Lech Lecha 5778 – Descent into Ascension

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Go to yourself. That’s a rough translation of the name of our Parsha. Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that this is a call to “return to your spiritual identity, climb up the ladder to spiritual heights, reach your own soul in ascent.” The Jew, according to Rabbi Lamm and others, must constantly be in flux, yearning to grow more and more each day. Rabbi Lipman Podolsky z”l, a beloved educator in Netiv Aryeh before my time there, yet one whose voice still reverberated through the halls of the yeshiva, likened our existence to being on an escalator. There is no inertia — either you’re going up, or going down. If we wish to ride our own coattails, rest on our laurels of previous accomplishments never seeking to delve deeper, in our service to those around us, God, at work, etc., what are we?

We must always be growing, yet talking about the importance of growth can make light of the Herculean task of actually growing. Our Torah portion immediately begins with Avram being commanded to leave his home and travel to a land that he will be shown only upon actually getting there. He is promised by Hashem that he’ll be made into a great nation and blessed tremendously. It almost seems as if we learn this information in the middle of the story line, yet we are not privy to significant details about who Avram even is or what made him so unique. Nevertheless, Avram, his wife, nephew, and the souls they encountered in Charan set off to their new land. Yet, just as soon as we read of the group on the move, they encounter hardship — a famine. This didn’t appear to be a minor hiccup. Avram was purported to be blessed! Great nation! This is a blessing? The pasuk states “Vayered Avraham Mitzraima”, that Avram went down to Egypt. Rabbi Lamm poignantly notes that Avram was history’s first oleh, and had now become history’s first yored. Even while in Egypt, the trials continue as Sara is taken by Paro.

Rabbi Lamm continues, and quotes the Lubavitcher Rebbe who mentions a familiar topic when it comes to growth. We refer to it as yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, descent for the ultimate purpose of ascent. He writes “Often, you must go down in order to go up to an even higher level than that at which you began. Some failures are merely temporary; that are the future successes in disguise. Sometimes the setback is instrumental to later success. Often you must retreat in order to move on, in which case the retreat is preparatory and part of progress and advance.” Yet, through the rest of the Parsha, as well as Sefer Bereishis, we will read about the life of Avraham and there are plenty of times in which this missive comes into play. Avraham Avinu is referred to as Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations. Looking back on his life, would anyone venture to say that he was not truly blessed?

In the grand scheme of our existence, we too encounter situations, albeit on a much smaller scale, where our path to something great is met with disappointment at various junctures. These hurdles may knock us out temporarily, or even force us into a deep yeridah. Living a life dedicated to Hashem is not necessarily one of ease. How many generations of Jews have uttered shver zol zayn a yid? Nevertheless, the growth and blessing that we so desperately seek is something that cannot be measured day by day. There are days in which we make tremendous strides in one direction, while other days see us going the opposite way. When a child says they want to be taller, we tell them to wait, because though they are small now, they will one day grow. It’s not always easy to accept the bumps in the road. What’s even more discouraging is that if we acquiesce that we must descend first, it’s may be even harder to pull ourselves out from that tailspin. Fostering lasting growth is hard enough to accomplish when we are on solid ground. When we are struggling, it can be even harder.

There are two suggestions that come to mind when pondering this conundrum over. First, one of my favorite points that I’ve mentioned before comes from Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah. In the times that seem darkest in our lives, those are the precise moments when we can create immense kedushah and meaning. Sometimes, through the pain that we feel, we can conjure up the strength to move mountains.

The second point is a notion based off “sheva yipol tzaddik vekam,” that a tzaddik falls seven times and gets up. This part of Mishlei doesn’t teach us that a righteous person never has shortcomings or frustrations in their life. It points out to us that they get up and continue to exist despite them. It could be 7 times, 70 times, or more. This growth that we seek in our own “Lech Lecha” moments will only exude through our own efforts, despite the roadblocks we may face. Hashem was true to His word, Avraham’s life was ultimately blessed, even in the face of immense challenges that could derail others. Hopefully our lives will be so blessed as well.

 

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Noach 5778 – Perfect in his Generations?

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Noach is one of the most interesting, complex characters in the entire Torah. The end of Parshas Bereishis notes that Hashem was disheartened with the behavior of the people whom He had created, yet the final verse of the Parsha states that Noach, however, found favor in the eyes of Hashem. The next verse, the opening line of our Parsha, goes even further than that. “These are the generations of Noach, Noach was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noach walked with God.” In addition to the praise previously offered, we see here that Noach seems to be regarded in very high esteem. If you look at the way he is described here, you won’t find many other individuals in the entire Torah who are levied with such praise. Furthermore, he’s given such accolades without even delineating what it was that classified him as a righteous and perfect person!

Yet, at the end of the parsha we see a different individual. The prior Noach is now drunk, naked, embarrassed, casting curses and relegated to an Ish HaAdama, a man of the soil. Rashi tells us even before we read this section of the Parsha that Noach was indeed righteous, but had he been alive in the time of Avraham Avinu, he wouldn’t have been considered important at all. After all, the verse says Noach walked with God. Rashi cites the Medrash Tanchuma that Noach relied on God to keep him on the path of tzidkus, while Avraham did not require this measure and was mechazek himself and ascended to righteousness on his own.

So which one is it?  Righteous or not righteous?

There is a great amount to unpack in reference to these statements of Rashi. These aren’t the mere musings of a random commentary. The words of Rashi carry significant weight. Is it really accurate to state that Noach was only righteous in his time? Even if it is, so what? What’s so nefarious in stating that Noach was only righteous in his generation and had he lived in the time of Avraham he wouldn’t have been regarded so loftily? If we, in 2017/5778 lived in the time of Avraham Avinu, would we have been considered tzaddikim? What indicators are there that the individuals we reflect upon with reverence today would be a blip on the righteousness radar in the times of Abraham?  Avraham pulled himself up by his bootstraps from the throes of idolatry and became a tzaddik. Noach relied on Hashem to support him. Who do we rely on today? We are living in an unparalleled period with more resources and access to scholars than ever before to help us on our journey to righteousness, certainly greater than those available to Noach in his generation, Avraham’s generation, and many that followed. Where exactly does that leave us?

Truth be told, it Rashi’s comment doesn’t bother me. Noach can still be a truly righteous person while also paling in comparison to Avraham. This idea can be applied in relation to sports players of different eras. There are players in every sport who are talented and great at what they do. However, no matter when they play their game, there will always be players before or after them who will have been better. Player X may be the best player in their league this year, but had they been playing in the time period of player Y, their athletic abilities may not have shone as brightly. They may have been a mediocre player on a good team, while a star player on an abysmal one. If one watches a sporting event with a old-time fan, they’ll tell you stories of the players they followed decades ago with great detail. Many times, one might be regaled with tales of how these players today have changed their sport, for better or for worse. This type of comparison talk has existed for centuries, from the time of Noach to this very day.

Are we to remember Noach as righteous for listening to God’s commandments in a time that was dominated by those who did not, or should Noach be remembered for all time as a drunkard who sought to jinx his own descendants? To me, the overwhelmingly obvious answer is the former. One need not be the most righteous person in the history of the world to be considered among the tzaddikim. Noach is no exception.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bereishis 5778 – Living Greatly

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Not so long from now we’ll be zoche to finish reading the entire Torah, and begin anew with Sefer Bereishis. Given the amount of things that I need to do in order to be ready for Chag, I will present a slightly truncated idea on Parshas Bereishis. I say truncated not because it will be short in length, but rather the Dvar Torah has a similar message to what we’ve discussed in an earlier post.

In this week’s Sedrah, we begin with the creation of the entire world by God. Have you ever taken a moment to reflect on just what that means? When we are young, we have a very cursory understanding of the work the Almighty had done. As we go on in age and understanding, our wisdom must get deeper as well. When we say that God created the animals, it’s not just that He made cats and dogs and goldfish. It’s that he imbued every single living thing with intricacies and nuances that are incomprehensible. Animals and plants have tiny, microscopic workings. He created them on their day, but he created the cells, hair follicles, etc. There is so much more to marvel at once you take a look below the surface.

The beginning of the Parsha speaks of Hashem creating the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day, and the small luminary to rule the night, and the stars. We would otherwise refer to them as the sun and moon. The sun and the moon are referred to as great, they both have significant power. Can you imagine living without the light of the sun? Can you picture a pitch black sky with no moon to light up the night? Rabbi Soloveitchik notes something interesting about the me’or hagadol and the me’or hakaton. While the sun gives off light, the moon has no light source of its own, and only reflects the light it receives (the overwhelming majority comes from the sun, but some light also stems from stars and Earth).  That is precisely the reason, explains the Rav, why the moon is referred to as the small luminary, the me’or hakaton while the sun is known as the great luminary, the me’or hagadol. A katan takes, while a gadol gives. Rav Soloveitchik continues that this is exactly why at a bris milah, we bless the newborn baby by saying “zeh katan vegadol yihiyeh”, that this child is now small, but they will ultimately grow. From the time the child is conceived until many years later, the child receives the benefits of those around them. It is our hope, our blessing, that they are set on the right path to ultimately shed this moniker and become a gadol, one who gives and always seeks to give.

There are people who are fully grown who have yet to understand this message. Anyone can be a gadol. May the Almighty continue to find ways to help us live great lives as gedolim who give to those around us.

Sukkos 5778 – Clouded in Glory: For This We Have an Entire Holiday?

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The holiday of Sukkos is at the end of a marathon of yuntifs. It’s a unique holiday, being a part of the Shalosh Regalim with Pesach and Shavuos, and also being immediately following the Yamim Noraim. Although it’s a wonderful holiday, there seems to be something a bit off about this particular Chag. What is so special about Sukkos that we’re celebrating an entire holiday dedicated to the huts that the Jewish people lived in while traversing through the desert after they left Egypt? This is a question posed by many, including Rabbi Chaim HaKohen Fatchia, (the Chalban), who goes even further to say that it seems that there’s a “problem” with the nature of the holiday itself. He writes that Pesach and Shavuos commemorate clear events, seminal moments in the course of the Jewish people (the former being the Exodus from Egypt and the latter being Matan Torah). These were no ordinary days. The Chalban notes that the very verse in the Torah that alludes to this festival, is really pointing out that we are to sit in Sukkot for seven days, as a means of hearkening back to a singular part of yetzias Mitzrayim, a general time to which we have an entire holiday devoted. Furthermore, he continues, why is there no yuntif commemorating the mahn that descended from the sky, or for the water that came from the rock?

Rabbi Eliezer explains (Sukkah 11b) that the sukkah is an allusion to the Ananei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory that were created by God to guide Bnai Yisrael as they wandered from Egypt through the desert. If we take this approach to heart, that the sukkah is zeicher l’Ananei HaKavod, we can come up with a similar question as we originally had. Do the Ananei HaKavod themselves merit an entire holiday?

Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher Sichos al HaMoadim vol. 1) explains that although they may seem too trivial to be the source of a yuntif, the Ananei HaKavod were a true gift from Hashem. This matanah differed greatly from the mahn or the water from the rock because those, in essence, cannot be considered gifts. Food and water are absolute necessities for life, explains the Minchas Asher. God providing Bnai Yisrael with food and water, truly miraculous events, would not bring about a separate holiday. The Ananei HaKavod provided something for the Jewish people that they could have lived without, yet, Hashem gave them anyway to enhance their journey to the land of Israel. For this, says Rav Asher Weiss, we celebrate the Clouds of Glory by themselves with a separate holiday.

Rav Avraham Schorr (HaLekach VeHalibuv Sukkos) adds an exclamation point to the significance of the Ananei HaKavod. The holiday itself was not just commemorating the existence of the Clouds of Glory, but the fact that they returned within Bnai Yisrael on the 15th of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkos. Rav Schorr, in longer essay, writes that the entire holiday of Sukkos is a tikkun for cheit ha’eigel. He quotes the Gr”a on Shir HaShirim who writes that at the time of the sin of the golden calf, the Clouds of Glory completely disappeared from Bnai Yisrael. Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Har Sinai with the second set of luchos on Yom Kippur, and on the next day, the 11th of Tishrei, gave the command to the Jewish people that they were to build the Mishkan. For the next two days (Tishrei 12 and 13), the people brought the items needed to construct the Tabernacle which they had just been commanded to build. This continued on the 14th day of Tishrei when the Chachmei Lev took stock of all that had been donated. Finally, on the 15th day of Tishrei, the construction began, and it was then that the Ananei HaKavod came back to the Israelite camp.

It’s interesting to note that even after Moshe beseeches God to take Bnai Yisrael back into His good graces, in addition to forgiving them for their egregious sin, the Ananei HaKavod only reappeared when the Jewish people took tangible steps toward mending their relationship with the Almighty.

Chag Sameach!