Articles

Long Live The King

“You should command the Bnei Yisroel to take pure oil to kindle a continuous ner. Aharon and his sons should place it in the Ohel Moed outside the paroches which is before the aron hakodesh.”(Shemos 27:20-21).

The Kli Yakar asks a number of questions. ‘Why is this small section pertaining to the mitzva of lighting the Menora in the Mishkan written here at all? The details are all written elsewhere. Why does the posuk say here ner whereas in Parshas Behaaloscho it is written in the plural, “neros?” Why does the posuk mention that the menorah was to be outside the paroches which is before the aron hakodesh? This was mentioned already in Parshas Teruma. And finally why does it say “continuous” when the neiros only were alight during the night?” If I may add another question on Birkas Hamazon. Why do we say,” Ro’einu Ro’eh Yisroel – Our Shepherd, the Shepherd of Israel? Isn’t this a double expression?

On 20th January of 1936 King George V of England died and his eldest son, became the new king, Edward VIII. However on 10th of December of that year he abdicated the throne to be replaced by his younger brother George VI, the father of the present queen, Queen Elizabeth II. The reign of Edward was the shortest of any English monarch and it was the first and only time an English monarch had voluntarily abdicated the throne. (Edward II was removed from the throne in 1327. Charles 1 was beheaded for treason in 1649). What caused this unique abdication?

Although Edward was forty two years old in 1936, he was not married. After he became king, he expressed a desire to marry an American woman, Mrs Wallis Simpson who had been divorced once and was getting divorced from her second husband. This was not only very unpopular amongst the British public, it was also against the laws of the Church of England of which Edward was nominally its head. A huge argument ensued with powerful people supporting the king and powerful people against him. By December, the Prime Minister of the time, Stanley Baldwin told King Edward that he could not continue to be king if he married Mrs Simpson and so Edward announced his abdication. Edward and the former Mrs Simpson became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Why was Edward so determined to marry this unpopular woman who was not only non-descript but of doubtful morals, even at the cost of his monarchy? Couldn’t the King of England get a better shidduch? (“Position Available; Queen of England”). And why should we care, anyway, eighty years later?

A few years later on the morning of Tuesday 28th May 1940, Britain was facing her greatest threat since the time of Napoleon. Now it was Hitler who had Western Europe at his mercy. Holland and Luxembourg had been crushed in the previous fortnight; at dawn that Tuesday morning came the news that the Belgium army had surrendered, trapping 338,000 British troops and a huge amount of armaments. France was also on the verge of defeat. Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister for just eighteen days, was facing not only a military disaster but a fierce political battle. He had many opponents in his War Cabinet and in Parliament who wanted to negotiate with Hitler, a euphemism for surrender. Churchill, a staunch defender of British independence, argued against surrender but which position would achieve the majority. Surrender included, of course, the handing over of all British Jews to Hitler. Tense discussions continued with various politicians throughout the day until at twenty minutes before midnight, the decision had been made. A majority had sided with Churchill and Britain would fight on.

Churchill, in dramatic oratory, had said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it only end when each of us is choking in his own blood upon the ground.” A few days later, on 4th June, after what Churchill himself described as the miraculous escape of nearly all the British troops from Dunkirk, in, arguably, his most famous speech, he proclaimed, “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground, we shall fight in the fields and in the street, we shall fight them in the hills, we shall never surrender.”

What is the connection between these two historical series of events, the determination of King Edward to marry a morally suspect American woman which led to the one time in history that an English king had voluntarily abdicated and the refusal of Churchill to surrender to Hitler which saved all of British Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps?

To answer, we must go back to 1937 and a visit by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Berchtesgaden, Germany, where Hitler himself was holidaying. After giving Hitler the full Nazi salute, the Duke and Duchess had a long conversation with him, after which the Duke admitted to having sympathies to Hitler’s objectives. Churchill was aware of the Duke’s Nazi sympathies and, after the war began, appointed him to be the Governor of the Bahamas, away from the war zone. After the war, a top secret file, called the Windsor File, was discovered in Germany. In it were letters between the Duke and the Nazi High Command. The letters revealed that the Nazis planned to conquer Britain, overthrow King George and restore the Duke to the throne. The Duke, for his part, encouraged the Nazis to bomb Britain relentlessly to force the Government to begin peace (surrender) negotiations.

Now we know how important it was that Edward decided to abdicate. He was clearly a strong Nazi sympathizer and had he still been king in 1940, he could well have influenced many people to pursue peace with Germany, especially bearing in mind Churchill’s slim majority to continue fighting. Edward’s early, incomprehensible devotion to Mrs Simpson is now explained. It was all orchestrated from Above.

The Kli Yakar answers his questions on the beginning of the parsha by saying that the purpose of this small section about the Menorah is not to mention the mitzva of lighting the menorah and that it was placed before the paroches, which we know from elsewhere. The singular ner – lamp which the posuk refers to, as distinct to the plural neiros in parshas Beha’aloscho refers to the ner ma’arovi – the western light which, unlike the other lights, miraculously stayed lit all night and day until all the lights were lit again. This was in spite of the fact that that the same amount of oil was put into all the neiros. The importance of this miracle, explains the Kli Yakar, is that not only was there a proof of Hashem’s presence amongst us in the kodesh kodoshim where only Kohanim Gedolim were allowed to enter, because of the letters samech and mem which miraculously stood in the air in the luchos but also, on the outer side of the paroches, all Jews will see that Hashem dwells amongst us, through the miracle of the ner ma’arovi.

Today we neither merit to see the miracle of the luchos nor that of the ner ma’arovi. But Hashem shows us that He is still amongst us, albeit in a more hidden way, through His interventions in history which have enabled us to survive. He is our King and has never abdicated; our Shepherd who still cares for us. It is normal for a shepherd to pass his flocks on to the responsibility of his pupils, (Boba Kamma 57b). But Hashem has not passed us on to any other shepherd. He is still the Shepherd of Israel. Human kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers come and go but our King will reign forever. “Long live the King.”

He Didn’t Know Yosef

The posuk chosen by the kabbalists to symbolize the month of Teves is “Gadlu L’Hashem iti uneromamo shemo yachdov – Let us elevate the Name of Hashem, together.” In a month that should have had three fasts on the eighth, ninth and tenth to remember the translation of the Torah into Greek, the death of Ezra and the beginning of the siege of Yerusholayim, with no festivals except the tail end of Chanuka, it would seem to be a strange choice. It is, apparently, a rather gloomy month, so why choose a pasuk elevating the name of Hashem in His praise?

At the beginning of Parshas Shemos, we are told, (1:8), “There arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” Considering the fact that Yosef had been Prime Minister of Mitzraim for eighty years, had been responsible for achieving for Pharaoh great wealth and power, clearly the posuk cannot be taken at face value. What does the posuk mean?

The posukim (1:11-17) go on to describe how Pharaoh began enslaving the Jews but amazingly, “as he afflicted, so they increased.” Pharaoh told the Jewish midwives to kill the baby boys but with enormous courage they, “did not do as the king of Mitzraim had told them.”

In Parshas Vayechi (49:12) Yehuda is blessed that, “his eyes will be red because of the abundance of wine and his teeth will be white because of the abundance of milk.” Kesuvos 111b darshans, “Chachlili einanim miyoyin uleven shinayim mechalav” The Jewish People said to Hashem, “A shine from Your eyes is better to us than wine and a smile from Your mouth is better to us than milk.” The Abarbenel explains that when the kohanim say during birkas kohanim, Yevorechecho Hashem veyishmerecho, this refers to Hashem’s brocho to us of our physical needs, from which we have to be protected because an abundance can do us much harm, The next section, “ya’er Hashem ponov eilecho vichuneko” May Hashem make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, refers to spiritual blessings; Hashem should give us opportunities to do mitzvos and learn Torah. Therefore when the Jewish People were asking Hashem to show us a smiling face rather than milk, they were saying that although we all need our physical requirements, Torah and Mitzvos are more important to us. As distinct from the rest of the world which puts a priority on enjoying the pleasures of this world, our priority is learning Torah, keeping Shabbos and Yom Tov, doing acts of chessed etc. If there is a clash between doing the will of Hashem or taking an easier path, doing the will of Hashem will always be our preference.

The release of R’ Sholom Rubashkin last year was greeted with much joy throughout the Jewish world. But possibly more significant than the miracle of his release on the last day of Chanukah has been the emuna and bitachon he showed throughout his incarceration. He was imprisoned for the equivalent of a life sentence on the basis of perjured evidence at his trial but we didn’t hear any words of bitterness from him. We only heard how everything was min hashomayim and that, like Yosef was released from prison “in a blink of an eye” so he will be released by Hashem “in the blink of eye.” Many gave up hope but he was a beacon of bitochon b’Hashem for the rest of klal Yisroel. And indeed he was released “in the blink of an eye” to everyone’s joy.

In another story, a Jew in America left an asifa to avoid the danger of the new technologies with a determination to discard his i-phone with internet connection and buy a kosher phone. He was looking for employment when an offer came up with a starting annual salary of one hundred thousand dollars with significant additions on the horizon. The job was more or less sealed when the head of the company told him that he would need the most modern i-phone for the job. The Jew said he only uses a kosher phone. A possible compromise of a heavily filtered i-phone was rejected by the firm and the job opportunity was lost.

A Holocaust survivor in Project Witness related how he was standing in line in Auschwitz Concentration Camp when the Jew next to him was discovered not to be standing straight enough. The Nazi beat this Jew for his ‘crime’ but then to increase his “fun” ordered his neighbor, who was relating the incident, to continue to beat the other Jew. He refused. “I will not hit another Jew.” Despite a warning that he will suffer an even more violent beating if he continues to refuse, he remained steadfast. He was indeed beaten mercilessly and left for dead. However he did miraculously survive even to the end of the war and beyond.

A Russian survivor of Lenin’s spiritual holocaust who lives near to my wife and me and who insists that I squeeze in a twice weekly learning session with him in between Shacharis and when he needs to go to work sometimes tells me of the time, before he even knew he was Jewish, that he went out with his father into the Russian forests narrowly avoiding the wild boar which appeared suddenly. He became a baal teshuva and now lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife and children.

Pharoah “did not know Yosef.” He did not know about Jewish determination and resilience. He did not know that “as they afflict us, so will we increase.” He did not know that we may enjoy wine and milk, but Hashem’s shining Face enabling us to learn Torah and keep mitzvos in all circumstances, is far more important to us.

Teves is the month of Gadlu L’Hashem Iti uneromamo Shemo yachdov – of praising Hashem. True the month contains tragedies but it also contains the seventh and eighth of Chanukah whose Nesi’im were Menashe and Efraim, Yosef’s two sons. And Yosef, who remained a loyal Jew despite all his trials, is our symbol of courage, loyalty, mesirus nefesh and emuna. Pharaoh didn’t know this, but we do.

Living With Lovon

Yaakov’s first words to his brother Eisav after twenty-two years were, “Im Lovon garti – I lived with Lovon.” Rashi explains that the gematria of “garti” (I lived) is 613 hinting that I continued to keep all the 613 mitzvos while I was with Lovon. “I wasn’t influenced by him and didn’t learn from his evil deeds.”

It is very difficult, even superhuman to avoid the influences of those around us. In a well- known section of his Hilchos Dei’os (6:1) Rambam says, “It is the natural way of a person to be influenced in his attitudes and deeds by his acquaintances, friends and the people of the place where he lives.” These influences can be so subtle that we may not even notice them at first. No-one can deny that Englishmen are different from Americans and both are different from Frenchmen. These distinctions are detectable even amongst Jewish people. They may be innocent attitudes like speaking quietly or loudly or whether one greets a newcomer. When I saw French bochurim in Gateshead yeshiva with berets on their heads, I was shocked. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a beret,” I exclaimed in my teenage immaturity. For them it was normal. And you can tell an Englishmen wearing a tie in Eretz Yisroel ‘a mile off.’ If we are influenced in these minor ways, surely we are also subject to spiritual influences.

Lovon was notorious for his dishonesty. He started by committing a heinous trickery of changing Yaakov’s bride under the chuppa, then demanding another seven years work. He kept on changing the terms of Yaakov’s employment. Yet Yaakov himself remained the epitome of ehrlichkeit, guarding Lovon’s sheep in extreme weather and even taking responsibility for losses which he couldn’t prevent, as described earlier (31:38-40). If the atmosphere of the place was dishonesty and trickery how did Yaakov maintain such ehrlichkeit? And if he was prepared to trick himself if this was what he had to do like when he tricked Yitzchok to get the brochos in parshas Toldos this only makes the question greater. Having done it once so successfully he could easily have been influenced at least not to try so hard to protect Lovon’s sheep.

This question on how Yaakov avoided bad influences is of course even greater with Avrohom and Yitzchok. They were an oasis of spirituality in a world where everyone else served idols. The question is even greater with Noach. Maybe idol-worship was clearly such nonsense that it was possible not to accept it, but Noach’s generation was totally immoral. They simply indulged all their taavos. As the posuk says at the end of Parshas Bereishis, the people’s thoughts were “evil the whole day.” Did Noach not have a yetzer hora? Faced with such influences, how did he remain “a tzaddik tomim b’dorosov,”? And we must not forget Yosef in the tuma of Mitzrayim. How did he maintain his purity when faced with temptation? Is all this not a contradiction to the Rambam that it is the natural thing for a person to be influenced by his surroundings?

To strengthen this question even more let us bring another detail which we have learnt about over the last few weeks. Rashi commented (Bereishis 19:22) that the malochim who came to save Lot and destroy Sodom made a serious mistake when they said, “Mashchisim anachnu es hamokom hazeh – we are going to destroy this place.” A malach has no power. Everything is done by Hashem. They should have said, “Hashem is going to destroy the place.” The Targum Yonoson at the beginning of Vayeitzei says that the malachim who were going up the ladder in Yaakov’s dream were these malachim who had committed the sin of implying that they were going to destroy Sodom. As a punishment they were banned from returning to Shomayim until this point. So we must ask how did these malachim make such an error? Did they really think that they were going to destroy Sodom and not Hashem? The answer could be that they were in Sodom infamous for disregard for others. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” was their communal attitude. Maybe this attitude of putting oneself first rubbed off on the malachim after just one day in Sodom. Not that they really thought that they were destroying Sodom but they expressed what would happen in a way which put themselves in the centre. So if even malachim can be influenced by their surroundings, how were Noach, the Ovos and Yosef able to withstand the influence of their surroundings? And coming closer to home, how can we withstand all the influences which we face?

Rashi (7:2) asks how Noach knew which were the kosher animals of which he needed seven and which were the non-kosher animals of which two of each sufficed? He answers that Noach must have learned Torah. Yuma 28b says that Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov were zekeinim yoshvim b’yeshiva. Yuma 35b says that Yosef learned Torah in Mitzrayim despite his challenges. We see a clear thread and answer to our question. Only through studying the Torah were these tzaddikim able to withstand the enormous impure pressures coming from the society in which they lived. A man walking through the streets with an empty mind will absorb the impurity of the street. One whose mind is full of Torah can avoid that risk. There is no other solution. Reb Avigdor Miller once wrote that he was walking with a talmid chochom and noticed that his eyes were absorbing what he saw in the street. He realized that this talmid chochom was not tocho k’baro. No-one is immune.

Yaakov Ovinu was a “Yoshev Ohalim.” He sat in his tent and learned Torah. And even when he wasn’t in his tent, he was still in his “tent” and learned Torah. That is the only way he could say to Eisav after twenty two years away, “I stayed with Lovon and didn’t learn from his evil deeds.”

And She called his Name Yehuda

At the end of Pesukei D’zimra we say that Hashem is bocher b’shirei zimra – He chooses songs of rejoicing. If he chooses, there must have some alternative that He could have chosen. What was it?

At the beginning of Shemone Esrei, we say, “Hashem, open my lips and my mouth will say your praises.” Why only praises? We have many requests to make during our Shemone Esre. Why don’t we ask Hashem to help us with our requests?

“She conceived and gave birth to a son and she said, ‘This time I will thank Hashem,’ and she called his name Yehuda and she stopped giving birth.” Leah’s response to the birth of her fourth son in this week’s parsha, is the subject of much astonishment. “This time I will thank Hashem.” Only this time? Did she not thank Hashem after the births of her first three children? Different answers have been suggested but I would like to suggest the following explanation.

After the birth of her first child, Leah was surely grateful to Hashem. The joy of motherhood is universal and she undoubtedly was very thankful for her blessings. Her verbal reaction was somewhat different however, expressing her belief that Hashem had seen (ro’oh) her affliction and her hope that her relationship with her husband would now be strengthened. Therefore she called her son Reuven. After the birth of her second son she felt again that her blessing, which she undoubtedly appreciated, was a sign that Hashem had heard (shoma) about her personal problems and she called him Shimon. Following the birth of her third son, Leah must have been overjoyed, but another thought entered her mind; that now Yaakov would spend more time with her. After all she only has two hands so how can she go out alone with three children? Perhaps Yaakov will hold the third child’s hand? And she called him Levi, expressing her hope that Yaakov will now accompany her (melaveh) when she goes out. (Chizkuni)

But after the birth of her fourth child she was not only extremely happy but also no extraneous thoughts came into her mind. When she said, “Now I will thank Hashem” she meant that now, for the first time, she had unadulterated thanks for Hashem. And now that she had worked up to this high madreiga that the thanks she felt to Hashem were completely pure, she felt she could call her fourth son, the future king of the Jewish People, Yehuda. It would have been inappropriate for any son of hers, one of the future holy tribes, to have a name which did not completely reflect her inner feelings. On the superlative level that our matriarchs lived, it could be considered as a form of falsehood. Only now that her response was totally unblemished by personal thoughts and she felt pure gratitude to Hashem, could her son be called Yehuda.

There is a difficult passage in Hallel with many suggested explanations: “Praise Hashem, you nations; praise Him, you peoples. Because He has been kind to us and the truth of Hashem is forever, Hallelukah.” Everybody asks why the nations of the world should praise Hashem because he has been kind to us? The Rashbam at the end of parshas Ha’azinu gives his understanding: “Harninu goyim amo ki dam avodov yikom. O nations, sing the praises of His people for He will avenge the blood of His servants.” The shira of Ha’azinu has now reached the stage that Hashem has redeemed the Jewish People. He is showing them visible kindness and giving them a wonderful reward for their loyalty to Him, so much so that the nations of the world are now jealous of the Jews. Why are they so blessed by Hashem? How does one earn such blessings? And the shira answers with invaluable advice. You can also be the recipients of Hashem’s blessings by following the Jewish People’s example. What is the secret of their success that Hashem blesses them so? They continually praise Hashem. They have lived through difficult times but they are always praising Hashem. The Rashbam interprets the posuk in Ha’azinu as follows, “Praise Hashem as His People does. Hashem showers blessings upon His People because this is what they do; continually praise Him. As the posuk in Hallel says, “Praise Hashem, you nations, praise Hashem, you peoples because this is the reason Hashem has been so kind to us. Follow our example and you too can be the recipients of Hashem’s kindness.”

Dovid Hamelech appeals to Hashem to help him in many chapters of Tehilim but his emphasis throughout is thanking Hashem. In the closing chapters we thank Hashem for our food, rain, winds, the sun, moon and stars. Everyone joins in – young and old, men and women, kings and commoners. In the final chapter our thanks to Hashem becomes so intense that we want to play all types of musical instruments in His honour. The last posuk says that every single neshomo should thank Hashem and as Chazal comment, we should thank Hashem for every neshima – every breath we breathe through His kindness.

Who gains from all this? We do. According to non-Jewish studies, we are the happiest people on Earth. It isn’t surprising. When things go well we are naturally happy. When things appear not to be going so well we are still happy because we say, “All is for the best.”

There is more. The more we thank Hashem, the closer our relationship to Hashem becomes, because He is the source of everything. And the closer more we come to Him, the happier we are. Tefila is a very meaningful way of coming close to Hashem, when we realize that only He can fulfil our requests. Hashem loves our tefilos. But He loves our praising of Him even more. This is because tefila implies that we are lacking. Praising Hashem is saying that we lack nothing. You give us everything that we need. Of course there are situations that we have to cry out to Hashem to help us and this is what He wants. But in our everyday lives, we should be satisfied with what we have rather than asking for more. When we don’t have something, its absence is the best situation we could possibly be in.

This is why we ask for Hashem’s help to praise him at the beginning of our Shemoneh Esrei and not help in making our requests because praising Hashem is a higher level of Avodas Hashem than making requests. Hashem is bocher b’shirei zimra – He chooses our praises rather than our tefilos because praising Him brings us closer to Hashem than beseeching Him. Pure praise, untarnished by any thought that we are in any way lacking, bring us to the highest level of deveikus B’Hashem. This was the level reached by our matriarch Leah when she called her fourth son, Yehuda.

Written in honour of the chasune of our granddaughter Freide Rothschild of London and Yitzi Kohn of Melbourne.

When Eisav Stops Crying

When the Rav Yosef Kahaneman, the late founder and Rosh Hayeshiva of Ponevezh Yeshiva, once had a few hours to spare in Rome before his connecting flight. People were surprised when he said he wants to go into Rome to see something very important. He took a taxi to the Arch of Titus, one of Rome’s famous tourist sites, stayed there for a few minutes and then returned to the airport. Why did the Rosh Hayeshiva spend his valuable time visiting a tourist site?

His companions heard why. At the arch, Rav Kahaneman looked at the carving inside which depicts Roman soldiers triumphantly returning to Rome carrying the holy Menora from the Beis Hamikdash after Titus had conquered Jerusalem. With great emotion the Rosh Hayeshiva addressed the Roman leader. “What is left of your great empire today, Titus? It is a note in the history books. But the Jews together with our Torah are still alive.” Then he got back into the taxi and returned to the airport.

Avoda Zara (12a) tells us that every seventy years there was a special celebration in Rome. A healthy man, symbolizing Eisav, put on clothes decorated with pictures of wild animals similar to the clothes which Eisav stole from Nimrod, who stole them from Odom Horishon. He sat on the shoulders of a lame man representing Yaakov, whose leg was injured by the Sar shel Eisav as described in Bereishis ( 32:32). They placed over ‘Eisav’s’ head the preserved face of Rebbe Yishmael who had been murdered with the other harugei malchus. His beauty was admired by the daughter of the Roman commander who requested that his facial form be preserved. And it was kept for centuries in the Roman archives. Hung from ‘Eisav’s neck was a precious stone and his legs were adorned with precious jewelry. Some say the streets were decorated with precious jewelry. They then proclaimed, “The prophecy of Yaakov that the Jews would be redeemed Bereishis (49:1) was false. The brother of our master was a fraud. What did the cheat gain by his cheating? ” And then they called out, “Whoever has seen, has seen. Whoever has not seen, won’t see it again for seventy years.”

This symbolized what the Romans, descendants of Eisav, saw as their victory over the Jews, descendants of Yaakov. This celebration every seventy years was based on Yirmiya’s prophecy that the Jews would return from their golus after seventy years and therefore they celebrated that it had not come true, again.

However their triumphalism didn’t last so long. The Roman empire was eventually conquered by Barbarian and Gothic tribes about fifteen hundred years ago. The crumbling Arch of Titus is one of the few remnants of its triumphs, together with the remains of Hadrian’s Wall separating England and Scotland and a few other examples. Hence the significance of Rav Kahaneman’s visit. He went from Rome back to Ponevezh Yeshiva where thousands of talmidim are still learning the Torah which Titus thought he had conquered.

The much-respected former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yisroel Lau once enthralled the audience at an Encounter conference in London with a story when Julius Caesar came back from the dead and arrived in Rome on an Alitalia plane. As he appeared at the top of the steps he proclaimed, “Veni, vidi, vici.” Nobody knew what he was talking about. He called out,” I am Julius Caesar, returned from the dead.” One person looked up briefly before returning to his work. A similar scene was taking place in Athens when Alexander the Great arrived on an Olympus flight. He greeted the airport workers with a few words of ancient Greek. Nobody understood him. He read out Homer’s Odyssey in the original. An airport official asked him to move aside so that the other passengers could get by. Meanwhile Moshe Rabbeinu was returning to Eretz Yisroel and as he stood on the tarmac, he said that he was Moshe Rabbeinu. One of the workers taking in the suitcases stopped and called out, “My name is also Moshe!” Moshe Rabbeinu then proclaimed, Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod and all present joined in.

A fascinating detail which the Gemoro (ibid ) reveals was that the person quoted by Rashi in our parsha as a famous descendent of Eisav, Antoninus, was not only Rebbe’s counterpart but became Rebbe’s talmid and eventually a ger tzedek. Although he was the Roman Emperor, he would go through a secret tunnel to come to Rebbe to learn Torah. Antonius honoured Rebbe by serving him food and drink and when required, he would crouch down to make it easier for Rebbe to get on his bed.

However, this should not make us complacent. Eisav’s empire is no more but his spiritual descendants are very much in evidence. Chazal say that Eisav denied Hashem and committed immorality and murder on the day he became barmitzvah. Having discarded the yolk of Torah, he followed his lowest instincts. Even people who appear to be polite and sophisticated, without yiras shomayim are capable of the most gruesome sins. This is no less true today when people give up belief in even such basics as the Ten Commandments and then not only practice immorality but try to insist that we respect their “lifestyle.”

The Bach says that we end davening with the second paragraph of Oleinu every day to counteract the influence of idol- worshipers or other sinners we will meet in the market place. We should not feel that they represent another, possibly valid, ‘lifestyle’. Soon they will all recognize their mistakes and “lecho tichra kol berech uleshova kol loshon. They will bow down to You and swear only by Your Name.”

The Medrash says that when Eisav stops crying, the Moshiach will come. The late Dayan Swift used to explain this as follows: Eisav is crying, said Dayan Swift, because of what he thinks as the injustice of Yaakov’s being given the blessings when he is no better than him. Yaakov’s descendants continue to sin, so why does he get the blessings instead of me? If this is the case, we can understand why Eisav is crying and indeed why the Moshiach is not here yet.

The onus is on us dry up Eisav’s tears. His spiritual descendants dominate the society we live in. And they want us to imitate their lifestyle and teach it to our children. It is up to us to make crystal clear what the Torah permits and what it doesn’t; with whom to associate and with whom not to associate; what is the way of Yaakov and what is the way of Eisav. Then the Moshiach will come.

Harder than the Akeida

Avrohom Ovinu, in last week’s parsha, passed all the tests Hashem gave him. There are different opinions about what the ten tests were, especially which was the first. Some begin with Nimrod’s fiery furnace, others start with Lech Lecha, leaving his father’s home and the place where he came from at Hashem’s command. Even within this test, some learn that the test was not his willingness to go but that he should go purely for the intention of fulfilling Hashem’s command, disregarding His promises of children, wealth and a good name if he went. However nearly all the mefarshim agree that the Akeida was the tenth and final test, after which the malach said, “Now I know that you fear Hashem.” (Bereishis 22:12). But Rabbeinu Yona (Pirkei Avos 5:3) holds that the final test was the burial of Soroh in this week’s parsha. He doesn’t say the death of Soroh but having to pay for a burial plot for her. Was that so difficult? Rabbeinu Yona explains that Avrohom Ovinu had been promised the land of Canaan by Hashem, yet now he has to pay four hundred shekels to Efron for one cave. But a further explanation is still necessary. Logically, the tests must go in an ascending order of difficulty. After Avrohom Ovinu had passed the test of the Akeida, surely finding a burial plot for Soroh, whilst frustrating, and even though Eretz Canaan had been promised to him, was not more difficult. Why was this, the last and most difficult test of Avrohom Ovinu?

Customs differ whether we say Ein Kelokeinu and Pitom Haketores every day or just on Shabbos. But according to everyone, Ein Keilokeinu precedes Pitom Haketores. In his commentary of the Rosh Hashono machzor Reb Chaim Kanievsky shlita asks why we say them in this order. The Ramo (132:2) mentions saying Pitom Haketores after davening and saying Ein Keilokeinu first but doesn’t explain why that should be the order. The Nodah B”Yehuda (1:10) explains that we learn in Meseches Yuma that the one who won the right to prepare the ketores could never participate in the lottery for this part of the Avoda again. Preparing the ketores is a segula to become wealthy. Therefore it was only fair that once has person has had this segula once, others should now have a chance. Before we say this segula for wealth, says the Nodah B’Yehudah, we should recall that it is not the ketores which make a person wealthy but Ein Keilokeinu, only Hashem who makes a person wealthy.

Perhaps we can expand this Nodeh B’Yehuda to explain a Rashi in Parshas Korach (Bamidbar 17:11).”The Malach Hamaves gave Aharon Hakohein the secret that ketores stops a plague.” But it seems unlikely that the secret was just this simple fact that the ketores can remove a plague? A “secret” implies some more profound dimension.

Every one of us is afraid of the Malach Hamaves. If he appears, we’d better do teshuva quickly. Special people like Rav Ashi (Moed Koton 28a) can ask the Malach Hamaves for thirty extra days to review Shas; but for everybody else, the priority is to say vidui and prepare for our journey. But the Malach Hamoves is only a messenger (Chagiga 5b). A person dies when it is Hashem’s will. Perhaps this is what the Malach Hamaves told Aharon Hakohen. If you think that the ketores has power, you will not achieve anything. It is only a messenger of Hashem. You need to know this “secret” to be able to stop the plague.

The wife of Reb Yechezkel Sarna, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva wrote about a truly amazing miracle which happened to her during the Holocaust. As the Nazis were storming her town, she managed to escape and hide in a nearby forest. After a day or two without food she realized that she would not last much longer and walked further. Suddenly she noticed an imposing house and ran up to the front door, hoping that the owner would have mercy on her. After a servant opened the door, she was taken in to see the owner of the house who was no less than the commander of the Nazi troops who were rampaging her town. He stared at her and asked “How did you get in? At the gate are my soldiers who guard me and they have dogs which are ready to dismember any unauthorized person who comes in. She answered, “It must have been a miracle from my G-d.” The commander laughed cynically. “If your G-d can save you once, let Him save you again. Walk back down the path but this time I will be watching. I’m sure that my dogs will pounce on you and eat you alive. If by any chance you do survive, I will write you a pass, saying that no-one may hurt you and you can go anywhere you want.” As he assembled all his servants to watch and enjoy the spectacle of a Jewish girl being eaten alive by his dogs, she davened as never before, pleading with Hashem to save her. She walked down the path with her head high, still davening. Every person watching, anticipating the gruesome sight of the girl being mauled to death was utterly dumbfounded as she reached the gate safely . The commander kept his word and wrote a note for safe passage. She managed to reach Switzerland, later came to Eretz Yisroel, married Reb Yechezkel Sarna and had a key role, herself, in the development of the Yeshiva.

Nearly fifty years ago I heard a shiur by Reb Mattisyahu Salamon shlita who explained the final test of Avrohom Ovinu according to Rebeinu Yona. If Hashem commands a Jew to do something, he will, of course, do it. If we were forced to choose between converting and being thrown into a raging fire we would declare, “Throw me into the fire.” We are descendants of Avrohom Ovinu — sacrificing ourselves to sanctify Hashem’s name is in our genes. But if a business deal falls through or the freezer breaks down or we are running late and every traffic light is red, we can easily become annoyed. If we have to deal with annoying bureacracy or our children aren’t behaving or our spouse has forgotten something (s)he promised to do, we can ‘lose it’. Avrohom Ovinu’s final test was having to deal with an Ephron, reneging on his agreement, and wasting precious time talking to the Bnei Cheis when all he wanted was to bury Soroh. His challenge was to remember that Hashem orchestrates every detail of our lives. Every moment of frustration is also min hashamayim. Whatever we are doing, in times of conflict or peace, success or failure — ein od milvado, there is nothing besides Hashem. Ein Keilokeinu – There is nothing like our G-d. Remembering this at all times is sometimes harder than an Akeida.

He Wants Us To Live

The great battle between the four kings and the five kings mentioned in last week’s parsha, took place in Emek Hasidim. The result was a clear victory for the four kings over the five kings. The King of Sodom, who led the five kings survived but was taken captive together with Lot, Avrohom Ovinu’s nephew. Avrohom Ovinu gathered three hundred and eighteen of his students and defeated the powerful armies of the four kings, saving Lot. We know this from a simple reading of the Chumash. (Bereishis 14:1-16)

But have we taken in what happened here? Avrohom Ovinu, an eighty-year old Rosh Hayeshiva, (Yuma 28b) took a few of his students and conquered the most powerful army of the day? Can we understand this? Of course it was a miracle but why should Hashem have performed such a miracle?

The Ramban (ibid) says that the four kings represent the four exiles Avrohom Ovinu’s descendants will have to endure, culminating in golus Edom which has still not ended. Avrohom Ovinu’s victory represents the ultimate victory over the forces of Eisov’s descendants and final redemption which we are hoping for very soon.

Perhaps there is, though, another explanation which has a connection with this week’s parsha of Vayera.

We all know the story of Yonah which we read on Yom Kippur. Hashem told him to go to Nineveh and rebuke the citizens for their sins. When he finally arrived, he prophesied that if they didn’t do teshuva within forty days, the city would be destroyed. The people heard Yonah’s warning and took it to heart. “They proclaimed a fast and all the people, from the most important to the least important, put on sackcloth. When the matter reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on ashes. He proclaimed that each man should call out mightily to G-d, do teshuva for his evil deeds and from the robbery which is in their hands. And Hashem saw their deeds that they repented from their evil way and He cancelled the destruction which He had threatened.” (Yonah 3:4-10).

Later we learn that Yonah made a hut and sat in its shade to see what would happen in the city. Hashem made a kikayon plant grow there to give more shade which Yonah enjoyed very much. Hashem then sent a worm to attack the kikayon and it dried out and died to Yonah’s distress. Hashem then said, “You took pity on the kikayon for which you did not labour or make it grow, which grew overnight and perished overnight. Should I not take pity upon Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right from their left plus many beasts?”(ibid 4;5-11).

In Neila we quote the Novi Yechezkel, (18:23), “Do I desire at all the death of the wicked man? Is it not rather his return from his ways that he may live? This is our encouragement, in the crucial final minutes of Yom Kippur, to sincerely regret our past mistakes and commit ourselves to improve our loyalty to the Torah. Hashem loves us and wants us to live. If we will just try harder and make a commitment to improve, Hashem will be only too pleased to accept our teshuva and bless us in the New Year. We see from Yonah that Hashem also loves the other nations and doesn’t want to destroy them. That is why He sent Yonah to Nineveh to persuade them to do teshuva so that He shouldn’t have to destroy them.

“The people of Sodom were very wicked and sinful to Hashem.” (Bereishis 13:13) Rashi says that they were immoral, knowing Hashem but rebelling against Him. Pirkei Ovos (5:13) tells us that their philosophy was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Notices on the city gates said, “Visitors are not Welcome!” And what happened to any visitor who was too small or too big for the bed, we won’t elaborate. But, as we see from Yonah, Hashem loves His handiwork even if they are sinning. Does a parent ever not love his own child? The problem was that they were close to deserving complete destruction. How could they be persuaded to change before it was too late?

This could be a simple explanation of why Hashem made this enormous miracle of Avrohom Ovinu and his talmidim defeating the military superpower —the four powerful kings and saving the people of Sodom, including Lot. It was similar to sending Yonah to Nineveh, to give them a final chance. “You see how powerful Hashem is? How can you sin against Him? And your philosophy is “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours?” You see that Avrohom was prepared to risk his life to save his nephew! He could have just stayed at home. This is “Bein odom l’chaveiro!” “Change your behavior, people of Sodom, and I will not destroy you.” But unlike the people of Nineveh, the people of Sodom did not listen. Hence in this week’s parsha, the destruction of Sodom was all but inevitable. But they had just one more – very last – chance.

Bereishis (19:11) tells us that the two malochim who were sent to destroy Sodom and save Lot, pulled Lot inside his house and closed the door on the marauding mob outside. They then smote all the people outside with blindness “and the people groped to find the door but couldn’t find it.” The Steipler in Chayei Olom is baffled by the people’s response to sudden blindness. Instead of accepting that there must be a supernatural presence and going home to consider what was happening, they continued trying to break the door down. They had no thoughts of teshuva. Indeed they were ‘blind’ to their blindness. “We are certain that we are right.” There were no doubts in their minds. And when Lot told his sons-in-law to flee the city before it was too late, they treated it as a huge joke. (ibid 19:15). “Life is super here! Great fun! The poor are not allowed in! We do what we want! Our way!”

And so their very last chance was squandered. Lot and his two daughters survived in the merit of Avrohom Ovinu. Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt and the rest were lost. Today we do not merit personal visits from malachim, at least ones we can recognize. But harbe sheluchim l’Makom – Hashem has many messengers which come in many forms. The Chofetz Chaim used to respond to tragedies even in faraway countries, “What does the Tatte want from us?” If we pay attention to these messengers, like the people of Nineveh did, Hashem is delighted. After all; He wants us to live.

Why the Change?

Not long ago people living in one place did not know what was happening in another place. News from a nearby village might sometimes come in but would probably have been dismissed as “nothing to do with us.” However over the past years the world has changed dramatically. Now, every trivial thing a person does anywhere in the world can be known immediately by everybody else. Many people even feel entitled to know, give an opinion and pass on their often negative comments to thousands, if not millions of other people.

“We believe with perfect faith that the Creator is responsible for everything that has been, is and will be.” (Rambam) Obviously Hashem has seen fit that this societal earthquake should take place. Do we understand why? It appears to be a totally negative development with its massive potential for loshon horah and many other aveiros besides the loss of privacy involved. What was wrong when everyone lived in their own daled amos? Why the change?

After Avrohom Ovinu, who was then childless, asked Hashem about his future, Hashem took him outside, showed him the millions of stars that were in the sky and said, “Your seed will be as many as the stars in the sky.” But the posuk warned that Avrohom’s descendants would not have an easy life. “They will have to endure living in a land which is not theirs” — the exile in Egypt. Moshe Rabbeinu was also told of a future exile (Shemos 3:14, Rashi) and Yaakov Ovinu was told about four separate exiles during his dream on Har Hamoriah. (Bereishis 28:12, Medrash Rabboh). Why were the Jewish People destined to live “in a land which is not theirs” during so much of their history?

And what about the Chillul Hashem of us being almost constant strangers in other people’s lands? Almost every people has its own country where they have lived undisturbed for centuries if not millennia. Only the Jewish People, Hashem’s treasured nation, have the indignity of being scattered all over the world, repeatedly moving from place to place. We have been correctly labeled ‘The Wandering Jew.’ Surely this is an extreme Chillul Hashem. People doubt Hashem’s omnipotence if His People alone are scattered around the globe.

Avoda Zara 10b tells us that the Roman Caesar who hated the Jews asked his courtiers, “If a person has painful dead skin on his foot, should he cut it off and live or live and suffer?” They all understood that this referred to the Jews. All but one answered, “He should cut it off and live.” Only Ketiah bar Sholom, disagreed. “Firstly,” he said, “You cannot destroy the Jews because it is written “I have scattered them to the four corners of the world,” (Zechariah 2:10) so most of them are beyond your jurisdiction. And you would be accused of murdering your own citizens.” The Caesar acknowledged that Ketiah was right but pointed out that if someone is rash enough to prove the king wrong, he is punished by being buried alive.   On the way to his punishment, he accepted the Torah and gave all his money to Rebbe Akiva and his colleagues. The Gemara says that with this, Ketiah earned a place in the World to Come. Rebbe cried, explaining that while some people only earn their place in the World to Come after many years, some can earn it in one moment.

The Gemara itself and the Maharsha explain the deeper meaning of Zecharia’s words. Ruchos can mean ‘winds’ as well as ‘directions’. And the posuk actually says keruchos – like winds. The real meaning of the posuk is that the Jewish people are like the winds, without which the world cannot exist. The Maharsha brings the well-known posuk, Im lo brisi yomom volailoh, chukos shomayim vo’oretz lo samti – If it were not for my covenant of day and night, I would not have created the world.” He explains that if people do not have emuna in Hashem, the world does not have a zechus kiyum –the right to exist. And this connects with the simple meaning of the posuk that Hashem scattered us throughout the world in order to influence them and teach them about Hashem.

Now we have some understanding of why only the Jewish People have been destined to live scattered throughout the world. It is precisely because we are Hashem’s treasure nation, that we have been destined to live in “a land which is not theirs” for so much of our existence to give the whole world the merits needed for it to exist.

We have, however, a new problem. It wasn’t long ago that we were davening with great kavana, “Vekoreiv pezureinu mibein hagoyim unefutzoseinu kaneis miyarkesei oretz.” We asked Hashem to bring back our scattered ones from amongst the nations. Indeed we say it three times a day, “Tekah b’shofar godol …Raise up a banner in order to bring together those who are exiled.” If it is Hashem’s plan that we be scattered amongst the nations to give spread emuna which gives the whole world its zechus kiyum, how can we daven that we should all be brought back to Eretz Yisroel? Aren’t we working at cross-purposes with Hashem? We want to be there in Yerusholayim with a Beis Hamikdash, but He wants us to here in golus being a “light unto the nations.” Can both desires to be fulfilled?

Meforshim bring from the Zohar that technological advances were prophesied to accelerate in the mid-nineteenth century and this was fulfilled with new discoveries which changed society. An important game-changer was the invention of the telephone in 1876. Also, according to the Vilna Gaon, the world was to come to its final stages before the Geula at the same time. There seems to be a connection between the two. Perhaps we can suggest that Hashem was planning a grand solution to the conundrum of before. On the one hand this golus has been long enough. Through the bitter exile all our sins have been atoned for. Don’t we deserve to come home to Eretz Yisroel? But what about people all around the world who still need the good influence of the Jews? For them Hashem super-managed a technological revolution which will obviate the need for the Jews to be physically close to other people. He arranged a sea change in our society. He made sure that the printing press, the telephone, cameras, computers etc would be invented which would enable people, wherever they are, to hear about the Jews and to learn about their Torah from a distance. We can be serving Hashem in Yerusholayim and they can use their devices to see us, to learn about emuna in Hashem and thus keep the seven mitzvos bnei Noach which will give them the zechus to remain alive. Of course technology can be misused. There are many things that ‘The righteous walk in them and the wicked stumble in them.” (Tehilim 1:6). On the other hand, it can be the very mechanism by which the Geula can become a reality. We no longer have to be “strangers in a land which isn’t ours.” So now we can whole-heartedly daven and sing, “Vekarev pezureinu….

Questions Asked on Chol Hamoed

1.               Q. We cover our tablecloths on Shabbos and Yom Tov with plastic, which we normally cut from a roll before Shabbos. Do we have to do this before Yom Tov so that we don’t have to do it on Chol Hamoed?

A.               This question is based on the halacha quoted in Shulchan Aruch 538:6 that, even if a melacha may be done on Chol Hamoed according to the general halachos of Chol Hamoed, we may not deliberately delay doing it until Chol Hamoed if we could have done it before Yom Tov. Cutting plastic to the right size is a melacha min haTorah of mechatech, according to many opinions, but if we need to do it, it should be permitted, since even a non-professional person can do it. In this case it could be prepared before Yom Tov. Do we have an obligation to do so and not cut the plastic on Chol Hamoed?

The Chut Shoni, Hilchos Chol Hamoed, Perek 4, discusses this halacha. He says that the prohibition of delaying doing a melacha until Chol Hamoed only applies to a melacha which is normally done in advance. However a melacha which is normally not done in advance, but just before use, such as putting on a light to see by, is permitted on Chol Hamoed if there is a need. He says that, for this reason, we are not obliged to cut toilet paper before Yom Tov, since it is usually done just before use. This would appear to apply to plastic table coverings as well. We usually cut it just before use both because it is more convenient to keep the plastic on the roll until we need it and because we often cut it to different sizes depending on our needs at the time. Therefore the answer is that there is no need to cut the plastic in advance.

However in the case of toilet paper, the situation today is very often different. In our age of convenience, pre-cut toilet paper is available for Shabbos and Yom Tov. Some people use ordinary tissues so there is no need to cut paper at all. Unless the slightly higher cost is an issue or we prefer the uncut paper for some reason, tearing toilet paper is no longer a tzorech hamoed and is not allowed.  The same will apply if we have pre-cut plastic tablecloths which we are happy to use. However if we don’t like to use those pre-cut cloths because of cost or quality, we are not obliged to buy them to avoid cutting on Chol Hamoed.

2.                     Q. We have always ironed on Chol Hamoed according to the specific leniency in the Shulchan Aruch (541:3) and by all the Poskim. Since we are not allowed to doing laundry on Chol Hamoed and we may not delay a melacha to do it on Chol Hamoed, why should ironing be allowed?

A.               You are right that it is often not allowed. There are, of course, certain exceptions to the prohibition of washing clothes on Chol Hamoed, notably for young children, if the clothes are needed during Yom Tov and they might need ironing. Also, if a person does laundry shortly before Yom Tov, and there was no opportunity to iron before Yom Tov, it will also be permitted on Chol Hamoed to iron those clothes which are needed for Yom Tov. Just leaving ironing until Chol Hamoed, because “it’s allowed” is incorrect.

3.               Q. Our washing machine broke down before Yom Tov and the repairman had a look at it. He needed a spare part which he would not have until Chol Hamoed. We have several small children and I need to wash their clothes which, I understand, is allowed. Can he repair the washing machine on Chol Hamoed?

A.               The issue here is doing a skilled job which is necessary for Yom Tov. This is not normally allowed. However it is allowed for cooking even at a preparatory stage, according to Mishna Berura 540:18. Therefore if one’s oven needs a professional repair, it is permitted, as long as the repair was not possible before Yom Tov. Important personal needs may also be done in the usual way according to the Biur Halacha 546:5. This includes medical requirements and other vital needs like repairing a heating system in cold weather. Repairing an air-conditioning system when it is very hot is allowed by some Poskim. Repairing a shower if there is no other way of washing is also allowed by some Poskim. Although wearing clean clothes is very important, it is difficult to extend the leniency to repairing a washing machine. There is not the same degree of need as in these other examples and even they are not allowed by all Poskim, as we have mentioned. Although it is not as convenient, it is possible to wash clothes by hand, or one could ask to use a neighbour’s washing machine or perhaps one could buy new clothes. Treating Chol Hamoed disrespectfully is a very serious matter and in this case one should not be lenient.

4.                Q. I am a builder and am in the middle of a building project in a totally non-Jewish area of a large English city. A non-Jewish sub-contractor wants to fit the kitchen during Chol Hamoed. I am paying him for the job, not by the hour. Do I have to tell him not to come this week?

A.               This appears to be a straightforward example of what is forbidden by the Shulchan Aruch 543:2. We are may not allow a non-Jew to build a house for us on Chol Hamoed even if it is outside the techum and even if the non-Jew is being paid for the job, and not by per hour or per day. Mishna Berura explains that people might think that I am paying him by the day and not for the job. On Chol Hamoed we are allowed to travel outside the techum and therefore Jewish people might see the sub-contractor working and come to an erroneous conclusion. Mishna Berura writes that if all workers in a town are paid by the job (kablonus), some opinions are lenient and Rav Moshe Feinstein said that it is usually the case nowadays. However this is when a Jew has asked a non-Jew to build a house for him when we pay for the job, not per hour or day. But here we have a Jewish builder employing non-Jewish staff and some of them are definitely paid by the hour, so the concern of the Shulchan Aruch definitely applies.

The only question here is that it is a totally non-Jewish part of town; how would anyone know that that a Jewish builder is involved? But this will not help us because every building site displays a sign saying which firm is responsible for the building.  Therefore anyone who has heard of this firm will immediately be aware that it has a Jewish owner.

What if the non-Jewish sub-contractor could somehow access the work area without being seen? Maybe there is one entrance which leads to both the building site and somewhere else and nobody will see that he working on the building site. This brings to mind the statement in Beitza 12a brought in the Shulchan Aruch 301:45, “Whatever is forbidden because of Maris Ayin is also forbidden bechadrei chadorim.” “Anything which Chazal forbade because it merely appears to be forbidden, is also forbidden even if it is done in a totally private place.” However the Mishna Berura (165) says that this applies only if we would suspect that the person is doing something forbidden min haTorah, like washing clothes on Shabbos, which is the Shulchan Aruch’s subject there. If the suspicion could be only that the person is transgressing a rabbinic law, it is permitted in a private place. In our case the suspicion is that a Jew might have employed a non-Jewish worker to work on Chol Hamoed which is only a rabbinic prohibition. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe 5:18) says that this leniency applies only if a person will suffer a financial loss. However this could be the case here if the non-Jew charges more because he couldn’t finish this job and move on to another. Some poskim do not allow it even the case of a loss. So we have opinions which would allow this especially where a loss would be incurred. Therefore in the case of a significant loss, there might be room to be lenient but it would only be if the workman could enter the Jewish builder’s site without being noticed from the outside.

If you have other practical questions on Hilchos Chol Hamoed which could be in included in future editions of Do You Know Hilchos Chol Hamoed? or questions on Hilchos Yom Tov which could be included in my forthcoming sefer Do You Know Hilchos Yom Tov?, please write to me at rabbimfletcher @gmail.com

Toras Chessed Al Leshona

“The Torah has at its beginning chessed and at its end chessed. At the beginning Hashem gave clothes to Odom and Chava and at the end He buried Moshe Rabbeinu.” (Sotah 14a). Chazal’s statement not only connects the end of the Torah with its beginning, which is always a theme of darshanim at this time of the year, but also indicates the theme of the whole Torah – chessed.

Although clothing Odom and Chava is the example which Chazal gave for chessed at the beginning of the Torah, it is not the earliest example. The first posuk of the Torah is already an act of chessed. Bereishis bara Elokim eis hashomayim v’eis ho’oretz.” Why did Hashem create the Heaven and Earth? Did He need them – or us? But as the Mesilas Yesharim says, “Man was created to enjoy being close to Hashem and to benefit from the lustre of His Shechina. He created this world which has all that we require to gain entry, after our lives, to the World to Come which is the place of the greatest pleasure which can possibly exist.” We see that the creation of the world was pure chessed by Hashem.

Every detail of the creation was and is an act of chessed. Water and air are in plentiful supply; vegetation has both nutritional and medicinal value and is pleasing to look at. The sun provides us with sufficient heat and light and helps create oxygen for us to breathe, through photosynthesis. The moon stabilizes the Earths’s axis, controlling the climate and, through its gravitational pull, prevents catastrophic flooding in the North and South of the globe. (Scientific American). The division of time into periods of twenty-four hours makes it much easier to manage our lives. According to Rosh Hashana 31a, birds and fish are for us to admire and enjoy. The animal kingdom contributes in many ways to our ability to live productively and successfully in the world.

Arguably the greatest chessed is mentioned in perek 2, posuk 7. “Vayipach b’apov nishmas chaim.” Hashem gave us a neshama. Without our neshama we would be totally controlled by our natural instincts. Our sole pre-occupation would be finding food to eat and satisfying our natural drives. Our “philosophy” would be “survival of the fittest” with no aspirations to share with others and certainly not to put ourselves out for them. We would have no ambition to improve ourselves spiritually. No thoughts of “walking in the ways of Hashem” would enter our minds. And our end would be somebody else’s hand bag or leather shoes, if not his supper. As we say in ‘Modim’, “We thank You Hashem for our lives and our neshamos which are totally dependent on You. (Iyun Tefila).

Avrohom Ovinu, later, noticed all this. He saw the constant chassdei Hashem and felt that the correct way to honor such a Creator would be to emulate His ways, particularly in doing chessed with other people. And we, as Hashem’s creatures as well as talmidim of Avrohom Ovinu also try to lead a life in which we consider the needs of others.

Chessed as a way of life should not be thought of as “basic” or “natural” morality – the obvious way to live. It is a chiddush taught through our Torah to mankind. An African leader once confessed to a rabbi that before religious influences reached his country, the different tribes would be regularly at war with each other, the winners eating the losers!

We all try to follow the ways of the Torah in considering the needs of others, but some people excel and invest heroic efforts on behalf of others. These people inspire us to do more in our own lives. One example is the late Mrs Recha Sternbuch whose bravery is described in the recent biography of Rav Aaron Leib Steinman[1] which I have just read, who lived for a time in Switzerland at the same time as Mrs Sternbuch. Mrs Sternbuch was heavily involved in rescue efforts during World War II.

“One night, Mrs Sternbuch was waiting near a forested area by the Swiss-German border for twelve refugees she was supposed to meet. Unfortunately all twelve refugees were captured by the Nazis. Fearlessly and without her guide who refused to go, she entered the no-man’s land between Germany and Switzerland to negotiate their release. She came face to face with German guards who had ferocious dogs straining at their leashes. With unbelievable bravery she stood there and argued with the commander that she had twelve passports for the twelve refugees, (which was not true), rendering them Swiss citizens. The commander threatened to behead her for her audacity. However she continued and threatened that if the refugees were not released, the commander would be in violation of international law. Despite the ferocious dogs barking and threatening her, she maintained her calm and convinced the commander to release the refugees whom she managed to bring back with her to Switzerland.”

The late Rav Yisroel Belsky was once taken to a hospital for an emergency operation and a senior surgeon was called in. However news came through that a more senior surgeon in another hospitable was available and perhaps Rav Belski would like to move to that hospital so that he could have the best possible care. He would not hear of it. “Whether I live or not is in the hands of Hashem. How can I cause any embarrassment to the surgeon who is already here by suddenly going to someone else?”

Also in the biography of Reb Aaron Leib, the following question that he was asked, is quoted. A father of a bride had managed to find an apartment in Bnei Brak at a cheaper than average price for the young couple. However, despite the apparent lack of alternative accommodation and despite the fact the wedding was shortly to take place, the bride did not want that apartment. Her reason was that she knew that in that building a friend of hers lived and she had an elder sister who was not yet married. She felt that this elder unmarried sister might feel uncomfortable seeing her younger sister’s friend, married and living in the same building. “What should I do?” asked the father of the bride. Reb Aaron Leib was very impressed by the bride’s sensitivity and blessed her that she should merit to build a beautiful Jewish home. As to the question, with his classic down-to-earth wisdom, Reb Aaron Leib told the father to buy this apartment for his daughter but rent it out first to someone else until the older girl married – which indeed happened a few months later.

The Torah begins with chessed and ends with chessed as we quoted before. We learn that “Olom chessed yiboneh” – the very foundation of the world is chessed. (Tehilim 89:3). “Toras chessed al leshona – The teaching of kindness is on her (the Torah’s) tongue” (Mishlei 31:26). How sad and self-destructive the world would be without it. How beautiful it is with it and how inspiring are those who practice it.

[1] Reb Aharon Leib. Mesorah Publications Ltd. There is also an older book, by Mesorah Publications, all about Mrs Sternbuch called The Heroine of Rescue