Chayei Sarah 5777: Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah and Thoughts on Giving Thanks

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Thanksgiving one of America’s favorite holidays, loaded with food, family, and loads of seemingly “yehareg v’al yaavor” holiday traditions.  I look at this particular legal holiday bearing in mind the challenges and bumps in the road that have peppered my own life, yet I still find an overwhelming amount of things to be thankful for. 

-I do not understand everything that Hashem does, but so thankful He takes care of me.

-I’m thankful to be part of amazing, supportive families that will do anything at the drop of a hat.

-I’m thankful for having an amazing wife, my greatest cheerleader, who encourages me to be the best person I can be.

-There are numerous things I wish I had that I do not. Yet, next to the checklist of what I do have, I am thankful to be so incredibly lucky.

-I’m thankful for a Cleveland Cavaliers championship.

-I’m thankful for living in a democracy. I do not agree with protests or demonstrations, but I am indeed thankful for the right to have them and not be persecuted. I have not always rejoiced in the outcomes of our democratic elections, but I am undoubtedly thankful for them. 

-I do not always agree with what’s going on in the State of Isreal but thankful that there is one. There are plenty of people alive today who lived in a world where that was not the case, those who have seen the consequences of what that world looked like. 

There’s something nice about the entire country coming together, if only for one night, to recognize what’s important in life and to be thankful for it. As Jews, we are commanded at various different times to give thanks. When we encounter a dangerous scenario, we recite the bracha of “Hagomel lechayavim tovot shegemalani kol tov”, that we thank God for bestowing His kindness upon them in a time of need. Many people know this blessing today as it’s also widely recited after travel across the ocean.

Furthermore, Jews thank Hashem not only for saving us from peril, but actually offer our thanks and appreciation every single day. Upon arising in the morning, the first thing we are to do is recite Modeh Ani, literally thanking the Almighty for restoring our soul to us that day, having great faith in all of us that we can work toward accomplishing the tasks He’s set forth for us. Another such benediction of thanks appears in the Shemoneh Esrei with the Modim prayer, an entire paragraph where we thank Hashem. While the chazzan recites this prayer, the congregation is to say a different version of Modim. The Abudraham comments that when it comes to giving thanks, this is something that cannot be done for us by an emissary. We must each individually offer our own message of gratitude.

Giving thanks ties very nicely into derech eretz. How wonderful does it feel when someone does something great for you? How wonderful does it feel when we do something for someone else? Saying thank you is a natural response in line with derech eretz. It’s the proper thing to do. Yet, it doesn’t always happen, and not only because actions can sometimes be done in anonymity when the giver is not always known to the recipient. If someone performs a great chessed for you on countless occasions, will you only thank them once? Of course not.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe, the famed mashgiach and mussar giant, sheds light on instances of the primacy of derech eretz as found in Parshat Chayei Sarah. 

Rashi explains (Bereishis 24:42) from the Midrash that Rav Acha recounts that ordinary conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs are more dear to Hashem than the Torah of their sons. The proof for this is that section dealing with Eliezer is repeated in the Torah, while many other fundamental Torah missives and messages were given only through hints, rather than explicit statements.

What is is about the words of Eliezer that are so dear to Hashem?

Rav Wolbe explains that the words of the servants of the Avot are used to convey guidelines of derech eretz. Eliezer’s actions and expressions were rooted entirely in derech eretz, which is why they were considered so important that they were worth repeating.

Tanna D’vei Eliyahu (1:1) explains the common phrase, “derech eretz kadmah laTorah” that derech eretz precedes Torah. Rav Wolbe connects this idea to grocery shopping. Just as one needs a bag to hold their produce or a carton to hold their eggs, Hashem applies this idea to Torah. The very vessel charged with “containing” the Torah is derech eretz. Derech eretz is defined as the actions and behaviors that a person should recognize as proper without having to be taught. Before a person can properly learn Torah, they must have a proper grounding in seichel (common sense) as to what is right and what is wrong. One who lacks proper derech eretz is compared 2013-01-20 12.07.12 copy.jpgto by our sages as worse than a dead animal (Vayikra Rabbah). Derech eretz enables someone to become a gadol baTorah, a true Torah giant.

The importance of derech eretz can be seen later in the parsha as well. When Eliezer returns to Yitzchak with his bride Rivka, the Torah tells us (24:67) that Yitzchak brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother. Targum Onkelos writes that only after he saw that her middot (character traits) were identical to those of his mother, did he take her as his wife.

This seems puzzling. In the previous pasuk, Eliezer explains to Yitzchak the entire story of his journey. Rashi writes of the various miracles that occurred on the way (shortening the length of his trip and his tefillot being answered unbelievably quickly). What else did Yitzchak need? Weren’t those amazing miracles enough for him to seal the deal, and take Rivka as his wife? What difference do her middot make in the face of these open miracles?

Rav Wolbe answers that even if these miraculous events all pointed one way in proving that she was his match made in heaven, the deciding factor needed to be the character traits of this individual. Incredible events of hashgacha, Divine providence can sometimes cloud our judgement and deviate our minds in terms of what is truly important. Derech eretz is so vital that it comes before Torah! One can spend their entire life devoted to learning Torah, yet if they lack the respect and human decency to be kind to their fellow, it’s as if they have learning nothing at all. Proper derech eretz is the foundation of Klal Yisrael and that’s exactly why Yitzchak needed to be sure of Rivka’s middot before agreeing to marry her.  

Derech eretz is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Thanksgiving may come only once annually, but derech eretz is an everyday mandate.


19 Cheshvan: A Very, Very, Very Fine House

The picture that you see below is what has been the Balk homestead for the last 9.5 years.


And I hate it.

It all started back in 2007 when my parents were looking for a new house. Finding a house with a first-floor master bedroom for my mother, while staying in the same district for my sister’s schooling was a tall order. Yet, they found a house that fit their needs, and quickly pounced on the property the first day it hit the market. I was less than excited about the new house, a house that was significantly farther from the shuls I’d walk to on Shabbos and Yuntif. I’d try and find every flaw of the home and point it out to my parents: The kitchen is so ugly! The bedrooms have no lights! Do you REALLY want to live on the corner of one of the biggest, most annoying intersections in Shaker Heights? Sadly for 12th grade me, those complaints fell on deaf ears. I packed my room in early June as I was headed to camp later that month. I’d call from camp and dial a number that was no longer in service. I put the new phone number in my phone as “New House”, a contact which remains in my phone today. When camp was over, I had five days until I left for the year to Yeshiva. My parents picked me up from the bus, and as we drove a different way home, I quizzically asked “Aren’t you going the wrong way?” To my horror, they were not. We arrived to the house, I shudder to say “home” because it felt nothing like home. The five days flew by and before I knew it, I was on the plane, first to JFK and then to Israel. At 35,000 feet, I finally came to terms with my parents’ new house. After all, the inconvenience it provided me melted in comparison to my mother getting her life and mobility back. I thought about the time it would take her to go up and down the stairs of the grand, two story foyer in our old house. I still can’t believe she’d do it a few times a day. It made my annoyance seem so obnoxious, so trivial. I’d remind myself of that tidbit every time I’d make the almost two mile trek to shul when I’d come home. Every step is a mitzvah, I’d tell myself, although it didn’t make the journey any easier.

A few Saturday nights ago, my father called me and told me that someone had put a bid on the house. It had been on the market for a little while, and I was happy that someone had taken interest in it. The catch was that they wanted to move in very quickly, as soon as possible. I booked a flight home the next day, and began packing and cleaning up my bedroom. I found so many amazing things from my childhood, artifacts that hadn’t been touched in nearly a decade. Old speeches I gave, pictures with friends, other wonderful souvenirs from my formative years.  Rejection and acceptance letters from colleges, that my mother had opened before I got a chance to do so. Meaningful, loving cards from my parents telling me how proud they were of me (and that I needed to clean my room). Items that shaped me into the very person I am today.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. As I lay in bed for the final time in my now “old” house, I tried to think about what it meant to me. The frustration wrought in the decision to move there, and the unknown in the decision to move out. And I immediately thought of my mother. It was her house. It was a beautifully open home, one that could not have been more perfect to host gatherings with throngs of people coming together (Sedarim, epic July 4th extravaganzas, her unbelievable surprise party celebrating her 5 year liver transplant anniversary). Her large bookcases from our old house miraculously fit into a perfect space, so perfect that people assumed we’d had these installed after we moved in. The house she’d come home to after various bouts in the hospital or physical therapy rehab, the one that would welcome her with open arms.

Ultimately, more than any of those other events, this house will be remembered by me as the house where we mourned my mother. The house where we were comforted in a time of great darkness and sadness. I’ll never forget the family, friends, rebbeim and others who came to pay their respects. I still get goosebumps when I think about Rabbi Penner, the dean of YU’s rabbinical school, flying in one of my rabbeim to visit us for the day. It’s been three years, but those are snapshots that will last a lifetime.

Our sages teach us that when mourning for a family member, it’s appropriate (when possible) for all grieving family members should observe shiva together in the house of the deceased. The home that someone has lived in is a place where their spirit continues to dwell after their passing. Although I can still find flaws with the physical structure, my mother’s spirit continued to dwell in that house.

But her spirit can also be found at the Cleveland Clinic. At Menorah Park. Park Synagogue. Bnai Jeshurun. Gross Schechter Day School. Fuchs Mizrachi School. The JECC. Heinen’s. Boris Kosher Meats. There aren’t too many places I visit in Cleveland that my mother’s neshamah didn’t touch, directly or indirectly. I don’t have to look too deeply.

These were the thoughts that ran across my mind as I stared at the ceiling of my bedroom on my last night at 2791 Chesterton Road. How could I sleep? By the time I finally learned to stop hating this house, my family didn’t even own it anymore.  All I wanted to do was cry. The house that I didn’t even want to move to had moved me to tears.

About this Week… – Lech Lecha 5777: The Immediate, Necessary Steps as exhibited by Avraham, Rachel, and Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel.

As I walked into shul for mincha/maariv today, I was stopped in my tracks. There in front of me, next to the mechitza in the Beit Midrash, stood a large TV camera and microphone. Although I originally thought it was a new synagogue initiative to help improve the decorum of our tefillah betzibbur (which happens to be relatively good), the rabbi informed the mispalelim that the New York Times had sent a camera crew to the synagogue to document us for a piece they’re working on pertaining to how people in religious world were “coping” with the aftermath of the presidential election. Many of those present found this perplexing. This group of men and women gathering together for daily prayer was far from anything out of the ordinary, but it made me think about the premise of this journalist’s presence at our minyan. This week has been pretty interesting, to say the least. There are people across the country who are hurting, still transfixed over the election results, and I understand their shock. When there’s a communal consensus of suffering and shock, we as a people come together both to pray and remind ourselves that the Almighty is in control, and will ultimately seize the situation and end our misery.  What can we do? What should we do? To me, there are three steps that we must take at this moment: Believe in God, Daven, and Act.

The first step is to believe that Hashem has a plan and to trust in Him. It’s the most frustratingly cliche answer ever given, but it’s the truest of adages, one that we find spanning the gamut of liturgy and, and also nestled in Parshat Lech Lecha. Rav Shlomo Wolbe in his Shiurei Chumash brings a fascinating insight from this week’s sedrah, when Avraham is told by Hashem that he and Sarah will be blessed with a child (Bereshis 15:6). Now Avraham and Sarah weren’t exactly as young and vivacious as they once were, but Rashi explains that this blessing was a zechus for Avraham believing with complete faith that Hashem would indeed do what he promised to do (give them a child). Ramban is curious. Avraham believed that Hashem would make good on His word – That’s it?         Why should Avraham be rewarded for believing that something Hashem said would happen was actually going to occur? There has to be something more! Maharal explains that Avraham’s complete emunah is precisely why he and Sarah would be rewarded. Even though he had a direct message from God that he and his wife would have a child, true emunah is something that can be hard to muster up. Sarah Imeinu was old, and, as Rashi explains, didn’t even have the organs to even carry a child! Yet, Avraham was rewarded because of his emunah sheleimah, his complete faith that the unthinkable could occur because it had been willed by the Almighty. To summon up that level of belief for something so seemingly unlikely is nothing short of heroic, and we can see that other figures across the Torah grappled with this very task and acted differently.

Rashi explains (Bereishis 7:7) that Noach only entered the teiva once the rain began falling to signal the impending deluge. Why did he wait? He built the teiva for 120 years! Hashem told him the flood was going to happen! Why did he only enter the Ark once the rain started falling? According to Rashi, Noach lacked this complete faith in the Ribono Shel Olam, and didn’t believe that He would bring about such a punishment. What do we remember of Noach? He was ultimately drunk and embarrassed. Yet, even Moshe Rabbeinu was punished for not believing in to the word of God, as evidenced by his hitting the rock after being told to speak to it. Moshe was only the greatest leader the Jewish people have ever seen (no big deal). His life’s work was to lead the Jewish people through the desert to the promised land, and after only one hiccup he loses the chance of setting foot on that its holy soil. The message is clear: emunah shlaima is something that’s rewarded even though it seems trivial.

Our next step is prayer. The struggle for Avraham and Sarah to conceive is not the last time that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs dealt with issues infertility. One such experience was that of Rachel Imenu, whose yahrtzeit is marked this Shabbat, a day that is marked by intense tefillah. Rachel’s prayers are very important, and it is in her merit that Mashiach will ultimately redeem the Jewish people. Rachel cried to Yaakov that if she doesn’t have children, it’s as if she were dead (Bereishis 30:1).  Rav Avraham Schorr in HaLekach VeHalibuv on Sefer Breishis explains that because of this “chiddush” of Rachel being considered dead without children, Yaakov then took Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, and had a son. This child was named Dan, by Rachel, because Hashem had judged her and listened to her voice. Even though she herself had not yet given birth, she was the reason for Dan’s existence. Rav Schorr writes that Shevet Dan was no ordinary tribe of Israel. Shevet Dan was charged to bring up the rear of all the tribal encampments and was responsible for ensuring that everyone was where they needed to be. This is in line with the description of Rachel Imenu in Sefer Yirmiyahu, the Rachel who “cries for her children for they are not with her” and that because of her, “there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border.” Rachel Imenu would cry, and Shevet Dan would secure the perimeter, and see to it that all of the nefashot of Klal Yisrael were never lost, always ending up in the right place. In this merit, in the zechus of Rachel Imenu and her tefilos, her yahrtzeit is a powerful day that is met with great prayer for anything that we need.

We now come to the final step: action. There is much to learn from the emunah of Avraham and the tefillah of Rachel. The belief that ultimately things will be alright, and the reality that at times, all we can do is pray. Nevertheless, there is plenty to take away from the actions and the struggles of these individuals. The parsha is named for the commandment given to Avraham to get up and leave behind the entire world he knows. The cynic will say that Avraham took with him his wife, nephew, their possessions, and those who they brought into the fold of monotheism, hardly leaving much behind. The cynic will speak up again and tell you Rachel finally was blessed with children of her own yet died while giving birth and was hastily buried along the roadside. Yet, a cursory glance at their actions in the Torah showcases the chessed Avraham and Rachel. These individuals did not wallow in the sadness of the low points of their lives. They didn’t only believe it would be good, or daven that things will work out.

They acted.

This call to action reminds me of a hero of mine who I was lucky enough to see with my own eyes only once, whose yahrtzeit also happens to come out on Shabbat. Natey Finkel was a regular American day-school educated boy, and he eventually grew into Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalaim. He was an individual who woulRNTFztl.gif.jpegd meet with scores of people and go on fundraising missions world-wide to raise money for his institution. He maintained a rigorous, rigid schedule which would be hard for anyone to keep, let alone a man confined to a wheelchair with a body racked by tremors and weakness stemming from Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has seen someone suffering from Parkinson’s knows first-hand how debilitating it can be. Yet, Rav Nosson Tzvi did no
t sit idle, nor did he lament his lot in life. He was an individual that if you saw on the streets of Meah Shearim, you might assume to be a person with significant ailments, perhaps not capable of making a marked difference on his daled amos. Such an assumption would be egregiously incorrect. He was an absolute giant. For him to be able to sign his own name was an ordeal in itself. But this man was able to move past immense setbacks, and make a significant, palpable impact.  Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was a hero to me not only because of what he was able to accomplish, on behalf of his yeshiva (which he helped grow into the largest yeshiva in Israel and second largest on the planet) or even the Jewish world. It was the manner in which he did it; through pain, suffering, and tzaros.   He was an individual who didn’t not slow down until the day he died.

That is our charge. To act. Too many times do we sit back and feel comfortable hashtagging and signing online petitions rather than fight the fight in the trenches. It is incumbent upon us to not rest on our virtual laurels while there is still great pain and suffering. We must disconnect from our online soapboxes in order to effectively work on eliminating matters that divide us in order to bring about unity. We must come together.

None can be certain what lies ahead, but by working together, despite our differences, we can do our part to ensure that there is indeed “hope for our future”, as well as hope for our present.