Post Archive for November 2012

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav. In preparation for the encounter, Yaakov prays to Hashem for help, and then sends agents to bring Eisav a lavish tribute offering. In connection with the tribute, the Torah relates (Bereishis 32:21-22):
“And you should say [Yaakov speaking to the agents]: ‘Moreover, behold, your servant Yaakov is behind us.” (For he said [to himself]: “I will appease him with the tribute that precedes me (אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו בַּמִּנְחָה הַהֹלֶכֶת לְפָנָי), and afterward I will face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”) And the tribute passed before him [literally, before his face] (וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו), and he lodged that night in the camp.
The Maggid asks: Why did Yaakov feel the need to send Eisav a tribute offering, given that he had already prayed to Hashem to save him from Eisav? Surely it was within Hashem’s power to turn Eisav from an enemy into a good friend without the aid of a tribute offering from Yaakov to Eisav. Why, then, did Yaakov send the tribute?
The Maggid draws an answer from a Midrash that Rashi quotes in his commentary on the above-quoted Torah passage. In the second verse of the passage the Torah uses an unusual phrasing, writing וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו whereas the usual phrasing would be וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה לְפָנָיו. In Bereishis Rabbah 76:8, the Midrash interprets the word  פָּנָיו(face) in the phrase עַל פָּנָיו as signifying agitation and anger, along the lines of the phrase פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ in Shemos 33:14 [see Targum Yonasan and Ibn Ezra there, and Berachos 7a]. The Midrash is saying that Yaakov felt anger as he dispatched the tribute offering.
We can what Yaakov had in mind as follows. Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 27:19): “Just as water reflects a face back to a face, so a man’s heart is reflected back to him by his fellowman’s.” If a man’s heart radiates friendship toward his fellowman, his fellowman’s heart will radiate friendship back to him; conversely, if a man’s heart radiates hatred toward his fellowman, his fellowman’s heart will radiate hatred back to him. Now, when Rivkah sent Yaakov to Lavan, she told him (Bereishis 27:43-45): “Dwell with him a few days, until your brother’s rage quiets down. Until your brother’s anger against you fades away (עַד שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ), and he forgets what you did to him, and then I will send and take you from there.” The commentators explain that Rivkah was giving Yaakov a sign through which he would know when it was safe to return home. The sign was שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ, the simple meaning of which is “your brother’s anger against you fades away,” but which can also be understood as meaning “the anger against your brother fades from you.” Rivkah was telling Yaakov that when his anger against Eisav for threatening to kill him faded away, this would be the sign that Eisav, too, had forgotten what Yaakov had done to him, and he could therefore return home without fear. However, while Yaakov was in Lavan’s house, he continued to feel the same anger toward Eisav because of his threat to kill him. Over twenty years, his feelings toward Eisav had not changed one iota. Nonetheless, Yaakov had to return home, for Hashem had told him to do so. And when he reached home, he was compelled to seek Eisav’s favor to make sure that Eisav would not harm him.
It is true that Hashem had the power to induce Eisav to reconcile with Yaakov. Still, it was necessary for Yaakov to show himself to Eisav as a loving brother. This sentiment was very remote from Yaakov’s heart, for he considered Eisav contemptible. He therefore had to develop a strategem for cloaking his feelings about Eisav and displaying love and friendship toward him. The method he chose was to send Eisav a lavish gift that was sure to impress him. Yaakov’s purpose, as the the Torah relates it, was אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו בַּמִּנְחָה הַהֹלֶכֶת לְפָנָי. The root כפר can denote a form of covering, such as the lining of pitch that Noach put on the walls of his ark (וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר, Bereishis 6:14) or the covering of the Holy Ark in the Mishkan (כַּפֹּרֶת). [See the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch on Bereishis 6:14 and Shemos 25:17.] Yaakov had in mind that the tribute offering should serve as a screen to cover over and block out his anger toward Eisav, so that Eisav would not sense it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeitzei

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s stay with Lavan. The Torah relates (Bereishis 29:16-17): “Now Lavan had two daughters – the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were tender, while Rachel was of beautiful form and beautiful appearance.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 70:17):
Leah’s eyes were tender – tender from crying. For people were saying: “Thus is the arrangement – the older one [Eisav] will marry the older one [Leah] and the younger one [Yaakov] will marry the younger one [Rachel].” She wept and said: “May it be Hashem’s will that I not fall to the lot of that wicked one [Eisav].” Said R. Huna: “See how potent prayer is, that it has the power to nullify a decree. Not only that, but Leah married before her sister.”
The Maggid asks: If a final arrangement had already been made for the older one to marry the older one, how could Leah have thought to pray that she should not become Eisav’s wife? The Mishnah (Berachos 9:3) teaches that it is forbidden to pray regarding an event that has already taken place (e.g., “Let the house that burned down not be mine”), calling such a plea a futile prayer. Seemingly, a prayer by Leah that she not marry Eisav would fall in this category. What led Leah to pray nevertheless?
The Maggid explains what Leah had in mind by recalling the episode where Yaakov took the blessings that Yitzchak meant to give Eisav. Yaakov approaches Yitzchak and says: “Father.” Yitzchak responds: “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” Yaakov replies: “I am Eisav, your firstborn.” The commentators struggle to explain this statement. On the surface it seems, far be it, that Yaakov was telling a lie. A closer look, however, reveals that Yaakov was speaking truthfully and took pains to avoid falsehood. If Yaakov wanted to represent himself as Eisav, it would have been enough to reply to his father’s query with a simple one-word answer: “Eisav.” Instead, he replied more verbosely, saying, “I am Eisav, your firstborn.” To illustrate what Yaakov meant, the Maggid presents an analogy. Reuven sells Shimon a promissory note that Levi had written him. Shimon approaches Levi and says: “I’ve come to collect the money you owe.” Levi responds: “Who are you?” Shimon answers: “I am Reuven, to whom you owe money.” Levi says: “Your name is Shimon, and I did not borrow from you.” Shimon replies: “My name is indeed Shimon, but, nonetheless, in regard to this loan I am Reuven, your creditor, for I bought the promissory note from him, and it is in this capacity that I am coming to you.” Yaakov, in his reply to Yitzchak, had the same intent. Yaakov had bought the birthright from Eisav, and thus he assumed Eisav’s position as the firstborn son, with all the rights and privileges appertaining to this position. It was with this fact in mind that Yaakov replied to Yitzchak’s query by saying: “I am Eisav, your firstborn.” He took Eisav’s place as the one entitled to receive the special blessing that Yitzchak set aside for his firstborn son.
We can now see what led Leah to pray that she not marry Eisav. She was designated to be the wife of Yitzchak’s firstborn son. Had Yaakov not bought the birthright from Eisav, Eisav would have received Yitzchak’s blessing and Leah would surely have married him. But after Yaakov bought the birthright and received Yitzchak’s blessing, Leah’s fate became uncertain. Would she marry Eisav, on account of his being the son who was actually born first? Or would she marry Yaakov, on account of his having assumed the position of firstborn? Reflecting this uncertainty, the Midrash speaks of people saying that “the older one will marry the older one and the younger one will marry the younger one,” without mentioning any names. The uncertainty gave Leah an opening to pray, so she wept and prayed that she would not marry Eisav, and her prayer was successful: In relation to Leah, Hashem regarded Yaakov as Yitzchak’s elder son, and arranged that he marry Lavan’s elder daughter Leah, the daughter who was first in line. And accordingly the Midrash makes a point of adding that Leah not only merited marrying Yaakov, but she married him before her sister Rachel did.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Toldos

Near the beginning of this week’s parashah, the Torah states (Bereishis 25:21): “And Yitzchak entreated Hashem opposite his wife, for she was barren; Hashem acceded to him, and his wife Rivkah conceived.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 63:5):
R. Yochanan said: “He poured forth prayers profusely [בעושר – a play on the word ויעתר in the verse, exchanging the ת for a ש].” Reish Lakish said: “He overturned the decree [of barrenness]. Hence the Torah describes his prayer using the term ויעתר, alluding to a shovel (עתר) used to turn over the grain on the threshing floor.” Opposite his wife – this teaches that Yitzchak was bowing down in one section of the room and she was bowing down in another section. He said: “Master of the Universe! Let all the children that You are giving me come from this saintly woman.” And, similarly, she said: “Let all the children that You will eventually give me come from this saintly man.”
The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. When a person appears before a king to ask for help, he will not speak at length or make extensive requests. Rather, he will be very brief, and limit his requests. In the words of the Talmudic saying (Yoma 80a): “If you took hold of a lot, you have not taken hold; if you took hold of a little, you have taken hold.” He will ask only for the minimum he needs. This is so, however, only when he is petitioning on his own behalf. If he is petitioning on behalf of someone else, he will feel no hesitation or embarrassment, and he will plead expansively.
Similarly, when righteous people pray to Hashem on their own behalf, seeking their needs, they will ask only for the minimum necessary, but when they pray on someone else’s behalf, they pray expansively. Now, in Bava Kamma 92a our Sages teach that when a person prays for another person, and he himself needs the same thing that he is asking Hashem to give the other person, Hashem meets his own need first. Thus, when a person prays for someone else, he gains much more than he would have had he prayed only for himself, for Hashem extends help to him according to what he asked for, and when he prays for someone else he asks for more. In this vein, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 35:13): “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth, and I afflicted myself with fasting; may my prayer return unto my own bosom.” David is saying: “I prayed expansively for them; I wore sackcloth and fasted for their sake. And I confidently hope that I, too, will benefit greatly from my efforts – that what I asked Hashem to grant them He will grant me as well.”
Yitzchak prayed expansively that his wife bear a child; as R. Yochanan notes, and as Rashi mentions in a comment on our verse, the profuseness of his prayer is hinted at by the Torah’s describing the prayer using the term ויעתר rather than the usual term ויתפלל. Yitzchak was able to pray profusely because he was praying “opposite his wife” – on his wife’s behalf, rather than on his own behalf. At the same time, after describing his prayer, the Torah says that “Hashem acceded to him” – in line with the principle we mentioned above, Hashem responded by meeting Yitzchak’s need for aid in fathering a child, for, as the Gemara relates (Yevamos 64a), both Yitzchak and Rivkah were both originally barren.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

The beginning of this week’s parashah describes the negotiations Avraham had with Efron HaChiti to acquire a burial plot for Sarah. At first Efron grandiosely offered to give Avraham a plot for free, but when Avraham insisted on buying the plot, Efron asked an exorbitant price. Throughout most of the Torah’s account, Efron’s name is spelled in full, with a vav. However, in the verse describing how Avraham weighed out the money for Efron, the second time Efron’s name appears it is spelled without a vav. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 57:7):
“One who is anxious for wealth is an evil-eyed man, and he does not know that lack will come upon him” (Mishlei 28:22). One who is anxious for wealth is an evil-eyed man – this refers to Efron, who set an evil eye on the money of a righteous man. And does not know that lack will come upon him – that the Torah would omit the vav in the second mention of his name in this verse.
The Maggid analyzes the import of the omitted vav. He develops his explanation by discussing the fate of Chiram, king of Tyre, who helped Shlomo HaMelech build the first Beis HaMikdash by supplying cedar and cypress wood and providing other assistance. He should have gained eminence for this deed, but he spoiled his name by making himself into a deity, as described in Yechezkel 28. Had he not so, he would have lived a full and honorable life, rather than suffering a disgraceful early death. As our Sages put it, he did himself evil (Tanchuma, Beshallach 12 and elsewhere). If not for his grievous sin, he would have had the merit, due to his role in the building of the Beis HaMikdash, of having Hashem continually recall his name with favor.
Efron, as well, had the chance to make a good name for himself in Hashem’s eyes. His field served as the burial site of the sainted forefathers of the Jewish People. Since Hashem continually keeps the forefathers in mind, He would also have continually recalled Efron’s name with favor. But Efron, like Chiram, did himself evil and destroyed his chance for eternal eminence. In his anxiousness for wealth, he rushed to extract money from Avraham for his field, and thereby lost his merit. Since he sold the field to Avraham, his own name became disassociated with the field, and would no longer be recalled in connection with it.
Now, the way we just explained how Efron lost his chance for eminence raises a question about Chiram. For Chiram also received lavish compensation for what he contributed, yet we said above that his contribution made him worthy of great eminence, and he would indeed have gained such eminence had he not sinned. What made him different from Efron?
To answer this question, the Maggid turns to a Mishnah (Avos 1:3): “Do not be like servants who serve the master with the expectation of receiving reward. Rather, be like servants who serve the master with no expectation of receiving reward.” The Maggid brings out the message behind this Mishnah with a parable. A great nobleman took a trip, and decided to spend a night at a certain inn. The innkeeper cleared out a room for the distinguished visitor, making space for all his utensils, and also prepared quarters for the visitor’s servants and horsemen. In addition, he made the nobleman a fine meal, which the nobleman enjoyed very much. In the morning, the nobleman asked the innkeeper how much he owed him, and the innkeeper named a price. The nobleman paid the price, went on his way, and forgot about the innkeeper. Although the innkeeper had treated him well, he had done so only for his own benefit, to make money. So once the price had been paid, the nobleman no longer had any tie with the innkeeper.
Later, the nobleman decided to spend another night at another inn. The innkeeper treated him lavishly, as befit a man of his stature. Moreover, he decided not to charge the nobleman anything; the opportunity to serve as host for such a distinguished man was so precious to him that he felt he could not take money for it. As the nobleman prepared to leave, he asked the innkeeper hw much he owed. The innkeeper replied: “It was an indescribably immense pleasure for me to have you visit my inn and give me the opportunity to serve you. How can I possibly ask you to pay me?” When the nobleman heard these words, a deep love and affection for the innkeeper welled up in his heart, and he urged the innkeeper to accept some gifts from him. The nobleman heaped the innkeeper with gifts, whose value was seventy times what the lodging fare would have been. And, from that day on, the memory of that innkeeper was engraved in the nobleman’s heart, and he would regularly send valuable gifts to the innkeeper and his family, maintaining this practice for the rest of his life.
It is the same with serving Hashem. When a person serves Hashem expecting to receive reward, as in a business transaction, Hashem deals with him accordingly. Although Hashem is satisfied with the service he renders, and rewards him appropriately, he gets no more than his just reward. But Hashem deals differently with a person who is loyally attached to Him and considers it a great honor and a pleasure to serve Him, without setting his sights on reward. To such a person, Hashem grants an eternal stream of enormous bounty.
Now, when Chiram provided materials for the Beis HaMikdash, he did so purely out of generosity, without seeking reward. Hence, were it not for his sin, he would have deserved to have Hashem continually recall his name with favor for all eternity. Even though Shlomo rewarded him with lavish gifts for his contribution, the reward was not what motivated him. Efron, on the other hand, conveyed his field to Avraham in the framework of a plain business transaction, with no aspect of generosity. He therefore deserved no recognition.
Thus, our Sages were on the mark when they applied to Efron Shlomo’s teaching: “One who is anxious for wealth is an evil-eyed man, and he does not know that lack will come upon him.” Efron, due to his evil-eyed nature, was anxious to extract money from Avraham for his field. He did not perceive the great loss he was causing himself by his conduct – a loss of eternal eminence in Hashem’s eyes. He acted in a lowly way, and remained lowly. And, as testimony to his lowliness, the Torah struck out a letter from his name.
David Zucker, Site Administrator