Category Archives: Abraham

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choosing Daughters-in-law (Chaye Sarah)

Choose your wife as you wish your children to be. -Proverb

In his old age, Abraham instructs his servant to travel to Abraham’s hometown of Haran, to his family, and find a wife for his son Isaac. He warns the servant that Isaac should not marry a local Canaanite woman. The Meshech Chochma wonders why Abraham is having this discussion with the servant and not with Isaac himself.

The Meshech Chochma answers that a son is exempt from listening to his father’s instructions when it comes to marrying. That is, if a son decides he wants to marry someone and the father doesn’t want the son to marry the woman, the son doesn’t have to obey his father, but rather can marry the woman he chooses (assuming it is someone that he is allowed to marry by Torah law).

That is the reason Abraham instructs the servant and not his son. The servant would obey Abraham. Isaac would not have to obey his father.

However, in the next generation, Isaac gives his son Jacob a similar command and instructs him not to marry any Canaanite women. What changed? Why did Abraham refrain from commanding Isaac about whom he could or couldn’t marry, but Isaac has no qualms about restricting Jacob?

The Meshech Chochma explains that in the case of Isaac commanding Jacob, the instruction was conditional. In the same meeting where Isaac commands Jacob about marriage, he also tells Jacob that he will pass on to him the blessings and inheritance of Abraham. The marriage command is conditional. In theory, Jacob could marry whoever he wants. However, if he wants to receive the blessing and inheritance of Abraham, he needs to marry according to Isaac’s instructions. If Jacob would have married a Canaanite, he would have forsaken both the blessings and the inheritance. While it seems a father can’t unilaterally force a son to marry a woman of his choice, a father can provide incentives to do so.

As we know, both Isaac and Jacob followed their father’s directives and married the type of women they wished for their sons. This led to significant blessings as well as to the creation of the nation of Israel.

May all our children marry well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Yanofsky, Reiner, Galan and Fischgrund families on their inspiring Bat and Bar-Mitzvah ceremony in Jerusalem. Mazal Tov!

Uncountable People (Lech Lecha)

Uncountable People (Lech Lecha)

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. –Jacob Bronowski

God communicates with Abraham. God tells Abraham, who at the time was old and childless, that his progeny will be as uncountable as the dust of the earth, as the stars in the heavens. To further deepen the wonder of God’s promise to Abraham, the Midrash recounts that among Abraham’s many amazing attributes and capabilities was the fact that he was one of the greatest astrologers that ever lived. He knew how to read a person’s destiny based on the movement of the planets through the constellations. When he sought his own astrological prognosis, he saw that he would remain childless.

The Midrash continues the conversation with God telling Abraham to look beyond the astrology, beyond the stars, for his destiny and that of the future people of Israel is not tied to this physical, visually-perceived world. Jews, from their very inception, are beyond nature, above physical laws.

The Berdichever, in his commentary on the phrase, “if a man were able to count the dust of the earth, so too, would your progeny be counted,” recalls that there is a Torah prohibition against directly counting the nation of Israel. When a census was done, the counting was done indirectly, using a coin for each person. To this day, when we want to determine if there are ten men, the minimum for a Minyan (a prayer quorum), we are prohibited to count the people directly (i.e. we don’t count 1, 2, 3, etc.). The classic way is to recite words from a verse that we know contains ten words.

The Berdichever elaborates that not only are we prohibited from counting Jews, but that more fundamentally, it is impossible to count Jews. Israel as a whole, and its component members individually, are beyond understanding, beyond rational grasp. How can you count something that you don’t understand, that you can’t comprehend? What is the meaning of numbering an entity or entities that are beyond our perception?

In some deep sense, we are as numerous and as uncountable as the dust of the earth and as the stars in the universe.

Because Israel can’t be understood in our world, in our reality, even Abraham, the great astrologer, can’t see his or our destiny in the constellations. We are not limited by our physical reality. We’re beyond that. We’re physically unknowable; essentially uncountable; spiritually limitless.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the upcoming Mayoral elections throughout Israel. Every vote counts.

Say little, do much

Say little, do much

A dog that barks much is never a good hunter. -Proverb

The Torah and the Rabbis had little use for braggarts. They consistently look unfavorably at those who talk much, but at the end of the day don’t come through. On the other hand, they laud those who under-commit yet over-perform. We should always be striving to deliver beyond expectations, as the ancient sage Shamai famously exhorts in Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 1:15, “say little and do much.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 23:15 learns the above from the story and actions of Abraham. When the angels come to visit Abraham, Abraham states that he’ll give them some bread, but in actuality brings out a veritable feast, including mounds of freshly baked cakes and freshly-prepared meat. Abraham proves himself to be the model of generous hospitality. The righteous say little and do much.

Conversely, the wicked say much and don’t even do a little. We see this from the scene of the negotiation between Abraham and Efron. Abraham’s wife Sarah had passed away in the city of Hebron. Abraham needs to bury her and has identified the Cave of Mahpelah, within Efron’s property as the ideal location. Efron is effusive in his declarations that he will gift not just the cave, but the entire property to Abraham. However, the bottom line is that Efron demands a princely sum of 400 shekel for land whose market value was likely significantly cheaper. Rabbeinu Bechaye adds that the numerical value of Efron’s name is equivalent to “evil eye,” indicating his miserly attitude.

There is a direct correlation of being generous with ones time and resources for the benefit of others and delivering over and above the call of duty, without saying much or drawing attention to oneself. Likewise, there is also a direct correlation between loud proclamations of future generosity and effort, yet a stingy and underwhelming  performance.

May we be among those who say little and do much.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our daughter, Tiferet, on her Bat-Mitzvah.

 

You can choose your friends

You can choose your friends

Tell me who’s your friend and I’ll tell you who you are. -Proverb

God commands Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home. In the process, Abraham is also leaving his childhood friends, the social network he grew up with and was familiar with his entire life. He’s commanded to leave all he knew, his comfort zone, and move to a new land, a new climate, a new culture and a new people.

We may go through life surrounded by friends of circumstance. Classmates, co-workers or neighbors become our closest friends, not from any conscious decision, but rather from a natural progression of circumstance, comfort and inertia. Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 12:1, quoting King Solomon asks us to reconsider how we choose our friends. King Solomon in Proverbs 13:20 states: “He who walks with the wise will become wise, but the companion of fools will come to harm.”

So too, Abraham needed to leave the foolish people of his hometown before he could truly grow and serve God. They were holding him back from becoming the great man he had the potential to be: the beloved of God, the beacon of his generation and the forefather of the Jewish people.

Rabbeinu Bechaye is not saying we need to move countries to find worthy friends. What he is saying is that we should become closer to the wise and put some distance from the foolish. It’s a conscious effort. When we take the path of least resistance, we may fall back to old, unproductive patterns and relationships. However, when we look around and actively seek out those who are wise, those who are pursuing noble goals, people of character, integrity and purpose, and befriend them, we elevate ourselves. There is nothing artificial or conniving in purposely seeking out new friends, better friends, inspiring friends; of finding areas of joint interest; of identifying shared dreams and aspirations; of pursuing a common cause for the greater good.

Rabbeinu Bechaye compares befriending the wise to walking into a perfume store. Even if one didn’t buy anything, just having been in the store already improves ones scent. So too, being in the presence of the wise will rub off on a person. The converse is likewise true.

May we be worthy of wise friends and enjoy each other’s company.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my own childhood friends, who’ve stayed in touch through all the continents and decades.

Bad Examples

Bad Examples

We are too quick to imitate depraved examples. –Juvenal

john_martin_-_sodom_and_gomorrah

The ancient biblical city of Sodom was considered particularly evil. God eventually decides to destroy the city and almost all of its inhabitants. However, before He does so, He notifies our patriarch Abraham. What then ensues is a surreal haggling between God and Abraham as to how many righteous people in Sodom it would take to save the city.

Abraham starts the bidding at fifty people and God agrees. Abraham quickly lowers the bid to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty and finally ten. God agrees to each of Abraham’s offers. Abraham stops at ten, apparently understanding that he can’t ask for less than ten righteous people to save Sodom. It turns out there aren’t even ten. Sodom is subsequently destroyed in a dramatic telling in Genesis Chapters 18 and 19.

Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 18:1 wonders as to why God informs Abraham of His plans and enters into the bizarre negotiation. Rabbi Hirsch explains that God wanted Abraham to understand and be aware of the evil of Sodom so that Abraham’s descendents should never become like the people of Sodom. They should beware of the horrendous example of those people.

However, the episode also demonstrates Abraham’s love of humanity. It didn’t matter to him how despicable the Sodomites were. They were human beings created in the image of God and he would make every reasonable effort he could, even arguing with God, to save them. Abraham was not an isolationist looking out exclusively for his own interests. He did look out for his family and allies first, but he did not turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

May we surround ourselves with and look up to good examples.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Leonard Cohen. His music reached and inspired many.

 

Abraham the Individualist

Abraham the Individualist

Not armies, not nations, have advanced the race; but here and there, in the course of ages, an individual has stood up and cast his shadow over the world. -Edwin Hubbell Chapin

individualistIn the very first recorded conversation between God and Abraham, God commands Abraham “Lech Lecha” which can be translated as “go for you” or “go to you.” Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 12:1 explains that it is a command to “go your own way” or “follow your unique path.”

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates that one of the prominent beliefs during Abraham’s time was the primacy of the communal over the individual and the priority of centralization of authority rather than individual decision-making. It engendered the “tyranny of the majority” (a phrase originally seen in the writing of John Adams, and subsequently popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill).

Abraham, by leaving his country, his birthplace and his people, by demonstrating an unyielding belief in one God, by standing up to the entirety of the rest of the polytheistic world, indeed carved his own path. He demonstrated an unflinching capacity to do his own thing, to go his own way, to be his own person, to do what he knew to be correct though the entire planet thought otherwise. He is a model of the Individual, of the non-conformist, of the person who will take a stand for what is right though it is unpopular. His is the lesson that even if the majority believes in something or says something, it doesn’t necessarily make it right.

May we hold steadfast in our positive and unique paths.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the global Shabbat Project and especially to those organizing it and celebrating it in their own unique ways in Uruguay.

 

Delayed Punishments

 

 Whenever a human being, through the commission of a crime, has become exiled from good, he needs to be reintegrated with it through suffering. The suffering should be inflicted with the aim of bringing the soul to recognize freely some day that its infliction was just. -Simone Weil

Joseph_and_Potiphar's_Wife

The Torah believes in punishment, either divine or court-inflicted. However, it generally comes from either a sense of justice and creating balance, or in somehow rehabilitating the evil-doer. It is interesting to note that the concept of a jail is almost completely absent from the Jewish legal code. There was either financial compensation, corporal punishment or the death penalty.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1876) asks how did God allow Joseph to be punished and placed in prison after he withstood the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, when according to the sages, it was a divine test greater than all the tests the Patriarchs endured. He answers that it was punishment for an earlier sin.

According to the Midrash, the ancient oral tradition that accompanied the written Torah, Joseph sinned when as a youth of seventeen he slandered his brothers to their father Jacob. But God postponed that punishment to a better time. That time is exactly after Joseph had performed an act of moral courage that transforms him and places him at a higher spiritual level. Now that Joseph is more righteous, two things happen. He somehow has greater strength and capacity to bear the punishment, but now, God is also more exacting with him and so the punishment must be meted out. In a way, Joseph’s newly acquired righteousness now forces him to confront and seek atonement for his earlier sins.

The Sfat Emet warns based on this episode, that if a person performs some great act or avoids serious sin, he shouldn’t be so quick to congratulate himself; as such pride may invite a closer examination of his past and bring down punishment for previous sins.

May we realize our mistakes and repent for them and so reach those higher ethical levels without paying a painful price for previous indiscretions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication,

To Nobel Laureate Professor Dan Shechtman of Israel on his inspirational visit to Uruguay.