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.