Vayera 5779 – A Threefold Perspective on Chesed

Image result for glamping

At the beginning of Parshas Vayera, we open on Avraham Avinu recuperating from his Bris Milah. Avraham is perched in his tent looking for any and all visitors that he can graciously welcome into his abode. In an act of care for his precious, devoted servant, Avraham, Hashem made this day incredibly hot. Rashi notes that the sun had been “unsheathed” and unleashed a brutal heat that would deter any traveler from journeying too far. Yet, what made Avraham uncomfortable was not the temperature nor was it the pain from his circumcision; he was downtrodden because there were no guests to usher into his home. God’s very act of kindness toward Avraham was in fact causing him more pain than the other factors. It was then that Hashem sent three angels Avraham’s way.

There are many lessons that can be gleaned from this episode, yet I would like to focus on three in particular.

First, Rabbi Avraham Schorr writes in HaLekach Vehalibuv (Breishis page צא) that Avraham’s actions were poignant because it was he who would be the role model for the generations to come in regard to this commandment. It’s not enough to do the mitzvah, explains Rav Schorr, but one must work at getting those around them involved and inspired to as well. Avraham informed Sarah to make the bread and the “youth” around him (Rashi explains that this was Yishmael) to involve them in this mitzvah. This can be done both directly and indirectly. This entire event occurred at the time when Sdom and Amorah were burgeoning cities, filled to the brim with sinners who deplored hachnasas orchim. Look later on in the Parsha when the angels visit the home of Lot in Sdom, and he doesn’t let them wash their feet for fear that the townspeople will learn of his guests. (Nevertheless, the townspeople showed up in force immediately anyway). Avraham teaches us that even if there is no one else around you to help in your mission, one must still strive for this goal.

Second, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe and more widely known as the author of the Nesivos Shalom, notes with distinction at Avraham’s behavior upon seeing the wandering guests (angels) in the distance. The text doesn’t merely state that Avraham went to the men and convinced them to come to his tent. The psukim state on three different occasions that Avraham acted with great haste in order to greet the angels, to tell Sarah to prepare bread, and to go and choose the finest of the calves to prepare for them. (וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙, וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה אֶל־שָׂרָ֑ה, and וְאֶל־הַבָּקָ֖ר רָ֣ץ אַבְרָהָ֑ם). Such zrizus (alacrity) to prepare for his guests, all without any pain medication or sedatives from his holy medical procedure.

Finally, Rav Schorr continues with an idea from Skulener Rebbe. The first Pasuk of the Parsha states that “Vehu yoshev pesach haohel kechom hayom” that Avraham was sitting in his tent in the heat of the day. We already are aware of the unseasonably warm weather, but the Skulener Rebbe goes in a different direction with this information. He explains that the heat mentioned here refers not to the temperature on the plains of Mamre where Avraham was situated, but the fire that burned inside him to perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim as he sat at his tent gazing out into the distance for any passersby. He was entirely consumed with seeing who he could help on their journey.
As my mother’s fifth yahrtzeit falls this Motzei Shabbos, these three messages from our Parsha resonate with me tremendously. Each one of them reminds me of her. For my sister and I, my parents were (and still are) tremendous role models in chesed for us and those who know them. She didn’t only take these tasks on herself, but actively sought to get others engaged. When I was in elementary school, one of her crowning achievements was her role in creating “Schechter Shabbat,” where families would be hosted by other families. Their children were often times in classes or rode the bus together, yet their families may not have always known one another. This Shabbat dinner sticks in my mind, in addition to countless others magnificently hosted by my parents. What also is stuck in my mind is the manner in which these actions were done in our home. My mother and father did these things without great fanfare, sometimes at the very last minute. And even more so, the desire that my mother had to do and to act even when she physically wasn’t able to do so. She would instruct my sister and I or other to do her bidding for her. No one would’ve faulted her for taking a few moments to herself while convalescing from one of her many trips to the Cleveland Clinic. But that was never the case with her.
The tent of Sheila was molded after the tent of Avraham Avinu. Avraham leaves giant shoes for Klal Yisrael to fill when it comes to chesed: the action itself, the manner in which it’s done, and the desire for opportunities to implement it. The Balk home was graced with a tremendous role model of championing chesed. We miss her every day.
Advertisements

Lech Lecha 5779 – I Told You So

Image result for i told you so

Everyone loves to feel validated. When someone recognizes that something we do or say is accurate, it gives us a certain sense of pride. Depending on who the person agreeing with our point of view, their haskama can indeed carry weight. When a student offers a novel idea on the material they are studying and the teacher responds by agreeing or bolstering their argument with additional sources or facts, it can mean the world to them. Often times, this feeling of validation is even greater when one thinks your idea is incorrect or chooses to not listen to your advice, and ultimately, your detractor is met with disappointment. The “I told you so!” moment is one that is even sweeter. You were right, they were wrong. They should’ve listened to you, they didn’t, and now they’re paying the price. Too bad for them. Furthermore, one need not even say anything and still relish the moment that an individual who makes poor choices yields unfortunate fruits. It serves them right! Why would anyone make such a stupid decision? They got what they deserved. Yet, we learn from the protagonist of Parshas Lech Lecha that this is not the manner in which to behave when someone close to you meets with disappointment.

We read in the Parsha of Avram being tasked by God to follow His command to an unknown land. Avram obliges, and brings with him his wife (Sarai), his nephew (Lot), and the followers that he and his wife had amassed. Ultimately, Sarai ends up being taken captive as they head to Egypt due to a famine, and as she is eventually freed, she and Avram end up leaving the country with great wealth. They return to their land and there’s a disagreement with the herdsmen of Lot and Avram’s livestock over where the animals in their care should graze. Avram tells Lot to choose a direction in which to lead his flock, and he would go the opposite way. This was done not out of anger, but to prevent further strife between the two. Lot chooses to head toward the plains of Jordan until Sdom. We know from the psukim that Sdom was a city comprised of evil, sinful individuals. Nevertheless, this is where Lot decided to settle. Rashi explains that Lot knew of the evil that ran rampant in the city, yet hung out his shingle there anyway. The story takes an unfortunate turn when Lot is captured by the Sodomites, along with his possessions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that we can learn a tremendous lesson from Avram in the wake of Lot’s captivity. Upon hearing that his nephew had been taken captive, the nephew that sojourned with him great distances and was a member of his own household following the death of Lot’s father, Avram decides to act. The pasuk states that Avram heard that his brother had been taken, and he armed over three hundred of those close to him in order to retrieve Lot. This is a seminal moment. The Rav notes (Abraham’s Journey p.130) that Avram could have heard this news and reacted in a much different fashion.

“A normal reaction on his part would have been to say, ‘It serves him right; I warned him not to cast his lot with the Sodomites.’ Lot had rejected Avraham and his demanding God, preferring a pleasure-seeking society to Abraham’s covenantal fellowship. Yet, Avraham did not react this way. Lit is referred to here as Avraham’s brother. A Jew must feel a duty to save his brother even if his brother has departed from the righteous path.”

It would have been so easy for Avram to have sat back and cursed his beloved nephew for deciding to settle in a land full of evildoers. It may have even made him feel good about himself. However, when his loved one was faced with tremendous adversity, it was not enough for Avram to merely feel bad for Lot. He rescued him, and brought him back to safety.

Avram, later known as Avraham, was known for his penchant for chessed. This episode with Lot was a small example of just that.

Rabbi Sam z”l

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-07 at 11.31.19.jpeg

My mother with Rabbi Sam, at my cousin’s bris in 1988.

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things that can be experienced. There is so much to be done by those close to the deceased, who may not know which way is up or have the headspace to deal with seemingly trivial matters. One of the first calls made when these events occur, besides to other relatives, is to one’s rabbi, to help pick up the pieces and slowly move forward. When my mother passed away, there was a lot to do, and a few rabbis were consulted and were so very helpful. That’s part of their job.

But what do you do when the lost loved one is the rabbi, the mortal conduit through which one can begin to overcome? What happens when they cannot answer the phone and guide you through the oblivion of grief? Who do you call when the one you’re mourning is the one who is supposed to help you get past the sadness?

Over Shabbat, Rabbi Sam Fraint passed away. He was our rabbi. Granted, our family had not paid dues to his synagogue or even lived in his community for over 25 years, but he was our rabbi. Let me be clear: this is not meant to diminish the impact and amazing relationships that my father, sister, and I share with the rabbis of the synagogues in Cleveland and beyond that we are now affiliated with. Not one iota. But Rabbi Sam was our rabbi and was tremendously revered in our house. And we loved him.

Our relationship begins over 30 years ago, when the senior rabbi of the largest Conservative synagogue in Chicago was looking for a new youth director. He knew of a woman who had taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. As she was was finishing a graduate degree in Boston, the rabbi, having heard of her all-star reputation with youth from a previous role of hers, reached out and offered her the job. The synagogue’s young assistant rabbi instantly noted how she had an unbelievable way with kids, himself included, he admitted later.

It was a reality that he remembered a few years later, when the two had both moved on from that shul on the North Shore. She was home raising her children, and he was at the helm of a new congregation, and was in need of a director of education. The rabbi reached out to his former colleague with this opportunity, and she mulled it over, clearly unsure if this was the right move for her. He asked how much money she’d need to make in order to seal the deal, and she responded with a certain amount. The response was “well, I’m going to give you $5,000 more than that.” That woman was my mother, and that rabbi was Rabbi Sam Fraint.

After a few years of working at the Moriah Congregation, our family moved to Cleveland. While this decision was, in my opinion, one of the best that my parents ever made, it’s never easy to say goodbye to a community that means so much to you. Over the years, the Fraint family have been a constant in our lives. Rabbi Sam was at my parents’ wedding. He named me at my bris. I practically idolized his son Zeke (I’m pretty sure we were at his Bar Mitzvah). Rabbi Sam even got a bracha under my sister Dena’s chuppah less than a year ago. We may have lived hours apart, I can hardly recall a time among the many that we visited Chicago when we did not see him, either surprising him in shul on Shabbos/Yuntif morning or going to his house. To visit him at Moriah was a real treat. The warm, lay-led environment of Ramahniks and USYers was (and I assume still is) a magical place. On one occasion, he made my father read Torah unexpectedly, although was an aliyah that he’s lained probably a dozen times. On almost every other occasion, he welcome us back to Moriah as he stood to speak to the congregation. This happened whether it was a regular Shabbos or if there were a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an Aufruf.

And he and his wife Deena would drive to see us as well. As we were situated on the route between Chicago and New York/New Jersey, our home seemed to be a perfect rest stop location for the Fraints.

Rabbi Sam made me cry twice in my life. The first was when a Moriah congregant passed away the Thursday night before my Bar Mitzvah and he and Deena weren’t going to be able to join us. The second was when he spoke at my mother’s funeral. “Sheila Balk was my friend–my good friend. Since she and Mitchell moved to Cleveland, my wife and I hadn’t seen them very often. Each time I did have the opportunity to be with her over the last 20 years, her condition, an all-purpose euphemism to the torture she was subjected, her condition came to me as a shock. I don’t know anyone else who could’ve maintained herself– her personality, her ability to care for others (especially her children), her sense of humor and sense of self–in the way that Sheila did. She was part of God’s natural aristocracy, a description I’m not certain she would’ve been particularly fond of. But that’s who she was. Some people can be ’tischak leeyom acharon,’ most people cannot. But Sheila could, and she did…” 

And boy was he smart. Rabbi Sam was absolutely brilliant, yet his intellect would not stop him from sugar-coating the truth. He was a powerful orator, could, at times, say things from the bimah that were not politically correct. These were items that Rabbi Sam would grapple with tooth and nail, but would never compromise on the truth and how it made him feel.

A few years ago, he made it onto two prestigious lists. The first, was being named as one of the most inspirational rabbis in America. The second, was the secret “blacklist” of rabbis whose conversions were not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of the state of Israel. I truly believe that these were both placements that he relished.

When he found out I was going to be a rabbi, he was kicking himself about how I ended up at RIETS and not at JTS. He told me that his own synagogue used Artscroll siddurim in addition to the Conservative Sim Shalom, and that it wasn’t too late for me to switch schools! (It was).

But by far the most meaningful thing to me about Rabbi Sam was that he took me, and other kids seriously. He made us feel important. While in high school, I was an active reader and less active emailer to the International USY Listserve. This email list not only went to USYers but to some rabbis and employees of Conservative synagogues as well. Rabbi Sam would take the time to respond to a few of the emails I sent (some of them are screenshotted below). There’s a reason I saved all of them. Never would he talk down to me, or converse with me the way adult would normally interact with a child. Most of the time, his notes were signed “Your friend, Sam Fraint.” And that’s exactly what he was.

I’ll never forget when my 8th grade class went to Israel, he walked over on Shabbat afternoon to the hotel we were staying at. I don’t know where he was walking from in Jerusalem or how long the trek was. What I do know is that we spent two hours talking like equals and old friends. My classmates were a bit puzzled as to who this guest was. Some thought he was an uncle, but none could fathom how the rabbi of a synagogue I used to go to a decade ago, hundreds of miles away from my current home, would come over and shmooze about everything from baseball to Ramah to dogs to any/all facets of Judaism. He treated me with unbelievable respect, and afforded me this same derech eretz when I matured as well.

There were times that his openness referred to earlier got my mother angry. She would tell him how she knows he’s right about x,y, and z, but he couldn’t say such things from the pulpit! They would talk it out, she would bust his chops, and he would smile and laugh it off. I can only hope that they’re doing just that right now in Gan Eden.

Yehi Zichro Baruch.

 

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-07 at 00.56.26

His reply to an email I wrote about Yom HaShoah to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-07 at 00.56.25.jpeg

An email I wrote mocking the summer trip itineraries of my fellow USYers to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-07 at 00.56.25 (1).jpeg

Rabbi Sam’s reply to that email. Sadly, we didn’t meet up in Greenland.