VaYeitzei 5778 – More Than We Deserve

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In Parshas Vayeitzei we are introduced to Yaakov’s quickly blossoming family. In pasuk after pasuk we read about his children being born. The way that Leah chooses to name her children is interesting, to put it one way. Leah is the elder sister of Rachel, the woman whom Yaakov worked for years to be able to marry. Yet, in a dastardly act of deception, his future father-in-law calls and audible, and Yaakov is left married to Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. In the aftermath of this debacle, Yaakov agrees to continue working for Lavan in order to marry Rachel. One can only imagine how this makes Leah feel, and it’s manifested in the way she names their children. She conceives quickly, as the verse states, because Hashem blessed her after seeing how she was “hated” by her husband.

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuven, for she said, “Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “Since the Lord has heard that I am hated, He gave me this one too.” So she named him Shimon.

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore, He named him Levi.

She then gives birth to Yehuda and something changes.

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, “This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing.

This time, Leah thanks God, “hapaam odeh es Hashem.” Rashi helps us understand the background. He writes that each of our matriarchs had nevuah and they knew that Yaakov Avinu would have 12 tribes that descended from him. They also knew that there were four wives, so it would make sense that each one would have three. Yet, it is Leah, the “hated” wife of Yaakov who bears the most of his children, more than his other wives combined. When Leah gives birth to Yehuda, she is so thankful that there is something unique about her, something that may enhance her connection with her husband. Rashi comments here that she thanks Hashem in this instance since she has taken up more than her share by having a fourth son, shifting the equal divide from the other wives of Jacob.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger, the Chidushei HaRim, explains this notion even further. Leah thanked Hashem because she received more than what she was expecting, more than she “deserved.” For this reason, the Gerrer Rebbe points out, is exactly why we are called Yehudim, for we too “take” more than we deserve. It’s incumbent upon us to thank God for what He gives to us as if we’re not worthy of receiving it. As we are not neviim, we are not granted special knowledge of what is ra’ui for us to receive and what is not. Yet, God continues to provide for us and implement His wisdom in our lives every day.

This is the message of Leah Imeinu. Leah recognized that she was indeed blessed, and that by being granted another son, she was almost not worthy of the gift that she received. She portrays her thanks to the Almighty by naming her fourth son, not only recognizing her gratitude for his birth when she bore him, but forever more by calling him by that name. I think this may be why she ultimately merited to have three other children. Leah’s relationship with Yaakov may have been frustrating enough that she felt undesired and snubbed by her spouse, but she teaches us a tremendous lesson in gratitude.

Toldos 5778 – Yitzchak’s Vision: What Could Have Been

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In Parshas Toldos, we are first introduced to Yaakov and Esav. Their struggle with each other began even before their birth, as they pained their mother Rivka while still in her womb. At the beginning of the parsha, before we really even know a great deal about the twins, the pasuk states that Yitzchak loved Esav and that Rivka loved Yaakov. That’s not to say that each parent didn’t love the other child as well, but the Torah emphasizes that Yitzchak had an affinity to Esav, while Rivka had an affinity to Yaakov. From a young age, we are taught the events that follow between Yaakov and Esav. Esav returns home rather peckish after a strenuous day in the field. His younger brother was in the kitchen preparing food, which enticed him tremendously. Yaakov, as we know, only acquiesces to feed his brother on the condition that he, the younger brother, receive the Bechora blessing from their father. A strange trade off, no? Esav, as ravenously hungry as he was, agrees to these terms, and the deal is done.

I have always been curious as to why Yitzchak felt more of a connection to Esav than he did to Yaakov. Didn’t he know Esav was a rasha and Yaakov was a tzaddik? He wasn’t a random passerby who didn’t know the stories of the brothers and what they were doing with their lives. He’s their father! Even though Esav is the elder of the two, Yitzchak could’ve given Yaakov the blessing and blessed Esav with something else, which he ultimately did anyway!

So why did Yitzchak want to give the bracha of Bechora to Esav? Surely Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was an “ish tam” and that Esav was “yodeah tzayid.” The Chasam Sofer’s take on this conundrum is one that I found very interesting. He posits that Yitzchak had envisioned a grand partnership between the twins. In his mind, Esav and Yaakov were supposed to function like Yissachar and Zevulun. Yaakov would learn and support Esav spiritually and Esav would support Yaakov’s needs. It was precisely for this reason that despite Yaakov trading for the Bechora and being more righteous than his brother, Yitzchak was so intent on giving Esav the Bechora. Yitzchak Avinu still held to the belief that this model of working together could be achieved. The blessing given states that Hashem should give him from the dew of the Heavens and the fat of the land, while also being privy to an abundance of grain and wine. This was all supposed to go to Esav in order to support himself as well as Yaakov. While Esav is indeed blessed in the Parsha, he did not receive the Bechora, the blessing he traded away so eagerly yet eventually came to cash in on.

It’s written in Tehillim (133) “Hinei mah tov umah naim sheves achim gam yachad. How good and how pleasant it is, brothers sitting together.” (It was actually written by David HaMelech before it was a Miami Boys Choir song…). Rivka may have known that this was not to be, and sent Yaakov away as soon as he was blessed with the Bechora. But for Yitzchak, it was a dream that he still held onto of what could have been.

19 Cheshvan 5778 – All Of Them Equally Good

 

Parshas Chayei Sarah opens:  וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. Our matriarch Sarah meets her demise at the ripe old age of 127, leaving Avraham and Yitzchak to mourn her. There is a tremendous amount of commentary on the inaugural pasuk of the Sedrah, especially when it comes to how the years of Sarah’s are each separately listed. Rashi comments on the last three words of the pasuk that of these 127 years, “kulan shavin letovah,” that all of them were equally good. The first time I encountered this interpretation of the prolific commentator, I was puzzled and read it again.

All of them equally good.

Let’s go over some of the things we learn about Sarah Imeinu in the few prakim that she is alive in the Torah. We first meet Sarah as Sarai, the wife of Avram, when they pick up their entire existence in Charan and relocate. The exact destination to where they are moving is still a mystery to them. Nevertheless, this sanctified voyage is commanded by God, and one could assume that, as such, Avraham and Sarah would not be met with any trials and tribulations on their trail.

Not exactly.

As they travel along, they are met with a famine, something that we (thankfully) cannot comprehend today. Sarai is then taken captive into the harem of of Pharaoh while in Egypt looking for food. We next encounter Avraham and Sarah’s struggle to conceive, an experience of immense pain and disappointment. Her hurt is augmented as she gives her handmaid to her beloved husband to produce a child. As if on cue, Hagar quickly becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. She later watches as her husband rushes to greet guests and welcome them into their home. They tell her that she will be blessed with a child, and she laughs, a blessing she may have thought about or been given for years without coming to fruition. She is chastised for having laughed by the Almighty, although on some level, I can understand why she did. Miraculously, she does indeed become pregnant, and gives birth to a son. Yet, even then, she is still bothered by the presence of Hagar, and beseeches Avraham to send her and Yishmael away. Once they are banished, to top it all off, we have Akeidas Yitzchak, where the precious child that she had prayed and hoped for, the apple of her eye, was about to be slaughtered like a korban.

Hakol shavin letovah.

The years were equally good. To even the most novice reader, most of what we know of Sarah Imeinu’s existence is negative. She’s only around for a few parshios, and there is so much pain lying in the verses as they tell her tale. Reading about such events can evoke sympathy. Still, I can only imagine the agony she felt that we don’t know about. Armed with what we know from the psukim, how can Rashi possibly think that the years of Sarah were all considered good?

As I mulled over potential answers to this conundrum, I realized that I actually had an idea of just how it was possible. It’s an idea that was mentioned more eloquently in a shiur by Rabbi Shalom Rosner. He explains so poignantly that there are both high points and low points, but the hashkafa, the view that we employ on these events is crucial. There are times in our lives which are filled with sorrow. When looking back on these moments many years later, we may gloss over the exact feelings we exhibited previously, as the wounds are no longer fresh. The process of recognizing the blessing that our lives are endowed with even lends itself to the times when we may have been at our saddest or our lowest. True, those occasions are vividly raw, far from being considered good. Yet, at the end of one’s life when they look back at their days, more often than not, there is an abundance of good that shines through despite the heartache that exists.

I was fortunate that I had someone in my life that didn’t talk about living like this. Rather, this was the way that she lived her life. .

The Radman and Balk families would be the first to tell you, even before her doctors, that my mother did not always have the easiest life. She was afflicted with various illnesses for the majority of her time in olam hazeh. I rack my brain to try and remember her as she was in the times when she wasn’t sick. No matter what ailed her or kept her cooped up in the hospital, her spirit and attitude were the same as when she was out doing the things that she loved. The things that imbued her life, and the lives of those around her, with significant meaning. Her days were not always easy, but my mother’s simchas hachaim, her joie de vivre, made those around her feel as if there was nothing in the world that was bothering her. She may have been the one with an suppressed immune system, yet it was those around her who contracted her highly-contagious positivity and zest for life. Even in her final days.

Capture111.PNGThere’s one particular time in my life when this missive of being able to reflect on the positive among the negative hit home in a way that it hadn’t before. It was a summer that I otherwise would’ve cared to forget, as my mother was in the midst of a months-long stint in her home away from home, the Cleveland Clinic. She was given a palatial private room that I was sure was only reserved for foreign royalty who required medical care. It was a corner room, where we’d watch the Life Flight helicopters take off and land, and see three different sets of fireworks on the Fourth of July. It was one of the hardest summers. Maybe for her, but definitely for me. Dena and I were both taking classes that summer, sharing the car and planning out our schedules to maximize our time with Mom. My mother’s excellent medical team was baffled as to why her blood levels were low, and why she needed so many blood transfusions. It was eventually determined that an enlarged spleen was the culprit. A regular spleen weighs about a pound. Hers was pushing 10 times the size of that. My mother was overjoyed that her doctors figured out what was wrong, not to mention the fact that that she’d be looking particularly svelt after her 10 lb. spleen would be extracted. During surgery to remove the organ, one of the doctors had accidentally nicked a bowel, a virtually undetected mishap. It was discovered days after the operation, only after my mother’s attentive nurse wondered why there were little pieces of food she had recently eaten in the output in a drain of incision site. She was relegated to a liquid diet, which she abhorred, until the issue was ultimately resolved. As I watched this all unfold, I felt as if I was even more angry than she was over the ordeal.

There was one particular day when it was just my mother and me in her room. She was most likely watching The Barefoot Contessa or What Not To Wear, while I was trying hard to not be overly frustrated about her television choices. I opened up to her about my frustration in regard to her medical situation and how this entire episode should’ve been avoided. She quickly and assertively told me that I shouldn’t think that way. I pressed further and noted that due to the mistake during surgery, she had the makings of a lawsuit against the doctors, one that could’ve likely been successful in her favor. Almost as quickly as I got the words out of my mouth, she shot my statements down. Very matter-of-factly, without raising her voice, she looked me dead in the eye and said: “Why would I do anything to them? They saved my life–I wouldn’t be here without them!” I’m not sure what followed in the immediate aftermath, but I assume she turned back to the TV or to her Kindle, while I was left completely quashed. That was that. This wasn’t a claim she made to merely pacify herself in her predicament, or even part of a facade that she employed when speaking to others. It’s truly how she felt, and it’s how she comported herself until she took her final breaths.

We will all undoubtedly face moments that stop us dead in our tracks with grief. Each and every one of us. As we reflect on our lives as we age, may we be zoche to look back and consider our years to have been equally good ones. That’s the message of Sarah Imeinu, and it’s a message, among a litany,  that I learned from my mother. The bottom of her headstone is emblazoned with the end of a verse from Mishlei that is sung as part of Eishes Chayil. “Vatischak leyom acharon.” My mother was able to laugh and smile in her final time on earth because she could look back and recall her time here as explicitly good. That doesn’t mean for a moment that there were no setbacks or things she may have wished went differently. There were many. Despite them, she remained joyful to the end.

This year marks the 4th since she passed away. The 4 years of not being able to see her or have a conversation with her physically feel longer than the 24 that I was lucky to have the privilege to do that. As the 19th of Cheshvan comes and goes, I try this year to look back and consider the years without her as equally good as the ones that I spent with her. I’m not quite there yet.

Vayera 5778 – Accomplishing Failure

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Parshas Vayera is absolutely brimming with action and the Shemen Hatov connects three significant points from the sedrah. 

The Torah portion opens as Avraham is convalescing from his bris milah in his tent in extreme heat. Rashi explains that this was the third day after Avraham’s circumcision, the most painful in the recovery process. Rashi also notes that when the pasuk mentions that the day was hot, this is not a mere trivial piece of information. Hashem had made it specifically hotter on that day in order to deter any passersby from wandering close to him, because Avraham would surely get up and bring them into his home. Yet, it was neither the heat nor the recuperation that bothered Avraham on that day. He was downtrodden at the prospect of their being no guests for him to feed and take care of. Ultimately, three guests do arrive, and they give Avraham and Sarah the news that they will soon be blessed with a child. But, Rashi explains that they Malachim do not eat.  

Immediately after the Malachim come to Avraham, God informs him that the city of Sdom has grown rife with sin and will be destroyed. While one might’ve intuited that as a loyal subject, Avraham would accept this Divine decree, the decimation of this wayward city does not sit well with him. He pleads with the Almighty – must You punish the righteous together with the wicked? The shakla v’tarya continues between Hashem and Avraham, to not destroy Sdom even if there are 50 tzaddikim in the bustling metropolis. Rashi explains Sdom was broken up into 5 areas, which corresponded to 10 tzaddikim per each. Then, Avraham’s claim drops down to 45 tzaddikim total. Then 40. 30. 20. Finally, 10. But it was not to be, and Sdom and its capricious inhabitants were doomed to eradication.

Finally, Hashem gives Avraham his hardest nisayon to date: sacrificing his beloved son, Yitzchak. Yet, when the command comes, the psukim do not mention any complaints or backlash from Avraham. He awoke early to do the will of God. He and Yitzchak were atop Har HaMoriah ready to make the sacrifice. Yitzchak, sheepishly (one could assume) says, “we’ve got almost everything we need, but where’s the lamb that we’ll be sacrificing?” That seems like it would be a seminal part of the entire trip. Avraham reassures his son that God will provide the animal, don’t worry (hard not to worry when your father then begins to bind you to the sacrificial altar…). As Avraham is about to complete the act, a Heavenly voice calls out to Avraham and tells him to not harm Yitzchak. Avraham noticed a ram with its horns stuck in a tree, and offered it as a korban in Yitzchak’s place.

We look back at Avraham’s pursuit of Hachnasas Orchim, wanting to save the wanton city of Sdom, and the Akeidah and we marvel at the courage and strength of our pious patriarch. Yet, from a success standpoint, what exactly did Avraham Avinu accomplish? Avraham essentially “fails” in each of his endeavors. The Malachim come to him, and he has Sarah prepare a lavish meal as a measure of Hachnasas Orchim. However, even though we hereafter are commanded to welcome guests in our midst based upon laws that stem back to this very encounter, the Malachim don’t really eat anything from the spread. Next, Avraham pleads with Hashem to save the city of Sdom from destruction. Ultimately, as we know, his pleas fall short. Finally, Avraham Avinu musters up the courage to sacrifice his own beloved son. As he’s about to do this act, he’s called out to and told not to harm Yitzchak, eventually sacrificing a ram in his son’s place. Three unique events, all met with failure. Nevertheless, we still think of these events unique events that make Avraham a special person. He set out to accomplish something, put in significant effort, but nonetheless fell short.

We learn from these experiences a very valuable lesson for our own lives. There are times when we too, go through painstaking effort in order to make something happen. There are times when our effort is met with success. At other junctures, it seems our toiling was all for naught, even if we invest more of our time and resources in the moments of failure than the moments of success. But even at times where we fall short, we have reason to keep our heads up. Avraham does not grow frustrated with his efforts not having been met with his desired result. There is no deathbed confession from Avraham at the end of his life stating any remorse or regret for not having been able to do this mitzvah, nor does he cast God away from his life. When these pitfalls do occur, they can be painful and frustrating. Avraham did everything in his power to make his desires come to fruition. Despite his great ingenuity, he did not attain what he set out to achieve. It doesn’t seem confusing to recognize these moments in Avraham’s life. The relationship between Avraham and Hashem after these events continues to grow stronger and stronger. May our individual relationships with the Ribono Shel Olam continue to do the same.