Post Archive for November 2017

Parashas Toldos

This week’s parashah recounts the episode where Yaakov takes the blessing that Yitzchak meant to give Eisav. During the subsequent interchanges between Yitzchak and Eisav, Yaakov tells Eisav (Bereishis 27:35): “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 67:4): “He came using the wisdom of the Torah.” The Maggid asks: What does this mean? Seemingly, Yaakov did no more than mechanically follow his mother’s directions. What wisdom is the Midrash referring to?
The Maggid answers this question through close examination of the entire episode. He begins by raising some additional questions. First, why does the Torah first report Eisav’s outcry without any explanation, and only later, after relating Yitzchak’s response, report the reason for the outcry? Second, given that Yitzchak had already told Eisav that he had blessed Yaakov and that therefore Yaakov would indeed be blessed, what did add by saying that Yaakov came with cunning and took his blessing? Third, how could Eisav say that Yaakov “took” his birthright, when in fact he had willingly sold it to him?
To explain the interchange between Yitzchak and Eisav, the Maggid describes what Yitzchak had in mind when he decided how he would bless his two sons. Yitzchak had two types of blessings to grant: spiritual blessings, relating to the world to come, and material blessings, relating to this world. He decided it would be proper to grant the spiritual blessings to his firstborn son, i.e., Eisav, for the firstborn son has a special elevated status and is the one invested with responsibility for bringing offerings. Thus, when Yaakov approached Yitzchak and presented himself as Eisav, Yitzchak was poised to grant him the spiritual blessings. Yaakov sensed what Yitzchak wanted to do. After some reflection, he decided it would be better for him to receive the material blessings. He reasoned that since anyone can acquire a share in the world to come on his own by choosing to follow the proper path, and since he had in fact adopted this path and was wholehearted in thought and deed, he did not need Yitzchak to bless him with success in acquiring a share in the world to come. He therefore made a move to induce Yitzchak to grant him the material blessings. What move did he make? He told Yitzchak, in the guise of Eisav, that “he” had sold the birthright to “his brother.” And given that the birthright had passed from Eisav to Yaakov, it would be proper to grant Eisav the material blessings instead of the spiritual blessings. Yitzchak followed this reasoning, and, thinking that the person standing before him was Eisav, granted Yaakov the material blessings.
Now, when Yitzchak told Eisav afterward that “I blessed him – and, indeed, he will be blessed,” Eisav initially thought that Yaakov had not come with any cunning, but rather had simply overheard Yitzchak’s request for delicacies, had stepped in and brought them in order to satisfy Yitzchak’s need, and had received a blessing. Eisav assumed that Yitzchak was aware that it was Yaakov who had brought the delicacies. Eisav had also worked out in his mind, just as Yaakov had, that Yitzchak was planning to give him the spiritual blessings and Yaakov the material blessings. He thus concluded that Yitzchak had in fact given Yaakov the material blessings. He was devastated by this outcome, for he was interested only in worldly pleasures, and he had figured that – given his having sold the birthright – he would get the material blessings. He therefore let out an exceedingly great and bitter cry. Yet, at this point, Eisav did not state why he was upset. He was ashamed to tell his father that he was upset over having lost material blessings, for, over the years, he had constantly “trapped his father with his mouth” and passed himself off as saintly. How could he now make a big fuss over worldly pleasures? He therefore simply let out an inchoate outcry and pleaded: “Bless me too, Father.” He did not specify what blessing he wished to get.
Yitzchak responded by saying: “Your brother came with cunning and took your blessing.” Eisav assumed Yitzchak was referring to the spiritual blessings, which Yitzchak viewed as being “Eisav’s blessing” because Eisav was the firstborn. Eisav thus revised his initial reading of what had taken place, now surmising that Yaakov had slyly impersonated him before Yitzchak and taken the spiritual blessings. This is the “wisdom of the Torah” that the Midrash tells us Yaakov exploited: Yaakov exercised a Torah-based right to assume Eisav’s place – a right arising from Yaakov’s having bought the birthright from Eisav. At this point, Eisav calmed down and rejoiced inside, reasoning that since Yaakov had received the spiritual blessings, he would get the material blessings, which is what he wanted all along. It did not occur to him at all that Yaakov may have told Yitzchak about the sale of the birthright. So he said to Yitzchak: “It is fitting that his name is called Yaakov, for now he has taken me over me twice: He took my birthright, and, behold, now he has taken my blessing.” What he had in mind was as follows: “You made no mistake, Father. It was in full accordance with law that you granted him the spiritual blessings, for he took over the status of firstborn. And as for me, it is fitting me to grant me the material blessings.”
Eisav thus continues: “Surely you have reserved (אצלת) a blessing for me.” Expounding on the word אצלת, the Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 67:4): “A blessing from the leftovers (מן הנצלת).” Eisav was asking for material blessings, even though they are inferior blessings, because from the standpoint of law he had no right to ask for more than that. Yitzchak replied: “You have misunderstood. I gave Yaakov the material blessings – I made him a lord over you, I gave all his kin to him as servants, and I fortified him with grain and wine. What, then, my son, shall I do for you? I cannot give you the spiritual blessings – you are not entitled to them, since you sold the birthright to Yaakov.” At this point, Eisav raised his voice and wept, for he realized that he had been foreclosed – he lost the material blessing, which was his main desire. And then, as described in Devarim Rabbah 1:15, Eisav exclaimed: “Come and see what this ‘wholehearted one’ did to me.” It was Yaakov’s wholeheartedness that enabled him to succeed in his cunning takeover of Eisav’s blessing: If not for Yaakov’s wholeheartedness, Eisav would have taken steps to prevent such a takeover.

Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates how Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to search for a wife for Yitzchak. In the course of the conversation, Eliezer asks (Bereishis 24:5): “Perhaps the woman will not be want to follow me to this land; should I bring your son back to the land from where you came?” Avraham tells him no. Afterward Eliezer goes to Aram Naharaim, meets Rivkah and selects her to be Yitzchak’s wife, goes to Rivkah’s home, and relates the sequence of events to her family. In so doing, he mentions the issue that he raised in his conversation with Avraham (ibid. 24:39): “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” Rashi expounds: “The word אֻלַי (perhaps) is written in incomplete form [without a vav, so that it could also be read אֵלַיto me]. Eliezer had a daughter, and he was a seeking a way to get Avraham to approach him to make a match between Yitzchak and his daughter.” On the other hand, in reporting Eliezer’s original statement to Avraham, the Torah writes אוּלַי in full spelling. Accordingly, many commentators have asked: Why would the Torah place the allusion to Eliezer’s hope in its report of his description of the events to Rivkah’s family, rather than in its report of his original statement to Avraham? Seemingly the allusion would be more aptly placed in conjunction with the original statement, when Eliezer was discussing the matter with Avraham himself, who was the relevant party. Indeed, the Midrash actually associates the allusion with the original statement. The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 59:9):
“And the servant said to him, [‘Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me’].” In this connection it is written: “Cnaan bears a false set of scales, to cheat the beloved one.” Cnaan is Eliezer [meaning either that Eliezer literally was Cnaan, the son of Noach’s son Cham, or that he was of Canaanite stock]. A false set of scales – he sat and weighed whether or not his daughter was fitting as a wife for Yitzchak. To cheat the beloved one – to cheat the beloved one of the world, Yitzchak. He said: “Perhaps the woman will not want to follow me, and I’ll give him my daughter.” Avraham replied: “You are cursed and my son is blessed, and the cursed cannot become attached to the blessed.”
It is natural, then, to analyze why Rashi associated the allusion with Eliezer’s narration of the statement to Rivkah’s family rather than with his original statement.
The key is to identify why Eliezer told Rivkah’s family about his prior statement to Avraham about the possibility that the woman he found for Yitzchak in Aram Naharaim might not want to follow him. The Maggid explains Eliezer’s intent with a parable. A certain merchant dealt in wares from a distant province. His fixed practice was to send an agent to the wholesaler in the other province to buy merchandise from him on credit, and after a set time he would send the agent back to the wholesaler to pay him for the previous purchase and make another credit purchase of new merchandise. The merchant maintained this practice for a long period. At a certain point, the merchant decided – in the manner of wicked men – to cheat the wholesaler by sending his agent to make a very large credit purchase, and then cutting off dealings with him without paying. When the merchant presented this plan to his agent, the agent was upset, and he tried to derail the plan. He told the merchant: “Maybe the wholesaler won’t agree to the deal.” The merchant replied brazenly: “This fellow has been selling to me on credit for years. Why would he now suddenly refuse?” The agent, feeling forced to follow his employer’s orders, made his way to the wholesaler. He said to him: “My employer asked me to go to you again to buy a large quantity of merchandise – on credit, as in the past. I pointed out that maybe you wouldn’t agree to the deal, but he told me to go anyway.” Sure enough, the wholesaler decided not to make the deal; the agent’s extra remark, tipping the wholesaler off to the merchant’s deceitful plan, induced the wholesaler to refuse.
Similarly, when Avraham sent Eliezer to Aram Naharaim to seek a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer was upset; he wanted his daughter to marry Yitzchak. This hope led him to express reservations about the mission; he raised with Avraham the possibility that the woman he found might not want to follow him. And when he told Rivkah’s family about his discussion with Avraham, he was trying to lead them, or Rivkah herself, to suspect that some serious problem with the match lurked beneath the surface. Why else would a woman refuse to marry the son of the wealthy and famous Avraham? By raising doubts in this way, he sought to derail the match, so that Yitzchak would marry his daughter instead.
The Midrash associates the Torah’s allusion to Eliezer’s hope that his daughter would marry Yitzchak with his original statement to Avraham, for at the time he made this statement he already had the hope in mind. On the other hand, the incomplete spelling אֻלַי that prompted Rashi’s comment on the issue appears in Eliezer’s narration to Rivkah’s family, because it was at that point that his hope became clearly evident – the narration being a ploy aimed at bringing this hope to fruition.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeira

This week’s parashah recounts, among other events, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. When Hashem was about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, He said (Bereishis 18:17-19):  “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am going to do? But Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For it is known to Me regarding him – in order that he command his children and his household to follow him, that they observe Hashem’s way, to charity and justice, in order that Hashem may bring upon Avraham what He had spoken regarding him.” At first glance, it is not at all clear why the fact that Avraham was destined to become a great nation constituted cause for Hashem to tell him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah. The Maggid provides an explanation based on the principle we presented in last week’s d’var Torah.
He brings out the idea with a parable. Two merchants were traveling on business, one young and the other elderly. They reached a major city, and they saw some clothing stores well stocked with high-quality suits. The elderly merchant said: “I’d like very much to buy one of these nice suits for my son, but I’m afraid that it will not fit him.” The young merchant declared: “I’m going to buy two or three.” His elderly companion asked: “What will you do if they do not fit your sons?” He replied: “You are right not to buy one of these suits, for you have only one son, born to you in your later years, and if the suit doesn’t fit him, you’ll have no one else to give it to. But my situation is different. Hashem has graciously granted me several sons of various ages. Also, since I’m still young, I’m likely to have more sons later. So my purchase of the suits will not go for naught. Eventually, I’ll be able to give them to my sons; whichever doesn’t fit one of them will fit another.”
The parallel is as follows. Hashem deliberately led Avraham to pray for Sodom and Gemorrah. He knew that Sodom and Gemorrah ultimately would not benefit from this prayer, but, nonetheless, it would not be for naught. Rather, Hashem would hold it in store for the benefit Avraham’s descendants. This is what Hashem had in mind with His explanation of why He told Avraham of His plans: “Avraham is firmly destined to become a great and mighty nation.” He intended for Avraham’s prayer to benefit the great and mighty nation that would spring forth from him. A passage in Tehillim 102 hints at this idea. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 102:18-19): “He turned to the prayer of the barren one, and did not despise their prayer. Let this be put on record for the generation to come, and the newly-formed people shall proclaim Hashem’s praise.” We can read the appellation “barren one” (ערער) as alluding to Avraham, who, before being granted children, asked Hashem (Bereishis 15:2): “What can You give me, seeing that I go childless (ערירי)?” Even though Avraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gemorrah could not achieve its nominal goal, Hashem did not despise the prayer; rather, He put it on record on behalf of coming generations. And when the Jews of future generations are saved from distress, they will proclaim Hashem’s praise – they will thank Hashem not only for the salvation itself, but also for laying the groundwork through Avraham’s prayer.
The above discussion provides insight into the teaching in Yevamos 64a stating that Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men. On the surface, this teaching is perplexing. If a righteous man needs Divine aid, he surely will pray for it – Hashem does not need to yearn for his prayer. And if he does not presently have a specific need, why would Hashem wish for him to pray? But, in view of what we have just explained, we can understand the Gemara easily. Hashem, who has complete knowledge of the future, is aware of all future occasions in which the Jewish People will be in distress. And He recognizes that, on some of these occasions, the people of the generation will not have enough merit of their own to deserve to be saved. Hence, in His great kindness, He sets up situations that lead a righteous man to pray for Divine mercy, so that the benefits generated by this prayer will be available to all those who will need them in the future. This is, in particular, how Hashem capitalized on the exceptional piety of our holy forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. He induced them to pray, so that their prayers would benefit future generations of Jews of lesser spiritual stature. Hashem yearns for the prayers of righteous men because of this wondrous benefit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator