Friday, November 25, 2022

When Identical Twins Are Different - A Study in Contrasts

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Rabbi Shimshon’s Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the Torah’s introduction to Eisav and Yaakov is singularly refreshing. 

From the words והנה תומם, Rav Hirsch derives several indications. First, the word הנה (behold) often introduces something unexpected. For Rivkah, who knew there were two boys in her, the appearance of twins was not a surprise. In fact, due to their seeming differences in nature, and thus their rumblings within her, they were presumed to be quite different. The surprise, therefore, was that they were identical! The difference was “in their constitution, one was more physically developed, stronger and healthier than the other.” Second, a source, from the double חסר, the fact that the word תאומים (twins) is missing two letters as it is spelled תומם, hints to their being identical. 

I wonder, once we’re noting the spelling of תומם, whether it could also hint to the idea that they both had the potential to be תמים – a word we’ll define momentarily, as it ends up being a depiction of Yaakov alone. &&&&&&& 

Continuing with Hirsch, “The external resemblance, had they compared it with the revelation about the divergent future paths, should have drawn the attention of the boys’ educators. It was their duty to recognize that the root of the future dissimilarity lay deep below the surface, hidden in the depths of personality.” 

Hirsch defines אדמוני as being “ruddy,” a sign of radiant health. He argues that hair on a newborn is a sign of surplus energy and life force, and that in Eisav’s case there was such a surplus of this energy that “the whole body was covered with soft hair.” His name, עשו, comes from the word עשה, which means “fully made and fully developed” as he brought “life and protective strength in full measure” along with him into the world. 

In calling the second son יעקב, Yitzchak was the only one who noticed the contrast at birth. Eisav was distinct on account of his personality. Yaakov was distinct on account of his actions. By holding onto Eisav’s heel, he indicated he will follow on the heels of his brother and aim to overtake him. 

The Midrash notes the mistakes in their upbringing, emphasizing the need for education and the raising of children to follow the principle of חנוך לנער על פי דרכו, to educate each child according to his particular proclivities. (Mishlei 22:6) Essentially, while they were little, no one bothered paying attention to the differences between them that were apparent at birth – and they were raised the same way.

In comparison, and to his credit, when Yaakov blessed his children near the end of his own life, he didn’t just see in them the teachers of Torah and the Kohanim. He saw the tribe of merchants and of kings and of warriors and of farmers. He saw the whole nation, with the manifold characters and diverse ways of development, as he blessed ALL of them, each according to his qualities (49:28). 

 For Yaakov’s personality, his way of learning comes from books and pursuit of knowledge. Eisav can’t wait to get out of the classroom so he could move on with his life in the manner he will design for himself. &&&&&&& Hirsch laments that had Yitzchak and Rivkah only seen this, Eisav had the potential to be much more than a גיבור ציד, a mighty hunter, but a גיבור לפני ה', a warrior before God. “The sword of Eisav could have entered into a covenant with the spirit of Yaakov, and who knows what turn world history would have taken!” 

But it did not happen. The young men grew up, and only then was it noticed how different they were. Like many other commentaries, Hirsch notes that the depictions of them contain their vocations and a character trait. For Eisav who is יודע ציד איש שדה, the knowledge of trapping is his character while being a man of the field (a farmer?) is his work. Yaakov is an איש תם יושב אהלים, and being a תם (simple or complete person) is his character, while dwelling in tents references his profession (a shepherd? as compared to Bereshis 4:20). [Hirsch doesn’t refer to either as a farmer or shepherd, but leaves it simply as “man of field” and “dweller of tent” per the language of the verse – other commentaries go the route of farmer and shepherd, which begs a strong comparison to Kayin and Hevel!] 

The ציד (tzayad) appears to be innocent, but in his heart he harbors the intent to kill. His art is the exercise of trickery… in a different sphere this is called diplomacy. As an expert hunter, Eisav “knew the art of self-control: set a trap and then wait patiently for the opportune moment. His upbringing… forced him to develop patience, the ability to wait for the opportune moment.” Being forced into one way of study caused him to reject everything and become completely and only a “man of the field.” 

As an איש תם, Yaakov “knows only one direction and devotes himself entirely to it, a man single-minded in his whole essence. He was single-minded in seeking to fulfill the mission entrusted to him as Yitzchak’s son and Avraham’s grandson, and therefore became a dweller of tents, a person whose sphere of activity is in human society, in whose midst he leads a life of study and practice.” 

The ways in which the Torah depicts the parents’ love for their children is also indicative of a problem – Yitzchak “loves Eisav because he was a hunter with his mouth” and Rivkah “loved Yaakov.” There should never be a “because” attached to a parent’s love for a child. And there should not be a seeming preference between which parent loves one child seemingly more or seemingly less or seemingly differently. 

Knowing we are Monday morning quarterbacks on the raising of Yaakov and Eisav, Rav Hirsch is most grateful to the Torah for its honesty regarding the natures of Yaakov and Eisav and how their personalities were ignored in their upbringing, in their being given the same upbringing despite their natural differences, and in how that came to create opposites and enemies rather than two different cogs on the same wheel. We often think of a Yissachar/Zevulun relationship as being one of a scholar partnering with a merchant to achieve a particular goal in the service of God, where each focuses on his strength and lovingly, willingly, and at great sacrifice contributes to the partnership. 

Knowing that people are different and that each person has strengths and weaknesses helps remind us that while goals and values are meant to unite us, there are different approaches to how to achieve those which can be reached through methods that utilize those different strengths that people bring to the table. 

Could Eisav have been a תם? Does such a humble trait fit in with his surplus energy and his boisterous personality? Can we see such a possibility from his being depicted as one of two תומם? Could his strengths have been channeled through a pipeline more dedicated to the service of God so he could emerge as a hero of our people instead of a villain most noted for his descendants negative role against our people? It is hard to know or say for sure. 

This is the tapestry of humanity, that people with different natures and energies can be part of a greater whole. When the strengths in questions are utilized properly, we can only elevate the service of God, as well as feelings of brotherhood we can have for one another.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Avraham's Concubines and Their Children

Parshat Chayei Sarah

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The beginning of Chapter 25, which follows the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, informs us that Avraham took a wife named Keturah. There is a debate as to whether Keturah is a new woman never before introduced to us or whether she is Hagar in a new name. 

The verse tells us she had 6 children, and the implication is that Avraham is the father of these children. It is certainly worthy of further discussion as to why a big deal is not made of this when Avraham made a big deal of his being 100 at the time of Yitzchak’s birth. 

Seforno is of the opinion, based on Divrai HaYamim I 1:28 that Avraham only had two sons, Yishmael and Yitzchak, that the 6 children of Keturah (ibid 1:32) were hers from a previous union. Seforno describes Avraham as “raising her children” as he compares the situation to Michal bat Shaul being credited with giving birth to 5 children to Adriel (her sister’s husband) (Shmuel II 21:8), while a different verse tells us Michal never had children (Shmuel II 6:23)! Therefore the assumption is that Michal raised her sister’s kids, even though the text says she “birthed” them. The same applies here with Avraham and Keturah’s children. 

In verse 6 we are told that “And to the sons of the concubines that Avraham had he gave presents, and he sent them from upon Yitzchak to the east.” Most commentaries indicates that the “concubines Avraham had” were Hagar and Keturah. Of course, for those who believe that Hagar and Keturah were the same person, it would be odd that the text would refer to Avraham’s concubines in the plural! 

Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) notes that the concubines in question were not “his” personal concubines, but were rather part of his serval staff – the concubines that were in his household. Any children they may have had were not biological to him, but they were ילידי ביתו, born in his household, and therefore subject to circumcision and to follow in the ways in which he guides his household. 

 It was to those servants that he gave gifts of silver, gold, animals, etc., and - as Radak notes - he certainly gave similarly to Yishmael and Bnei Keturah, even though they are not mentioned, because they were his sons. (Obviously Radak does not agree with Seforno and assumes Keturah’s children were fathered by Avraham, but he clearly does not include Hagar/Keturah as the “concubines of Avraham.”) 

 They were all sent to the east so they would not be a burden or hindrance to Yitzchak’s claims to Avraham’s property or to the land itself. Radak even says that the “eastern lands” refer to Charan and Ur Kasdim, the places of Avraham’s origins, where the greater family would embrace the kin of Avraham and take them under their wings. 

 Interestingly, there is a tale which appears in the Midrash (Pesikta, Sechel Tov) concerning Ishmaelites who came to Alexander Macedon claiming that as the verse in the Torah indicates clearly that Yishmael was the older son of Avraham, and not only that but there is a verse in the Torah that one may not favor the younger son over the older son (Devarim 21:17) when there are two wives, and two first borns, but the younger of the first borns is the son of the more loved wife. The Ishmaelites argued to the potentate to resolve the issue and give them their due of a double portion! 

His response to them was essentially that a person can give away whatever he wants in his lifetime, and that “yerusha” is only an argument after death! 

Since the verse, from the same Torah!, indicates that Avraham gave away ALL of his possessions to Yitzchak (25:5), and gave the sons of the concubines gifts (25:6), the descendants of concubines can’t come along and claim that Avraham meant to give them something that he clearly did not give them! 

It doesn’t take much to take this to the next obvious conclusion. Those who want to twist the Torah or the Bible to fit their claims are certainly entitled to make that effort. But once they open that door, they can’t only take the verses that seem to work in their favor, especially when taken out of context, while ignoring the parts that don’t work in their favor. 

 For example, while it can be debated as to whether Yaakov stole blessings from Eisav in Parshat Toldot, it is clear that the blessing that may have been intended for Eisav was a blessing of prosperity that had nothing to do with the gifting of the land (27:28-29). The same blessing that Avraham receives from God of inheriting the land is the same blessing Yitzchak received, and is the same blessing Yitzchak subsequently gave over to Yaakov before sending Yaakov to find a wife from the daughters of Lavan (28:4). 

 Every year, this Shabbos includes a large gathering in Hebron, where hundreds or even thousands of Jews descend upon the ancient city to declare and affirm our ancestral connection to the space Avraham purchased at an exorbitant price.

Whether a deed spoken of in the Torah is binding thousands of years later is certainly debatable. But to deny, based on anything in the Torah, our historical connection to that space is unconscionable. 

May it be a wonderful Shabbos for those celebrating there, and may we see the day when all peoples appreciate the blessing given to Avraham, fulfilled though the reemergence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, as we have been blessed to see over the last 140 years.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Yishmael's Actions and Yishmael's Future

Parshat Vayera 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

After the birth of Yitzchak, we are told that Avraham made a big party ביום הגמל את יצחק. As far as Yitzchak’s age for this party, the various interpretations suggest he was either 8 days old (his Bris), 2 or 3 years old (being weaned, though see Chasam Sofer, who suggests the party for his bris took place when he was 2, even though he was circumcised at 8-days), or at the age of 13. (see here). 

 Each of these interpretations suggests a different age for Yishmael at the time of the tale which immediately follows, since Yishmael and Yitzchak were 14 years apart. Yishmael was either 14, 16-17, or 27 at the time when Avraham, under Sarah’s instruction, sent him and Hagar out of Avraham’s home. 

Which begs the question – what was Yishmael doing that elicited such a harsh response? 

 Here are a number of possibilities of what took place, as told over by the commentaries: He kissed Yitzchak (Midrash Aggadah), shot arrows at him (Rashi, quoting Midrash); Immorality (based on a comparison made by Rabbi Akiva to Potiphar’s wife); Idolatry (based on a comparison to Golden Calf made by Rabbi Yishmael, picked up by Targum Yonatan); Smiled (Onkelos); mocked Yitzchak’s size and old parents (Ibn Ezra, Radak); planned to inherit (Ramban, Rashbam); mocked the celebration over Yitzchak since he (Yishmael) was the older son (while noting the rumors of Avimelekh being Yitzchak’s father) (Seforno); mocking everyone who assumed Yitzchak would inherit (Tosefta). 

While it is hard to understand some of these, especially if coming from a young teenager, even if the celebration over Yitzchak took place when Yitzchak was 13, Yishmael’s being 27 begs us to wonder what his problem is – mocking his younger half-brother, or other circumstances of his life? Engaging in illicit behavior – seriously…?for someone who grew up in Avraham’s house? 

Damesek Eliezer suggests an interesting possibility (albeit homiletic) based on the verse in which Avraham, after Sarah’s suggestion to banish Yishmael is approved by God, demonstrates his remorse (21:11) – “It greatly distressed Avraham, regarding his son.” What may have truly bothered Avraham is of what would become of Yishmael’s son. Granted, Yishmael did not yet have a wife, but if he is 27 he is likely much closer to marriage than if he is 14. And if he is 27, and clearly at a loss for a certain element of proper behavior, if he is removed from Avraham’s household, and Avraham has less say about who he marries, and if he will not be raising his children in a space within Avraham’s influence, what would become of them? 

 Rabbi Scheinbaum (19th series of Peninim Al HaTorah) opens this possibility of a message from the Torah as a reminder to parents to never rest on their laurels, thinking that if we have provided everything to our children, given them what we felt was the right education and upbringing, that we can be confident that the future of our children/grandchildren is secure and guaranteed. 

 It is far more necessary to cultivate the strengths and the direction to which each child is personally headed (a far more grueling task than we may be prepared for), so that each child, al pi darko or darkah (based on their own proclivities) will be best prepared to navigate a life of Torah and mitzvos, as personally defined as possible based on one’s natural tastes and inclinations. 

 If Yishmael was 27, this would surely help us understand the urgency of Avraham’s concerns, rather than were we contemplating the other extreme behaviors as having been attributed to a teenager. 

 But there is another interpretation that ought to be considered as well, and that is the concern raised by Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam. Sarah’s concern for Yishmael’s behavior was that he was indeed fooling around, but what he was actually doing was far less a concern than the simple fact that he was wasting time. 

 There are so many things we can do wrong, but with Teshuvah or other rectifications, there is a chance to undo whatever harm came from negative behaviors. But wasting time, purposely being either idle or simply not using time in a productive fashion, can never be undone. We can’t get back the time that was wasted. 

So now we must ask whether any of these possibilities is deserving of banishment? 

Perhaps this is a difference between a mother and father, or perhaps it was simply the difference between Sarah and Avraham. 

Sarah said “Banish this maid and her son, for the child of this maid will not be inheriting with my son, with Yitzchak.” This might indicate that Hagar was similarly involved in having some kind of negative influence on Yitzchak, and Sarah wanted NONE OF IT to be around Yitzchak. If, for example, the whole point of Yishmael’s existence was because Sarah could not produce a child, now that Yitzchak had been born, the need for Yishmael to remain in her house was non-existent in her eyes. And if he was only preventing Yitzchak from reaching his full potential, how much moreso was his presence not only unnecessary but harmful. And since Hagar, who already had a negative track record with Sarah, was doing nothing to stop Yishmael, in Sarah’s eyes both of them needed to go. 

As the saying goes, “Let the boy follow his mother.” Who Yishmael’s father was, at this point in time, was arguably irrelevant to Sarah on account of her top concerns, which were Yitzchak’s physical and spiritual wellbeing. 

Avraham, on the other hand, couldn’t conceive of letting go of his son. Up until the birth of Yitzchak, for 14 years, everything Avraham had he put into cultivating Yishmael as his heir. When he was told about Yitzchak’s pending birth, Avraham’s response was essentially, “I don’t need a son, I have a son. Yishmael is sufficient!” (see 17:18) 

This is not to say that Avraham didn’t want Yitzchak or love Yitzchak, or that he didn’t view Yitzchak as his “main” son. It is simply that Avraham was not prepared to give up on Yishmael so quickly and so easily. 

This is likely why Chazal tell us that every time Avraham has a נער (lad) helping him, it is Yishmael, because he never lost the connection. And of course, Yishmael will ultimately be at Avraham’s funeral, and will be described as dying with גויעה, the form of death that Rashi says is reserved for the righteous. 

 Who was right – Sarah or Avraham? It’s an unfair question. Sarah was right for what was best for Yitzchak. Avraham was right in not being ready to give up on his son. No matter how far he may have strayed. 

 What we learn from these perspectives is that some (many) decisions in life are complicated! It is hoped that we can be granted siyata dishmaya – help from Heaven – in making the right decisions. And always remember that if decisions we face are indeed complicated, to seek advice from people who may have more wisdom than we have, or who might simply be able to offer a perspective we have not considered, should certainly be to our benefit. 

 When dealing with decisions that impact the next generation or generations, we truly need siyata dishmaya, accompanied by much Tefillah that the future of our people is secure and headed in the right direction.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Sarai’s Hope As a Lesson For Our Own Struggles

Parshat Lekh Lekha 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Sarai tells her husband Avram, “God has stopped me from giving birth. Come now to my maid, perhaps I will build from her.” 

How did she know God had stopped her from giving birth? As Alshikh puts it – wasn’t she barren? What did she mean when she said “perhaps I will build from her?” Was she suggesting the maid’s child would be “as-if” her own child? Or was she suggesting something else? 

As any questions of these sorts, the opinions of the commentaries vary, and offer a lens upon a subject that is all too familiar to too many people even in our world today. 

 As Rashi is the go-to for many readers, his comments on this verse say the following. 

 From the words “I will build” Rashi surmises that someone who has no children (though he is likely referring to the married individual who is trying to have children) is considered “broken” (an idea raised in many Midrashim), hence the need for building. Building “from her” suggests that in the merit of bringing another woman into her marriage, she will be blessed to have a child herself as well. (see Gur Aryeh) As for her knowing God had stopped her from having a child, Rashi references her “Ruach HaKodesh” – the divine spirit within her. Some take this last idea a step further suggesting Sarai was Yiskah, daughter of Haran, and that יסכה refers to her holy spirit (Pesikta) or even her abilities as a prophet (see, for example, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi who references that Sarah was one of the seven prophetesses).

Midrash Sechel Tov suggests that her building off Hagar means “השפחה יולדת, והגבירה מגדלת” – the maid gives birth and the mistress raises the child, that the child is considered hers, and not that of the maid. Radak notes “if the maid has a son, I will consider him like my own, and he will be to me like my son.” (Ramban offers both options, of raising the child as her own, or of meriting to have her own child…) Malbim has a slightly different twist on this, suggesting that the advantage of her giving her maid as the second wife, rather than Avraham finding one for himself, allows any child born from the maid to be Sarai’s עבד/slave, and in effect her own child. He agrees with R Chaim Paltiel’s possibility that her raising Hagar’s child will cause her body to respond in a manner that will help her produce her own child. (Seforno says something similar). 

Netziv rejects the possibility of Sarai raising Hagar’s child, as he focuses on the merit she would get from facilitating for her maid to have a child. 

 Her saying she wanted to build (אבנה) seems to be the source of the word בן to mean “son.” (Ibn Ezra, Radak) The son is the building that grows from the foundation which are the parents. 

 Haktav V’hakabbalah offers a different perspective on “building from her” as he reminds us that all the Imahot were barren, and they felt there was a practical explanation for the problem, stemming from the passageways through which zera passed being blocked by שומן (some kind of body fat). They brought their maids into the relationship with a hope that the extra woman would help clear up the problem. Bringing the maid into the relationship with her husband would further serve in the following capacity: “When they would see the maid inheriting the space of her mistress, laying in the embrace of her husband, they would have admiration as well as distress, the combination of which would remove the fat from the said passageways,” allowing their own barrenness to be remedied. 

 He rejects this thought process, however, assuming that the Imahot were more inclined to use prayer to achieve their objectives, and that bringing a second wife into the relationship was meant to be an impetus to further that agenda, one which would bring a merit for having a child. 

 According to a 2017-2019 survey infertility affects 1 in 8 men and women. That it affected all of the Imahot is astonishing on a statistical level, but not on the deeper level of God wanting that for reasons that focus on trust in God, emunah and bitachon, and the lessons which come from seeing that the MOTHERS of the Jewish people were all, at one point, barren. And that even those who were blessed to only have one child are the mothers of us all – an important reminder to those who are blessed with a child, that the outcomes of that one child are unpredictable, as the future which lies ahead is as yet unwritten. 

 It is not being suggested that a woman who struggles with infertility should give her husband a second wife in hopes that things will work out. That is obviously not our way – thank God there are resources that try to help couples in these circumstances, and sometimes they are successful, albeit sometimes it takes a long time. 

 In these parshas which contain the narratives of our Forefathers and Foremothers, we find many relatable tales of family and personal struggle – financial difficulties, family relationships and fallouts, concern for the investment in the future, teenage misbehavior and rebelliousness, getting along with neighbors, recovering from loss, having a bris, concerns over the proper upbringing of one’s child. The list goes on. 

Hopefully we can relate to the portions which are relatable, but also draw inspiration from the faith of Avraham and Sarah and the other fathers and mothers, as we struggle through our own challenges, always falling back on our relationship with God as that which carries us.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Proverbial Noach – How We Are to Live Our LIves

Parshat Noach 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

לפְּֽרִי־צַ֖דִּיק עֵ֣ץ חַיִּ֑ים וְלֹקֵ֖חַ נְפָשׁ֣וֹת חָכָֽם

The fruit of a righteous man is the tree of life, and the wise man acquires souls. – Mishlei 11:30 

 In Medrash Tanchuma, the second entry on Parshas Noach has Rabbi Tanchuma expounding the following in the Beis Medrash. 

“The verse says (Mishlei 11:30) that the fruit of the Tzaddik (righteous individual) is the tree of life. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi bar Shalom would say that when a righteous person departs from this world without having had children, he is pained and he cries. God says to him ‘Why are you pained and why do you cry? Because you didn’t have ‘fruits’ which are children? In this world there are ‘fruits’ much nicer than children!’ And the person says ‘Master of the World, what fruits are these?’ And the Holy One Blessed is He says ‘It is the Torah in which you involved yourself, as the verse says ‘It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it (Mishlei 3:18)’!’ And how do we know this refers to Noach? Our sages taught us that Noach didn’t die until after he had seen the world repopulated, until he saw the Kotenes of Zippori, and until he saw 70 nations which descended from him. And yet how, in retrospect, does the Torah refer to him? אלה תולדות נח – these are the generations, or the legacy of Noach… נח איש צדיק – Noach was a righteous man.” 

 It is a beautiful sentiment that should apply to every person, regardless of whether one has children. We all know of the notion that “you can’t take it with you,” that the only thing which one takes to the grave is the good deeds one accomplished in life, and in the case of our People, a reputation that was founded in Torah principles, the memory of a life guided by the Torah’s teachings. 

 Do people who have children have someone to carry on their name? Often enough. If it’s about a family name, then those who only have daughters are more than likely not to have a family name carry on. And even if people know who are the descendants of any couple or individual, what does it mean anyway? 

Some children grow up and never marry, some marry and never have children, some people have children who do not reach adulthood (לא עלינו), and some people within a generation or two are telling their secular or not-Jewish grandchildren “My parents were very Orthodox” [I have personally met many people in this latter category, especially in Florida.] 

This is not to downgrade the beauty of building a family, but it is to simply note that there are very few guarantees in life, and that the only thing that is most within a person’s control in terms of outcome is one’s own behavior, and therefore one’s own reputation. We all know people who “did everything right” in raising their children, only to have their children go in a different direction in adulthood, and we also all know people who followed a different path through childhood and, later in life, found a path that is most gratifying, fulfilling, and meaningful. And no one could have predicted how far such individuals ‘traveled’ in their personal life journeys. 

 To Noach’s credit, if we follow a simply mathematical series of hints, we will discover that at the time of the commandment to build the Ark, Noach, at age 480, had ZERO children. When God approached him to build the Ark, it wasn’t because Noach was in a great position to rebuild the world. It was because God said to him “Because I see YOU as a righteous person before Me.” Not his children, not any one else, but Noach alone. 

The Midrash Tanchuma continues noting that the second half of the Mishlei verse also refers to Noach, because he took care of souls. He provided for them and fed them. There is a debate recorded as to whether humans and animals all ate the same thing on the Ark (R Akiva says he fed everyone dried figs, Rabbis think each species had its own food). 

Noach took responsibility for the souls of all the animals either simply through feeding them, or as the final interpretation in Midrash Tanchuma puts it, through being on top of feeding times for every animals, at every hour and at every needed feeding – so much so that the sages also say that Noach did not sleep for all of the 12 months on the Ark. 

[That last sentiment puts a very different light on the story of Noach getting drunk and falling asleep after getting off the Ark!] 

There is a popular debate over whether Noach was a righteous man for all time, or simply in comparison to those of his generation.

Attributing the verse from Mishlei to Noach indicates that Noach’s legacy is enshrined in his deeds, the legacy he left of fulfilling God’s word and giving of himself to help humanity in the way he could. 

Was Noach at fault for not doing more to save the people of his time? The jury is out on that one – some say he could have done more, while others argue that it was a fait accompli and Noach had to fulfill his mission so the world could experience what was to become its destiny. 

 Our lesson from Noach is that no matter what hand life has given to us, our job is to be a living legacy for those who see us. May we be blessed to be forever known for our accomplishments in Chesed, kindness, Mitzvah-fulfillment, and looking out for our fellow Man.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Man’s Purpose – Eden Ideal and Beyond Eden

Parshat Bereshit 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

When Man was first put into the garden of Eden, we are told his task was לעבדה ולשמרה (2:15). The typical explanation of this dedicated life is to work the garden and to guard it. 

Work it? For whom? [It didn’t need tending!] Guard it? From whom? 

Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) explains that these words, עבודה and שמירה, refer to Serving God and observing mitzvos, and that the purpose of the garden was one of spiritual pursuit. The human in the garden was to be an earthly equivalent of an angel, doing God’s will in a non-heavenly setting. Mankind didn’t even have a need to eat or engage in any worldy activities – similar to the existence Moshe Rabbenu had when he was on the top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days. 

This suggestion argues for the Garden to be much more than a place for Mankind to “hang out.” While the clarity of man’s purpose is not made clear to us in the text in a very detailed way, beyond Woman being referred to as an Ezer (Chapter Two’s outlined purpose for Man is noted above, Chapter One’s purpose suggests Mankind’s role in the world is to dominate the animal kingdom), we simply don’t know if it may have been made more clear to humanity eventually because the timeline of the narrative we are given of Eden doesn’t account for much activity or passage of time. Whatever might have happened in Eden was cut short due to a few bites of Forbidden Fruit. 

A life purpose for humanity becomes more clear at the expulsion from the Garden when Woman is told of her relationships to the snake (the Evil Inclination), her husband, her children (e.g. birthing labor), and Man is told of his relationship to the ground, to manual labor, and to mortality. However, the purposes as outlined in 3:15-19 is much more a function of their no longer being in the garden, than what would have been their initial purpose. 

Just to bring one example, there are sources which discuss the process and length of human gestation, birth, and speed of growth to maturity. What would that have looked like had they been in the garden? 

Perhaps we can argue against Netziv’s supposition, suggesting that Adam did need to protect the forbidden fruit from the snake, or protect his “Ezer” from falling under the serpent’s spell. Had he done a better job of “Shmirah” (guarding) through his “Avodah” (labors), perhaps the sin which caused the expulsion might have been avoided! 

And yet, God knew He was creating humans who had free choice. He knew that in creating Woman, God was creating a being that was different from Adam, with her own thoughts, and with her own ability to choose – or perhaps be swayed – differently from Adam. 

Perhaps God knew that Eden was an experiment, and the only real question of Eden would be “how long would they last?” 

Chasam (Rabbi Moshe) Sofer suggests that God was going to allow them to eat from the tree - on Shabbos! This plan was voided by the intrusion of the snake a little too early. The reason it was forbidden on Friday but was to be permitted on Shabbos was because during the week, the human who is made from dust is very similar to an animal. Eating from a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil has him process the information gleaned from the Tree’s fruit from more animal-like eyes. This makes his future choices more animal-like as they are informed by that aspect of his existence. 

But a person who is created in God’s image is supposed to be much more than an animal, and on Shabbos, when a person is given an extra soul – a Neshama Yesay’rah – the person eating from the Tree of Knowledge would have processed the information gotten from the tree in order to become more spiritual and closer to God. 

In this light, the task as outlined by Netziv can really inform what our ideal kind of task is, and specifically how Shabbos can enhance that ideal exponentially. 

While everyone understands certain aspects of our human experience, such as the need for relationships, the need to be active – whether in work or in other forms of activity, the desire to be healthy, it remains true that the strength we get from one another in the human-relationships realm, the ability to be self-reliant when in good health, and from aiming to better ourselves emotionally, spiritually, physically, intellectually, philosophically, etc. at all times are what makes us human, separate from and superior to animals, able to reflect and resolve to make the purpose of our existence meaningful to each of us – different for each person, but still giving us a sense of what gets us up each day to face each day for the new opportunities it gives to us. 

May we be so blessed, at this new beginning our restarting of the Torah gives us, to challenge ourselves to learn more, and to make every day more meaningful than the previous one, so our own efforts of לעבדה ולשמרה prove to be what gives us the greatest connection with the Almighty we have achieved to date, always looking forward to the next opportunity we will have to reach ever higher.

Friday, October 7, 2022

We Can and Should Purge Our Demons

Parshat Ha'azinu

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In the verse that describes offerings made to שדים (demons) that were non-gods, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments, “One certainty alone – the certainly that there is one sole God, Who maintains a covenant of intimate closeness with those who do Him homage – sustains man and uplifts him above all the other forces between heaven and earth.” 

It is not so much that Haazinu was designed to be read between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Haazinu is simply Moshe’s final message to the people, beyond the blessing we will read over and over on Simchas Torah. This crafted poem is meant to span all ages of Mankind throughout history. 

“This conviction alone frees him from all fear and from all degrading trembling which undermines morality; it alone removes from his heart the fear of real or imaginary forces that threaten man’s prosperity.” One might say, we talk a good talk if we say we believe in God. But if we fear external forces, one might further say one’s trust in God is not as complete as it could be. 

 Hirsch continues: “But once he leaves the service of the one and only God, man loses all stay and support; he imagines that he is free, and yet he is anxious about and afraid of all the forces of nature and fate – which are truly more powerful than a man who relies only on himself – just as he fears the nonsense invented by people claiming to have insight into the mysteries of nature and the universe.” 

This opens the door to a fascinating question. Who is most free? A person who can do whatever one wants, with no limitations, with no stops, and nothing guiding choices beyond what feels good and how far will I stretch limits of safety for the exhilarating thrills, OR the person who chooses to live under rules that may be limiting but may also be extremely gratifying?

Once again, here is Hirsch: “On the light of truth emanating from the one and only God, man sees the whole world illuminated in the clear light of wisdom and goodness. In this world, all creatures have a good end; and even if, on their way, they pass through darkness and death, pain and ruin, ultimately they are led to a higher state of existence and life, strength and joy, immortality and eternity. In this world, man is a child of his Heavenly Father and is given the task of living in His presence a life of duty.”

Hirsch is emphasizing the importance of this message penetrating our minds and our hearts. Sometimes we hear complaints, or perhaps we ourselves complain, of the difficulties of a committed life. If we only we could eat anywhere, if only we could take anything off the shelf, if only things weren’t so expensive, if only we could use our free time however we want without guilt, if only we could go shopping or to some other entertainment on Saturday, if only we didn’t have to explain to anyone that we’re taking another holiday off, if only morality weren’t dictated to us by a book and an unseen god, if only we weren’t hated by people for simply existing …

Hirsch: “Hence, man is close to his Creator even in his lifetime. Clinging to the hand of the one God, he can pass, even through darkness and death, in untroubled serenity toward light and life.” 

 This is the opportunity we have – seek, and ye shall find! ובקשתם משם את ה' א-לקיך is the line we hear and read in Parshas Va’Eschanan. You will find Him כי תדרשנו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך, when you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul. 

“But if man closes his eyes to this light and this life, his world descends into a dark night filled with demons, real and imaginary. In that case he has only the miners’ lamp of human experience to guide him through the darkness in which he must wrestle with hostile demons for his life and happiness. Then every delight and joy ends for him in disgust and disappointment. He enters life crying, to depart from it in sorrow and affliction. In such a life, man is the unhappiest of all creatures because he has the awareness that he is unhappiest. He feels that he has an inalienable right to happiness and to life – but as long as he does not lead a life devoted to duty, he will never enjoy this right. From the bliss of a world full of God’s glory to the pessimism of a world full of demons – that has always been the dismal road along which defection from God must lead, and that is also the road taken by Israel’s defection as described in these verses (Devarim 32:15-17)” 

Those born into this life sometimes need strength and encouragement too. And sometimes the best people to ask are those who found this to be the truth they needed – whether those who converted to Judaism or who took a different Jewish life-route – and have discovered great satisfaction and fulfillment in a life of Torah, Mitzvos, and observance of God’s word. 

May we all be blessed to experience and find the fullest degrees of meaning and beauty in the life we are blessed to live.