Sharing Torah Insights

VaYeshev- Cooler Heads Prevail

“And they saw him from afar, and when he had not yet drawn near to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. So they said one to the other, “Behold, that dreamer is coming. So now, let us kill him, and we will cast him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But Reuben heard, and he saved him from their hand[s], and he said, “Let us not deal him a deadly blow.”

  • What did Reuven hear that made him save Yosef?

A number of commentators (Panim Yafos and Pardes Yosef among others) explain based on the Zohar that Reuven heard a message through Ruach haKodesh, a Holy Spirit.

A simple reading of: and we will see what will become of his dreams sounds like the brothers were making a sarcastic remark. As if they were saying: let’s see how true all his dreams come when we are done with him. However, the Zohar says that this line was actually an interjection from Heaven. After the brothers come up with their plot- Heaven interjects and says: “You think you will be successful in getting rid of Yosef but in truth, he will rise to greatness if God rules so. Let us see what happens with his dreams- they will come true!- and then we will see what happens with your plot! God is turning the tables on the brothers. See how it reads in Rashi:

Rabbi Isaac said, This verse says: “Expound on me.” [I.e., this verse demands a midrashic interpretation.] The Holy Spirit says thus: They (the brothers) say, “Let us kill him,” but the verse concludes: “and we will see what will become of his dreams.” Let us see whose word will stand up, yours or Mine. It is impossible that they (the brothers) are saying,“and we will see what will become of his dreams,” because, since they will kill him, his dreams will come to nought.

This is what Reuven hears that the other brothers did not. Perhaps because Reuven is the firstborn he feels more responsibility towards his brother. See Rashi on the next verse:

And Reuben said to them, “Do not shed blood! Cast him into this pit, which is in the desert, but do not lay a hand upon him,” in order to save him from their hand[s], to return him to his father. to save him: The Holy Spirit testifies for Reuben that he said this only to save him, so that he would [be able to] come and take him out of there. He said, “I am the firstborn and the eldest of them all. The sin will be attributed only to me.” [from Gen. Rabbah 84:15]

I thought of a different explaination as to what exactly Reuven heard. Maybe Reuven simply heard what his brothers were actually saying! Maybe he was the only one that internalized the extremist position and pernicious actions they were taking! He realized that they were planning to do something they would regret later and he took a stand. Sometimes (this happens to me) we get hot-headed about something and we cannot think correctly. Especially when we are in a group and everyone is holding a certain position – it is hard for us to deviate and disagree. [Groupthink in Social Psychology.] Reuven, however, was sort of a leader and he kept cool when passions were flaring around him- and he made a wise decision. Even when we rightfully get passionate about something we should stop and think if what we are thinking to do is really sensical in the long run.

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Vayeitze- Brotherly Love

1 Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. 2 There he saw a well in the open country, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. 3 When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well. Jacob asked the shepherds, “My brothers, where are you from?” “We’re from Harran,” they replied. He said to them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?” “Yes, we know him,” they answered. Then Jacob asked them, “Is he well?”“Yes, he is,” they said, “and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.” “Look,” he said, “the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture.”“We can’t,” they replied, “until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.”

Yaakov meets the shepards and sees that they are not doing anything- they claim they are waiting for the rock to be rolled off to get to the water for the sheep.

One might ask, Yaakov is a stranger that just came to town and after some pleasantries he starts questioning the locals’ work habits, by saying- it is the middle of the day, why aren’t you giving the sheep water?! Why are you sitting around doing nothing? Furthermore, the locals surprisingly do not snap back at Yaakov- who are you?! Who do you think you are telling us how to do our work? Rather, they simply responded, we cannot, because of the big rock. They seemingly showed a respect for this newcomer. How was this accomplished by Yaakov?

[Parenthetically, one may ask a few questions about this rock: why today was different than any other day; did they always put the rock on and if so, how did they put it on but not be able to take it off, etc.]

The Ponovezher Rav (Rav Khaneman) quoted by the Yagdil Torah answers that Yaakov’s motivational secret was one simple word. When he met the locals he called them “My brothers” (where are you from). He showed that he felt a strong bond towards them, even though they had never met before.

The lesson is simply that when it comes to reprimanding or critiquing others, we may only be effective when first showing a care and genuine concern for the other person. Only then can we hope to connect to that person and have our suggestions carry some bearing.

Good Shabbos


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Lech Lecha- Showing Off or Showing Up?

“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (17:10)

We are taught that Avraham kept every mitzva in the Torah before he (or anyone else for that matter) was even commended to, with one exception: the commandment to become circumcised. Bris Mila is the only Mitzva he did once he was commanded to do it. [Prophetically, Avraham divined the mitzvos that would only be commanded later – like eating matza and blowing shaofar, for example. ) The question, asked Rav Nissan Alpert, is why not? Why specifically by the mitzva of mila did Avraham wait until God actually commanded him to do so?

Furthermore, the Medrash in next week’s Parsha reveals that actually even after Avraham was commanded to circumcize himself he still was not totally sure. The Medrash recounts that Avraham visited some friends and asked for their advice regarding the circumcision; he wanted to know if it was a good idea. The question is obvious! By the story of the Akeda, Avraham had no qualms about sacrificing his son Yitzchak. There he did not consult with colleagues- he needed no convincing that it was the right thing to do. But here by Mila, Avraham needs to ask his friends for advice-!?

Rav Nissan Alpert offers one approach. The Mitzva of Mila, he says, is categorically different than all the other Mitzvos Avrhaam did up until that point. Circumcision displays a radical physical difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. (Let us put aside one who unfortunately cannot or did not have a circumcision.) It is a sign that the Jewish people are an elevated group. Avraham knew this fact and was concerned that undergoing this radical change would perhaps sabotage his attempts at influencing the pagan worshipers of his time. Once he got the Mila everyone would view him as a Religious Fanatic, or a person with sacrifice for God too great to be mimicked by the mere mortal. People might be intimidated, overwhelmed, or turned off when encountering a person who took his service to God to such an extent as to make an abrasion in his body.

Therefore Avraham did not voluntarily circumcise himself and he even was hesitant when God told him to do so. “Perhaps, Avraham relayed to his friends, Hashem’s message will go unheard if I perform this mitzva. Maybe it is better I do not do it!! Only when his friend Mamre advised Avraham to listen to God did Avraham acquiesce.

Why now, at the age of 99, was God advising Avraham to get a Mila? If Avraham avoided having it done up until this point, why did God feel that now it was the time to get it done? Rav Alpert adds that now God knew that Avraham would become a father soon. Before Avraham could be a proper father and teacher to his child, Avraham need to ‘perfect’ himself through getting the mila.

There are a number of lessons to be derived here. Sometimes we feel that to influence others to more closely follow the ways of Hashem we cannot appear to extreme in our religious behavior. We might turn them off. Indeed, as evidenced by Avraham’s hesitance, this might be a valid approach. We have to be careful not to be overbearing or patronizing when trying to influence others. But Mamre (and God of course) disagree with Avraham and say that no, he should still get the mila. This approach seems to imply that sometimes we should not worry so much about our appearances. We should be ourselves, be proud of our ideals and what we look like. This will create a positive sentiment and impact when displayed properly to others.

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Noach- Speak Softly

“Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean (Anenu tahora) animal, a male and its mate”. (7:2)

Why did the Torah use the language of Anenu Tahora when the simpler “Tameh” could have been used*? [The Torah usually prefers terse language.]

This shows us that we should use only the most pristine of language. (Gemara in Pesachim 3a) The answer is that saying the word Tameh sounds slightly more ‘vulgar’ than Anenu Tahora and the torah also prefers only the most pristine type of language.

Asks the Dubna Maggid: “It says Tameh many times in the Torah! Take a look at Parshas Shmini and you will find many uses of the word Tameh! So what point is the Torah and Gemara making here in Parshas Noach, when in reality the word Tameh is used many times (later) in the Torah!?”

He answers with a parable. There was once a guy who was known by a derogatory name and rightfully so. The man was uncouth. A master once criticized his servant for flippantly referring to this person by a derogatory name, but later on the master used that very name himself in regards to marriage proposal with this third person. What was the discrepancy, the servant wanted to know? The master answered that the servant used the name for no apparent purpose. That is simply wrong. However, the master used the name in regards to a marriage proposal. There the master had a real purpose in stating to the Shadchan exactly the types of behaviors this person exemplified.

The same reasoning applies here, as well. In the Parshiyos later on when the Torah uses “Tameh”, there is a real need to do so. For example, the Torah has a real purpose in saying that a Nidda is Tameh. It is in order to demonstrate exactly we are dealing with, namely, a prohibition of closeness to someone in a certain situation. Therefore, the Torah used the word Tameh. However, by Noach, there is no definitive purpose in stating exactly what condition the animals were in – there were no rules riding on this episode. There is no need to say Tameh, so the Torah uses Anenu Tahora.

The lesson is that we should be careful with our speech. Even words that are not terribly offensive, but have a tinge of ‘dirtiness’ to them should be avoided, except in situations which call for it.

Good Shabbos from the Heights,

*The truth is that in English both words are translated as “impure”, sadly producing no real difference between the distinct Hebrew terms. But you could say it is like saying unclean vs. dirty. It is more pristine to say unclean. Clean and unclean here refer to kosher vs. non-kosher

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Anu Ratzim v’Heim Ratzim

Gemarrah Brachot 28b states that when R’ Nechunya ben Hakanah used to leave the beit medrash, he would say the famous line that is made at a siyum “Ani Mashkim, v’heim mashkimim: Ani Mashkim l’divrei torah, v’heim mashkimim l’dvarim beteilim. Ani amel, v’heim ameilim: Ani amel u’mekablel sechar, heim ameilim v’einam mekablim sechar. Ani ratz, v’heim ratzim: Ani ratz l’chayei haolam haba, v’heim ratzim l’beir shachat.” (I get up early and they get up early: I get up early for divrei torah, but they get up torah for worthless things. I toil and they toil: I toil and get reward, they toil and don’t get reward. I run and they run: I run to the World to Come and they run to hell.)

This is a strange thing to say when you are finishing learning. It would make much more sense to say this when you start learning.

The simple answer to this question is that we are praising the fact that we got up early to learn and are now getting on with the rest of our day. We are grateful for the fact that we were able to toil in our torah learning, and were able to use our time to run (in learning) towards heaven.

I thought of a different understanding. Elsewhere in Brachot Rabbeinu Tam (if I remember correctly) asks why one doesn’t make birchat hatorah (blessings on the torah) every time one learns. He answers that since when you stopped learning and went to work, you were (austenisbly) thinking about your learning the entire time and were working solely so that you could get back to the Beit Midrash. As such, there was no interruption between your first learning, and any subsequent learning in the day, so you would not make a new bracha.

With this in mind, we can understand this Gemarrah differently. When one says “I toil” they could just as well mean in their work. They are saying “I go to work and work hard, and they go to work and work hard” but since my motivation for all the work is to further enable my torah study, I receive reward not just for the torah study, but for the work too! Similarly, “I run and they run” – I run around all day doing whatever I need to take care of, and they do too, but all my running is with the end goal of getting back to my relationship with Hashem, and as such, all the running around I do is getting me closer to the World to Come.

This is why we say this at the end of our learning. It is to remind us when we leave the beit midrash that we are not finishing with our daily dose of religion. Rather that we must imbue the rest of our day with the same drive and holiness that Torah learning provides, and remember that the ultimate goal is to get back to learning and coming closer to Hashem.

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Shemos- Where You Want to Be

23 And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew them.

What does it mean that God knew them?

The Bais HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveichik) answers by saying that God knew we were innocent from full blame.

The Jews, suffering under the heavy burden of work in Egypt also happened to commit idolatry during that time. The Medrash records that when God decided to take the Jews out of Egypt the angels representing Egypt challenged God and asked why the Jews should be saved and the Egyptians destroyed? Were the Jews any better than the Egyptians? Both committed idolatry the Jews may have committed other sins, although I am not sure about this.) [The following answer of the God also seemed so obvious to me that I wonder what the question of the angels was in the first place!]

God answers there is a big difference! The Egyptians willingly chose to enslave the Jewish People, to beat them and to subjugate them. The Jews, on the other hand, were subject to the whim of these immoral, wicked people! They suffered innumerable pains in Egypt. So even if at some point they did serve idols, if was because they were under duress and persecution. How can you even compare the Jews to the Egyptians?!

[I actually do not know of a source besides for this Medrash that says that the Jews actually served idols. There are sources in the Torah that say that the Jews cried out to God which signifies that they still believed in Him! So, where do we know from the Torah that the Jews actually served idols and fell to the “49th level of impurity”!?]

Still, the Beis HaLevi comments that if not for God knowing intimately that the Jewish People as a whole wished to serve Him if they could, the excuse of being under duress would not apply. The litmus test is seeing whether one would or would not do the same action if they were not under duress. But Gd knew that if the Jews had it differently they would simply not be serving idols. That is why he “remembered his covenant with Abraham…”. God wants the heart, firstly. Judaism values striving, dealing with what you have the best you can, but also measuring where you want to be. The Jews wanted to be in Israel serving God, not in Egypt serving idols, even if that is what they were doing. I can almost guarantee you that.

The dvar Torah was from Rav Rosner, as usual, but I think we add an interpersonal lesson here, as well. We have to be careful not to judge other Jews. Sometimes a person can be in a certain difficult situations, whether with family, school, etc. which causes them to act in a certain way. We have to recognize that if they were in an easier situiation, their behavior may be different. If so, their behavior now is simply a facade. Not that we can pardon everyone and enforce no rules when it becomes necessary, but to do it without judging the person.

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I’m going to do something out-of-the-box here.  I know it’s Parashat Toldot, and we want to know as much as we can about Yaakov and Esav, about the birthright, the brachot, deception, drama, and revenge.  But I want to know about what goes on in the middle part.  Yitzhak’s whole life story happens in chapter 26.  What were some of his defining moments?

A brief outline of the chapter yields the following: there is a famine in the Land, so Yitzhak goes to Avimelekh.  He passes Rivka off as his sister, until Avimelekh discovers otherwise and summarily dismisses him.  He leaves and begins farming and is outstandingly successful.  The Plishtim become jealous and send him away, so he leaves and settles in the wadi of Gerar.  He unearths the wells his father had dug which the Plishtim covered up after Avraham’s death.  He digs a couple new wells and the locals begin contending with him.  Then, Avimelekh swings around and asks Yitzhak nicely if he wouldn’t mind striking an oath for protection.  (Please feel free to read it yourself to avoid having my voice and assumptions superimposed on the storyline =]  )

Many of these themes are parallel to the major events in Avraham’s lifetime, and the text even points us to that conclusion.  The famine is described as different “from the previous famine which occurred in the day’s of Avraham,” (26:1) and Yitzhak’s two brachot are in merit of Avraham (26:5 and 26:24).  Let’s take a look at one of these parallels and see what’s boiling beneath the surface.

Isaac dug anew the wells that were dug in the days of his father Avraham, and which the Plishtim had stopped up after Avraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. (26:18)

Wells are very important, especially for people who live in the arid Negev.  So why would the Plishtim stop them up?  Water is a life-or-death issue in the desert!  And why did the Torah take the time to tell us about their names?

I ran into a commentator this week that I’ve never used before.  HaKtav ve’HaKaballah by Yaakov Tzvi מקלנבורג (whose last name I can’t properly vowelize) explains as follows.  Wells are, in fact, a life-or-death matter in the South, and the fact that Avraham dug so many is indicative of his great hesed.  But Avraham had other agendas as well.  He didn’t give his wells average names.  When he named them things, they sounded like “Hashem Yire,” (of Akeida fame).  He named things that spoke of God’s greatness.  Then, when people went to go take a drink, they’d same “I’m off to Well of God’s Greatness!”  And slowly but surely, God became part of the lexicon.  In fact, we see that the locals called Avraham “Nasi Elohim” at the beginning of last week’s parashah!  With the simple hesed of digging a well, Avraham incorporated godliness in to everyday life wherever he went. The Plishtim wouldn’t have this, and as soon as Avraham died, they ran and covered up these wells.  No more talking about God, even at the expense of water.  So Yitzhak came back and undug the wells, and he renamed them the same names and reintroduced God into the lexicon.  We see right there in the psukim how mad the shephards were, but Yitzhak kept trekking on.1

Just like we saw a couple parashot ago, Avraham got into a community and didn’t merely preach, he transformed it.  And now we see that he he did that right the very foundations with the local water source.  But sometimes, without help, the structures we build in hostile lands cannot outlive us.

And Yitzhak?  He did not idly repeat his father’s legacy: he renewed it, and even pushed it forward.  Yitzhak plants up a storm in verse 12 (something we never saw Avraham doing) and the Midrash there explains to us that, “the righteous are involved in yishuv ha’olam, settling the world.”  Yaakov built in his own way, sometimes reliving his father’s life, and sometimes building on it and pushing forward.

[cross-posted on divreidavid]

BONUS – Question for your guys: verse 34, in light of the above, what’s the significance that Esav marries a woman who’s father’s name is “my well,” especially in light of the fact that Yitzhak and Rivka do not seem very happy with Esav’s choice?

  1. You can find your own copy of HaKtav ve’HaKaballah right here 

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Life Lessons

Parashat Hayye Sarah is, at large, a chronicle of Avraham Avinu’s last living actions.  Beginning with the death of Sarah Imeinu and ending with the death of Avraham himself (with an aside tracking the generations of Yishmael and his death), we are invited to see how the forefather of the Jewish people chose to spend his last.

A cursory read of the parasha yields 3 major elements.  Avraham

  • buys a plot (chapter 23),
  • arranges for his son to marry (chapter 24), and
  • wills all his possessions to Yitzhak and sends his other sons away (chapter 25).

However, if we rephrase the description of these events, we find that Avraham

  • begins buying Eretz Yisrael (a burial plot is the most meaningful, symbolic, and lasting land purchase possible),
  • ensures his progeny, and
  • guarantees Yitzhak’s status as successor.

Yet we find that all three things have already been promised to Avraham by God in previous parshiyot!  Does this render Avraham’s last efforts futile?  Not at all.  Avraham perceived the following foundational principle: even when Hashem promises you something, you are yet part of the fulfillment of that promise.  It was not enough for Avraham to sit idly by while his destiny unfolded; he played an active role in the consummation of his divine decree.  This goes a leap beyond hishtadlut:1  Avraham is an instrument in God’s promise to him!

But that is only one of the elemental truths Avraham teaches us through his actions.  Of the many curious events in our parashah, one that escapes overlooking is the conversation between Avraham and Eliezer2.  Avraham, ever laconic, has an unusually long conversation with Eliezer, that goes something like this:

(Note: this is far from an exact translation.  Really far.)

Avraham: Swear you will not get my son a wife from Canaan, but get one from my birthplace.
Eliezer: What if she doesn’t want to come back, should I take Yitzhak over there?
Avraham: No way.  The God who promised me the Land will send an angel to guide you.  If she doesn’t want to come, you are cleared of your oath, but whatever you do, do not take Yitzhak back.
Eliezer: I swear

(Bereishit 24:1-9)

Avraham has two major criteria in his judgement: a) he wants Yitzhak to marry someone from back home and b) he does not want Yitzhak to ever leave the Land of Canaan.3  Eliezer is trying to flesh out which of the two criteria is more essential.  Avraham will not have it.  If Eliezer can’t do his job, says Avraham, then leave my son alone.  But note!    He says “you are absolved of your oath,” and, “whatever you do, do not take him there.”  He does not say, “make sure he stays Israel.”  He makes no decision as to which criteria is more essential.  He merely instructs Eliezer to remove himself from the divine process by advising <em>in</em>action.4

Avraham is positive that humans can play a role in fulfilling the divine promise.  But in the event that  they cannot, or choose not, Avraham also has perfect faith that the decree will be fulfilled either way, so he tells Eliezer to forget about it.

And this is the second axiom.  Avraham knows that the same God Who has made him every promise will also fulfill each and every one.  And if Avraham cannot play his role the way he imagined it, it is of no consequence: the promise will be fulfilled.

We must have faith that in the darkest of times, in the loneliest of times, on the border between improbable and impossible, that God is still there, and He hears all of our prayers.

And He makes good on His promises.

L’ilui nishmat Shayndel Gittle bat ha-Rav Eliezer Chaim, whose life was a model of this lesson

[cross-posted on divreidavid]

  1. effort or endeavor, the common phrase for man “doing his part,” otherwise known as, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

  2. although he is called “ha-eved” and “ha-ish” throughout the entire parashah without one mention of a name, the standard Rabbinic approach is to assume that the nameless personality is in fact Eliezer. 

  3. we mentioned that Avraham bought land in order to be part of the promise of the Land.  The second best way to take over a country is to marry your kids in to the local aristocratic families.  However, this is not an option for Avraham.  Instead, he opts for the idol worshipers back home, the very home from which he was instructed to cut himself off.  See Derashot ha-Ran, fifth derashah, for an explanation as to why. 

  4. The addition of “do not take Yitzhak back there,” must be read in context.  It is a response to Eliezer’s question, “Can I take him to hutz l’aretz?”  If Eliezer has instead asked, “What if I find a nice Canaanite girl hereabouts?” Avraham’s addendum may have been, “whatever you do, do not marry Yitzhak off to one of the local.” 

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With Much Alacrity

One part of learning the parasha that is both fascinating and instructive is learning more about the characters and their qualities because, as we know, our forefathers aren’t merely our progenitors, but also our role models. The things they did and how they did them can illuminate and impact how we live our own lives.

In Vayera, Avraham is faced with the greatest test God ever gave Man. After a century of waiting for a child who would inherit his covenant with God, Avraham is asked to offer Yitzhak as a sacrifice to God. The very same Avraham who stood up and protested God’s actions against Sodom and ‘Amora, now complies without blinking an eye. What is it about Avraham that enables him to make the right decisions?

The commentators offer a couple of clues. In 22:3, Avraham rises early in the morning and saddles his own donkey, and brings with him wood for the altar. The addition of the detail of the wood prompts the Ramban to ask: wouldn’t there be wood where Avraham was going?

ויבקע עצי עולה – זריזותו במצוה, אולי לא ימצא שם במקום ההוא עצים והוליכם שלשה ימים, או שהיה אברהם פוסל לקרבן עץ שנמצא בו תולעת כדין התורה (מדות ב ה), ולקח מביתו עצים טובים לעולה, וכן אמר ויבקע עצי עולה

And he chopped wood for the offering – his zrizut in the mitvah, for perhaps he wouldn’t find any wood in the place after they had traveled three days, or that Avraham would discover that the wood found there is unfit for offerings after finding maggots in the wood, so he brought from his house good wood.

This is strange. Zrizut is classically translated as zealousness. As per the talmudic dictum – זריזינן מקדימים למצוות (zrizin are first to mitzvot) – zrizut carries an image of celerity, of being the first guy to show up. But here, the Ramban’s use of zrizut has nothing to do with being fast. Avraham’s zrizut is here characterized by thinking ahead.

A fuller picture is given to us the very next verse, 22:4. The Torah reveals that Avraham traveled for three days to get to Mount Moriah. The obvious question is: why make Avraham travel for three whole days? Why not have Avraham do the deed where he stands?

Rashi explains:

ביום השלישי – למה איחר מלהראותו מיד, כדי שלא יאמרו הממו וערבבו פתאום וטרד דעתו, ואילו היה לו שהות להמלך אל לבו לא היה עושה

On the third day – Why did God draw it out and not reveal it immediately? In order that (they) might not say he was surprised and confused suddenly, and if he had time to think about it he would have changed his mind and not done it.

The benefit of making Avraham travel for so long was to give him time to think it out. He could have walked out if he wanted to, but he chose not to. The Ramban really drives this point home. By giving Avraham days to think about the act, Avraham’s action became not a hasty, thoughtless, and rash reaction, but one driven by counsel and forethought.

And that’s the core of zrizut. Zrizut is not about doing the mitzvah as fast as possible, but about doing it as thoughtfully as possible. When we acquire forethought and proper intention (or in the Ramban’s words, דעת ועצה), we can refocus our deeds. When we are first to minyan or first to lend a helping hand, it is not a thoughtless reaction, but a thoughtful action, a decision to be a better person.

On Mount Moriah, God showed us the heights of human capability. Let us take this lesson and be the best people we can be.

[cross-posted on divreidavid]

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Calling out in the Name of God

Our parasha traces the very beginning of a new epoch in human history – the beginning of Avraham Avinu’s relationship with Hashem, his role in the world, and a brit binding Hashem and all of Avraham’s descendents. Our parsha sweeps us across many lands and through many of the situations Avraham faced, but one motif stands out:

וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה, מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית-אֵל—וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה; בֵּית-אֵל מִיָּם, וְהָעַי מִקֶּדֶם, וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהוָה, וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה. בראשית יב:ח

“From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east, and he built there an altar to God and called out in the name of God.” (ּBereishit 12:8)

Avraham again calls out in the name of God in 13:4, and once more in 21:33. In his father’s footsteps, Yitzhak follows suit in 26:25.

What is the relationship between building an altar and calling out in God’s name? In order to understand that, we must understand what calling out in God’s name even means.

Onkelos on all four verses translates “calling” as “praying.” Therefore, calling out in God’s name means to pray to God. Many rishonim, including Rashi and the first opinion cited by the Ibn Ezra, agree with this explanation. Then, in this sense, there is no real connection between prayer and the construction of the altar, since we know that prayer can take place anywhere.

Other rishonim (the Ramban and the second opinion in the Ibn Ezra) play around with the syntax of our verses to yield the following read: “and he called upon others to pray to God.” Calling out to God means being His representative in this world and invite others to pray to God. In this sense, the altar was constructed as a central place from where to preach and spread awareness of the Creator. Calling out in God’s name is not merely a single act but a lifelong mission.

Rav Yehudah Rock notes that in Dvarim, the makom hamikdash is referred to as the place where God will rest His name, or specifically, “l’shaken sh’mo sham.” (12:11) L’shaken, here translated as “to rest,” is the verb form of the word “shekhina,” the Divine presence. Shekhina, however, is never used in the noun form in Tanakh, only later by the Rabbis. In Tanakh, it appears exclusively as a verb. The noun form used instead is “shem.” So in fact, we have been mistranslating the word shem. Shem not only means name, as well as fame, but can mean the glory of the Divine presence. 1

This completely transforms our understanding of our forefathers’ actions. They traveled from place to place building altars, not just as a means of prayer or sacrificial worship, but as a focal point where God’s presence and glory could be revealed and realized to the local inhabitants. They called upon people not just to pray or to worship in a narrow sense; they transformed people’s perception and awareness of Hashem. It’s like they went to Nowheresville and built shuls, and JCCs, and schools, and youth groups, and they made Hashem a living reality for their congregants. When they “called out in the name of God,” they made God present in a time and place where He was not.

Our sages teach us: maaseh avot, siman l’banim, the actions of our forefathers are a sign for us, their sons. We, too, must build altars today in 2010. We must create a makom Shekhina, a “resting place” for the Divine presence,” in places devoid, and transform people’s relationship with and perception of the Almighty. And, with help of Hashem, we must successfully call out in His name.

[cross-posted on divreidavid]

  1. i.e. shem=shekhina. This informed understanding of the word shem might explain the enigmatic sin of Bavel. The psukim read that the inhabitants said, “Let us make a shem for ourselves,” and God responds decisively, which is strange if all they wanted was a nice big tower and for people to know about it…who could judge them? Certainly not I. But they didn’t just want to make for themselves “a name,” they wanted to make their own Divine presence, to replace God. This textual clue is the impetus for the midrashic understanding of Bavel’s sin being avodah zarah.
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