our autonomy and freedom, is our will, our wants, our desire to do good as expressed in our hearts and our mouths. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106B says:  HaKadosh Baruch Hu Leeba Boyee –HaShem wants the heart. Whereas the actual realization of our good will, wants and desires, the actual execution of the Mitzvah comes about only through Seyata DiShmaya,-Divine assistance.  As our posuk says; the Mitzvah… is very close to you…in your mouth and in your heart. However you will need HaShems help so that you can accomplish it.’

L’Dovid HaShem Ohree V’Yishee  is the “anthem” of the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. In it we find the problematic verse (Tehilim 27:4) “One thing have I asked of HaShem,  I will ask it; that I may dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of HaShem , and to inspect  His palace.” Once the Meshorer-Psalmist declared that “One thing have I asked of HaShem” why not continue immediately with what is being asked for?  “that I may dwell in the house of al HaShem all the days of my life etc. “ Why repeat “I will ask it”? The blatant, superfluous redundancy of the posuk demands a clarification.

The Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa) explains that what the Meshorer has asked of HaShem is NOT to dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of his life but that dwelling in the house of  HaShem become his fondest desire, truly the one thing that he seeks, asks and prays for. He is asking to ask, desiring to desire, wanting to want.  The one thing that I have asked of HaShem is that Ohsah Ahvakesh…that this/it is what I will ask and pray for.

Our hearts are not always in the right place. Perhaps when we were young, or young in our Judaism, as long as we were shtaiging-progressing in our spiritual lives we could get by with very little materially. Even in our youths it is rare that dwelling in the house of HaShem all the days of our lives is our one and only request and desire. Instead it is just one, albeit a major one, of our many desires, wants and needs. Then setbacks, disillusionments, disappointments, societal and family pressures all conspired to distort our value systems and rearrange our fondest dreams and desires. We may have become more interested in maintaining and amplifying our creature comforts and financial security than in finishing Sha”s, davening ecstatically or creating a new Chesed organization that would alleviate the suffering of hundreds. In a word, we are no longer sincerely asking to dwell in the house of HaShem at all. So, whether young or old, during these days of Divine Mercy in particular we echo the prayer of the Meshorer twice daily. We ask to ask nothing else, desire to desire exclusively, want to want monomaniacally all that is good, kind, holy and exalted.

The Kohen of Lublin amplifies the Rebbe Reb Binims reading of Pslam 27. It is not that the Meshorer was trying to avoid overplaying his hand in prayer by asking to actually dwell in the house of HaShem etc. or just “having an off day”. It is that, truth be told, we can never ask for more than correct, ethical and holy yearnings.  The exercise of our free will is limited to what we want and desire and does not extend to what we do and accomplish. The mitzvah is in our hearts and mouths.  The actualization of Mitzvahs is HaShems domain, not that of human beings.

Adapted from Pri Tzadik Parshas VaYera Paragraph 10 (Page 29A)