Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Mark of A True Tzaddekes

When Eliezer goes to the well to find a wife for Yitzchak, he sets a condition for himself. "If the girl tells me that she will give both my camels and I to drink - then she is the one for my master, Yitzchak."

(Additionally, there was another condition set by Avraham Avinu, however. She must be descended from his family.)

So Eliezer goes to the well and sees Rivka - she passes the "drinking" test and offers to draw water for Eliezer's camels too. And then the passuk describes that Eliezer stands waiting with baited breath. What, is he waiting for her to describe her family now, to fulfill Avraham's condition? No, because we learn that her lineage was 'proven' when the water rose up to her.

So what's he waiting for?? She's proven herself on all counts, right ? Wrong.

It was the actual drawing of the water that was a final condition. Once Rivka had promised Eliezer that she would draw water for his camels ( quite the promise ! ) Eliezer just had to wait to see if she would follow through. Anyone can make large and grand gestures of chessed - the mark of a true tzaddekes is the follow through.

And thus, as soon as Rivka is done drawing, Eliezer gives her the jewelry and thanks Hashem for guiding his mission to fulfillment.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 26, 2007

What Are Friends For ?

"And Hashem appeared to Avraham on the plains of Mamre ... "

Rashi points out that Mamre had the unique zechus to host this revelation because he gave Avraham good advice regarding the bris milah. Prompting the inevitable question - why would Avraham Avinu, who had tracked across continents following the word of G-d, need someone else's advice regarding a commandment ? Hashem said to do it - so he will. period.

Many answers have been given to this classic question. An approach that we can all learn from, however, postulates as follows.

Avraham was meant to view the bris as a test. He would have to find some struggle to overcome and perform this mitzva. A struggle that Avraham was well versed in winning was the struggle against popular opinion. He is called "Ivri" ( lit. "the Hebrew" but figuratively "the one from across the river" ) Avraham stood against an entire polytheistic culture and proclaimed the belief in one G-d - even to the pain of death !

It was this struggle that Avraham thought he had to overcome - to perform what would be taken as self mutilation is certainly different - and to do it for the sake of Hashem's mitzva would be a making a real stand against the pagan world. But only if they knew about it. So Avraham contacted his old war buddies ( see war on the four kings ) and told him what he would do.

Mamre is the only one that saw that Avraham's approach was wrong. For this mitzva - a bris - a covenant - a personal sealing of an almost intimate relationship - no public stand was needed - and that's why Mamre suggested he should go through with it.

Hashem must have agreed with Mamre's reasoning - that's why he revealed Himself to Avraham in Mamre's plains.

And what can we learn from this ? There is a time for making a public stand and there is a time for quiet personal conviction. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to clue us in to which is which. Our job is to seek out and maintain friends that will help us in this lofty mission called life.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Not ?

When Avram Avinu successfully defeats the armies of the four kings and rescues his nephew Lot, he also rescues much material wealth that had belonged to S'dom. When the king of S'dom invites Avram Avinu to 'help himself' to the spoils Avram Avinu declines rather forcefully, saying that he shall not take even " ... a string or a shoelace ..." from the spoils.

Why not ?

We find that Hashem had promised Avram Avinu great wealth. Wouldn't it seem like Avram Avinu is rejecting Hashem's gift by turning down the king of S'dom ? Moreover, Avram Avinu does accept gifts of substantial wealth from Pharoah and Avimelech, two kings who are no more saints than the king of S'dom.

The key to unlocking this mystery lies in a mishna in Pirkei Avos and an idea presented by Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zatzal.

The Mishna, in the fifth chapter of maseches Avos, gives us an uncommon insight into human character and it's perversion by the people of S'dom. It states; "He who says what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours - is of medium character ( neither righteous nor wicked ) and some say his is the character displayed by the people of S'dom." The simple understanding is of someone who respects other people's property ( and is thusly not wicked ) but has not progressed to the level of righteousness where he sees his own property simply as a means to help others. Beneath that, however, is an understanding of human nature. All people are either givers or takers, says Rav Dessler, and more frequently, combinations of the two. In S'dom - they were strictly takers. They had town ordinances that prevented acts hospitality - because it was antithetical to their philosophy - which was to take. That's why the people of S'dom were so obsessed with ownership - what's mine is mine and what's yours is not yet mine ( otherwise known as yours ).

But possession is not the only way to "take". Sometimes I can actually give but still be taking. If I give you an item but constantly remind you of my largess and use it as a bargaining chip ( "well since I've given you such and such - you should definitely sell your product to me at a discount" etc. etc. ) I have, in fact taken from you and not given to you.

This is why Avram Avinu does not take money from the king of S'dom. If the king of S'dom were giving it outright it would be one thing - but he isn't. He is attempting a classic S'dom move - to gain fame and influence by being known as 'The man who gave Avram Avinu his start'. It is for this reason that Avram Avinu refuses him - True, Hashem promised Avram Avinu great wealth - but Hashem gives and his messengers would do the same.

How do we measure up in our personal interactions ? Are we worthy of being descendants of Avram Avinu ? Or are we, sadly, echoing the philosophies of S'dom ?

Have a great Shabbos ! And Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 12, 2007

Adrift In Our Very Own Ark

In order to determine if the waters of the flood had sufficiently receded, Noach sends an ambassador out into the world - the dove. When the dove returns with the olive branch - Noach knows it is safe to venture outside.

There are several unexplained points.
1. Even after Noach receives this information he patiently waits for Hashem to release him from the ark and give him permission to leave. So why send the dove ? What would sending the dove accomplish ?
2. Where did the dove get the olive branch ? Weren't the trees destroyed along with the people ?
3. The Ramban, quoting the medrash, actually says that the olive branch came from Gan Eden. According to this medrash - how would this signify dry land to Noach (which was the entire reason the dove was sent out to begin with) ?!?

What was Noach doing in the ark for a year ? Feeding the animals ! Why would Hashem put Noach through all that hard work just to save him from the flood - couldn't he just have sat back on a deck chair and watched the waves ? No ! The time spent in the ark was a personal rehabilitation for Noach - he had to dedicate his time to others to become worthy of being saved.

So how worthy is worthy ? ( i.e. when was Noach's rehabilitation sufficient ? ) When he managed to reverse the process that brought on the flood to begin with.

The generation that was condemned by the flood had "...destroyed the ways of all flesh upon the earth."[Bereshis 6:12] Even the animals were immoral because of the pervasive influence of the corrupt society. In order for Hashem to know that Noach had managed to earn his salvation - he had to influence the animals on the ark to a high level of holiness - the opposite of corruption.

So the purpose of sending out the dove wasn't only to see if the waters had receded - it was to see the reactions and interactions of this bird, that had been positively influenced by Noach for a year, with the new world. When the dove returns with the olive branch, Noach knows that he has been successful in his personal redemption - for no corrupt animal would have returned with a bitter branch that signifies trust in Hashem ( see Rashi Bereishis 8:11 ). And the medrash that says the branch was from Gan Eden is emphasizing how powerful Noach's reformation was - that it reached the levels of perfection in service of Hashem that are only associated with Gan Eden.

And what lesson remains for us ? Every day there people that we influence ( friends, family, etc. ) just by being around them. Are we contributing to their levels of holiness - or chas veshalom, the opposite ? Let us take inspiration from Noach and set to work - not only on our own spiritual achievements, but on the achievements that we can inspire in others.

Hatzlacha !

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Arava : Sins or Supplications

The day of "Great Hoshanna" is almost upon us. If we notice, the major player of the day is not the beautiful esrog ( compared to a scholar filled with torah and good deeds ) or even the strong Lulav ( compared to a scholar who has, at least, Torah study to his credit ) rather, the plain arava – with no merit and no redeeming factors ( it has no fragrance – to indicate good deeds, nor does it produce sweet/or any fruit – to indicate Torah study ).

Why the arava ? Let us offer a few suggestions.

Firstly, the sifrei mussar speak about the Arava's symbolic meaning ( of a Jew with no merits ) as being apropos for us. In the final calculation can we really stand before G-d and declare that we have righteous actions to our credit ? On Hoshanna Rabba - the day that the final notes are being made in our judgment for the year to come – we come before G-d with humility and declare ourselves aravos, and pray mercy and salvation from Hashem. Not because we deserve it but because He is the great redeemer. " ! אנא ד' הושיעה נא "

Secondly, the Sefer Toda'ah quotes the idea of our sages, that the arba'a minim are also compared to parts of our body. The arava is meant to compare to lips. It is extremely fitting, then, that we take the species that resembles our mouth and use it to offer our prayers to Hashem on this awesome day. This is why the Ushpizin guest of this day is Dovid Hamelech – the composer of praises and supplications ( that we use our mouth to say ) to G-d.

Thirdly, the art of prayer is compared to water in the passuk "שפכי כמים לבך נוכח פני ד" "Pour out your heart like water, in the presence of Hashem". While all four minim need water to survive, the arava is particularly in need of water. It often grows on river banks to be near a water source. It is the first to dry out when kept out of water. On this important day – we don't want to just pray – we want to epitomize prayer with all of our actions.

Lastly, there are the letters that spell out the word arava ( ערבה ). They could easily be rearranged to spell out aveira ( עברה ). So why do we approach G-d with our sins in hand ? Because it's much better than hiding them behind our back. We know that we are imperfect and when we daven we are beseeching the almighty for mercy and salvation – not justice. At the conclusion of the Hoshannos we actually beat the arava bundle on the ground – signifying our rejection of our aveiros. The letters of aveira ( עבירה ) can also be rearranged – to form the word areiva ( עריבה ) ( pleasant or good ). So how do aveiros become pleasing before G-d ? Through this process of acknowledging them, taking them by the hand ( so as to speak ) and giving 'em a good couple of thwaks on the ground.

May we all be zocheh to own up to our shortcomings, stand before Hashem in pleading supplication and merit having a "gut kvittel", a good note, entered into the book of tzaddikim in our name. Amen.