Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ruling : A How To Guide

The Torah describes the episode of Yehuda and Tamar as an interlude between the selling of Yosef and the events that would bring about his ultimate redemption from slavery.

Rashi, quoting the Medrash, teaches us that Yehuda was effectively exiled for failing to suggest that Yosef should be returned to their father unharmed. It was during this exile that the events with his sons and Tamar transpired. Following this incident, we can see that Yehuda is once again accepted into his brothers' midst. He even rises back to his position of leadership – as we see when he is appointed responsible for Binyamin in the second Egypt expedition (to barter for grain during the famine).

What did Yehuda learn – or what atonement did he perform – through his misadventures with Tamar ?

When Tamar seduces Yehuda, she takes from him three items as collateral – against his promise of payment. His staff, signet ring and cloak. Taken at face value, these are items of both practical and personal value to Yehuda and he would be sure to redeem them with his promised payment. On a deeper level, points out the Kli Yakar, these are highly symbolic items – and the key to Yehuda's personal redemption and rehabilitation.

The signet ring represents the bris that Hashem has signed into Yehuda's flesh (and every Jewish male since). Hashem is telling Yehuda – through Tamar – that if you will follow your desires you will be giving up or reneging on your covenant with Him. The staff is the scepter of kingship. Certainly, a king cannot be subject to his whims – how can he rule others when he can't even rule himself. Finally, Yehuda is persuaded to give up his cloak – the tzitzis – the symbol of the mantle of mitzvos that we willingly accept upon ourselves. You cannot dedicate your actions to God and to your desires.

When Yehuda charges Tamar with infidelity she merely hands over the items and requests that he realize what he is about to do. Yehuda then has a choice – to remain seemingly oblivious to Tamar's plight and his own level of involvement, or to acknowledge his responsibility for the actions that he committed. With heroic determination, Yehuda rises to the challenge – effectively reclaiming his charge over himself, his actions and - later - his brothers, as well.

Certainly we can all be inspired by Yehuda's personal redemption to assume a more active charge of whichever aspect in our lives may need a firmer grip and surer hand.

Hatzlacha !!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Enemies and Friends

When Yaakov Avinu is faced with his marauding brother and his 400 troops, he pleads with Hashem for assistance. The wording of his tefilla, however, gives us a fantastic insight into how Yaakov perceived the danger.
"הצילני נא מיד אחי, מיד עשו" "Save me please, from my brother, from Esav"
[Bereshis 32:12]
The straight understanding – as explained by Rashi [ad loc.] – tells us that Yaakov is mentioning the exceptional cruelty with which Esav is pursuing him. Not only is he employing his famed 'Esav' qualities by hunting them down with intent to kill – he is also ignoring their brotherly status, a double wrong.

Homiletically, however, the seforim kedoshim explain that what Yaakov is doing in the prayer is enumerating the possible outcomes and davening for salvation from each one. Possibility one – Esav catches up to them and acts out his 'Esav-ness', i.e. kills them – an undesirable outcome. Possibility two – Esav catches them and does not want to harm them at all ! Rather, he wants to rekindle his brotherliness with Yaakov. By mentioning this in his tefilla, Yaakov is teaching us that this is an equally undesirable outcome !

When it comes to the physical well being of his family – he is concerned lest Esav attempt to harm him. When it comes to their spiritual wellbeing, however, Yaakov Avinu is more afraid of Esav's friendly overtures.

A friend is a person whom you trust implicitly to look out for what's best for you. A real friend will do just that – with one major caveat - his assistance and caring will be colored by his own opinion. A simple friend would make sure that you had what you needed. A righteous friend might look out for your neshama. A wicked friend, however, will try to get you to join in his corruption. This isn't malicious – on the contrary – he is trying to perform in a friendly manner and 'hook you up' with whatever evil he is currently involved in ! The results for you are, understandably, disastrous.

Having an enemy is dangerous because it means that someone wants to do harm to you and yours. Having a friend like an Esav can be just as bad. When Yaakov Avinu begs for salvation from this confrontation – he is clearly begging against both of these outcomes.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Truth ? Maybe. Emes ? Definitely !

When we see Yaakov Avinu, paragon of truth, deliberately obscure this truth in order to receive the berachos from is father we may have been a bit confused. However, when we find that the same Yaakov takes steps to insure that the sheep born into Lavan's flock will end up in his (Yaakov's) pocket we know our confusion is well justified !

In other words, why does Yaakov, who is the patriarch that served Hashem by perfecting his dedication to Emes, seem to dabble a bit heavily in truth's evil twin, trickery ?!

When Esav claims that Yaakov had used subterfuge to secure the birthright the Torah uses the term "מרמה", trickery. The Targum ( translation and running commentary to the Torah written by Onkelos, a contemporary of the authors of the mishna ) however, translates the word as "בחכמאה" namely, in a wise way. When Lavan does a deed of trickery the Torah uses the same term to describe his activities ( "למה רימיתני" ). There, though, the Targum happily condemns Lavan's actions with the term of "שקרת בי" - you've lied to me.

Based on this discrepancy, Rav Yerucham Schwab ( as quoted in the Maayan Beis Hashoeva ) postulates that there is a big difference between the seeming half truths of Yaakov and the sins by omission of Lavan. While Yaakov's actions seem to deviate from the literal truth - they are actually directed towards a higher, broader Emes. When he takes the brachos under disguise, Yaakov is - in fact - only taking what is rightfully his - after all, he bought the birthright ! When Yaakov manipulates the birthing sheep to produce ones with the markings he requires - it's only because Lavan is trying to cheat him out of twenty years worth of paychecks !

Sometimes the path to the straight truth has a few curves. Just like a steep mountain trail - it can twist and turn so much that you might find yourself moving in a direction that is the complete opposite of the one you are supposed to be going. If you stick to the trail, however - you will find that it curves back towards your objective. Yaakov, who served Hashem by a dedication to the ultimate, higher goal of Emes - was well versed in negotiating these curves to arrive at the loftier goal of real truth.

Hatzlacha !

Monday, November 05, 2007

To Each Their Own Struggle

Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imeinu remain childless for the first twenty years of their marriage. Undoubtedly, they both davened pretty hard for the blessing of a child. The passuk explicitly points out that Hashem answered Yitzchak Avinu's teffila and granted them children. [ see Bereishis 25:21]

What about Rivka Imeinu's teffilos ?

The gemara [yevamos 64a - quoted by Rashi ad loc.] explains that the prayers of a tzaddik who is also the son of a tzaddik are greater than the prayers of a tzaddik whose father was wicked. Rivka's father, Besuel, was wicked, while Avraham - Yitzchak's father - was righteous.

But why should that be the case ? Doesn't the gemara teach us that a sincere Baal Teshuva is possessed of such a high level of holiness that even a completely righteous individual may not stand in his place ? The teffilos of a tzaddik ben rasha should be higher !

It's true, that the tzaddik ben rasha has made great strides in his personal development. The road from the household of sin to the halls of righteousness is certainly long and arduous. But that's just it - it's arduous - but also obvious. While the baal teshuva guards himself against relapse - the tzaddik ben tzaddik must guard himself from an even deadlier foe - complacency.

How easy would it have been for the son of the greatest righteous man of the generation to simply content himself with living in his father's household and being "just a good boy" ? How many FFB's are just happy with status quo ?

Yitzchak Avinu wasn't.

He was a sincere tzaddik in his own right. And having risen up, despite the most powerful yetzer hara of stagnation and complacency, certainly accounts for why his teffilos carried special merit.

And us ?

We must ask ourselves - are we also fighting complacency and the lethargy to resign ourselves to our religious status quo ? Could we fight harder ?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Our Finest Hour

The Torah goes to great length to record the story of Eliezer, servant of Avraham Avinu, who was sent to find a wife for Yitzchak Avinu. On his journey, Eliezer is the recipient of much divine assistance, including a complex conditional test that he planned to give the prospective bride, which is miraculously passed. And when Eliezer finally secures the bride, Rivka Imeinu, he describes these miracles to Rivka's family in great detail.

And the Torah records them both. The narrative itself and Eliezer's retelling in Lavan's house. Why ? Surely Hashem isn't getting paid by the word ?!

The Medrash Rabba ( Bereishis 60:8 ) explains that the even the (seemingly) mundane tales of the servants of the Avos ( Patriarchs ) are more beloved by G-d than the Torah learned by their descendants. In other words, the holiness of the Avos had permeated to the extent that even their servants' mundane tasks were on a higher spiritual level than the dedicated holy tasks of their descendants.

I would like to offer a slightly different take on the wording of the Medrash. It is specifically the description of the tasks of servants that Hashem loves. This is because when we perform lofty spiritual deeds we may feel ourselves to be VIP's on a spiritual scale. The yetzer hara can easily sneak in to our motivations and inject haughtiness and pride into them.

When we are servants however, there is no place for haughtiness and pride - and our actions are purer. Even our mundane actions, when viewed as the fulfillment of the will of our Master, take on an aura of spirituality that is unparalleled.

Let us examine our actions and attempt to do one thing a day - holy or mundane - with the intention that we are just simple servants of Hashem - dedicated to Him completely and hanging upon His word.

Hatzlacha !