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.

Rest under the Tree

Every aspect of Avrohom Ovinu’s hospitality was repaid to his children. Avrohom ran to prepare meat for his guests; Hashem later gave us the slav. He gave them butter and milk; we received the mon. He gave them water; we received water from the rock. (Bobo Metziah 86b). He told them to rest under the tree, we later received the mitzvah of succah. (Bereishis Rabboh). We can easily understand the first few examples, but what has resting under a tree to do the mitzvah of succah? The fact that a succah under a tree is not kosher only adds to the difficulty. And Chazal say in Yalkut Emor that a person who performs the mitzvah of succah will be protected from mazikim. Why?

Last week we showed how the high point of our Shemoneh Esrei is the last line Oseh sholom bimromov..When we bow down three times during that line with the emuna that Ein od milvado – there is no power besides Hashem – we express our humility and emuna that nothing besides Hashem has any power, then indeed everything else loses its power. This provides tremendous protection from those who seek to harm us. And humility, in different forms is the central theme of Elokai netzor. Netzor leshoni mero … speaking badly of others is a sign of arrogance. Nafshi ke’ofor lakol tiheye… we highlight the qualities of others whilst being mindful of our shortcomings. P’sach libi besorosecho; humility is the key to learning Torah and our acceptance of the mitzvos. Admitting our inability to shape our destiny or control our lives, rejecting kochi ve’otzem yodi – that “the strength of my hand has achieved for me this wealth,” our belief in ein od milvado – that there is no power besides Hashem, leads us to hope that indeed chol hachoshvim olai ro meheira hofeir atzosom vekalkel machshevosom. Hashem will destroy the plans of our enemies. Asei leman shemecho … even if our emuna is not perfect, He should still destroy our enemies to protect His Name, to protect the reputation of his “right hand,” to uphold sanctity and for the sake of His Torah. Lemaan yecholtzun yedidecho…You have said that You love us; please save us for this reason. Yiheyu lerotzon imrei fi – please, Hashem accept our tefilos and hegyon libi – this could refer to those heartfelt desires which we didn’t succeed in verbalising but could also refer to the emuna in our hearts.

Now we take the obligatory three steps back. Without them, according to Yuma 53b, “there is no point in one’s whole tefila.” Why are they crucial? Because these steps backward reflect our subservience to Hashem. We are not just finishing a chat with our friend. The Creator of the World deigned to allow us to speak to Him. “Oseh Sholom..” with its three bows indicates again our complete subservience to Hashem, as we said earlier.

Now comes the final part of our tefila – a plea for the restoration of the Beis Hamikdash. If, at Oseh sholom we were already mentally on our way out of shul, by sheyibone Beis Hamikdash we will certainly be already down the road, checking the time or nodding to a neighbor. What a wasted opportunity! Why do we ask Hashem to restore the Beis Hamikdash at this point? Perhaps it because whenever the Nevi’im speak about the Beis Hamikdash they speak about Hashem’s greatness. “The Heavens are My Throne and the Earth my footstool” (Yeshaya 66:1). “The Heavens in all their vastness cannot contain Hashem.” (Melochim 1. 8:27). If we can’t appreciate the greatness of Hashem, His limitless power, His awesome wisdom, we will not be able to serve Him with yiras Shoma’im in the Beis Hamikdash. If we do not live with the emuna sheleima that He is a living G-d Who, even though He is magbihi losheves, is also mashpili liros bashomayim uvo’oretz and has a relationship with every single person, our avodas Hashem will be perfunctory, superficial and something we do merely out of habit. And we would not deserve a Beis Hamikdash. We would still be behaving in the way Yeshaya (29:13) criticized when he prophesied the imminent destruction of the Beis Hamikdash –“They honour Me with their mouth and lips but their heart is far from Me.”.

However if we have been concentrating on davening as we should, we can show at this point that we are capable of truly serving Hashem and are worthy again of a Beis Hamikdash. We now say that we are ready to serve Hashem “beyir’a” – with the appropriate humility, awe and emuna. If so, this is an opportune moment to plead to Hashem to restore the Beis Hamikdash. It is certainly not a moment to squander.

Avrohom Ovinu was not merely telling his guests to rest in the shade but hisho’anu tachas ho’eitz, they should note the amazing miracle of a tree which only recently might have a been a mere seed but now, thanks to chasdei Hashem produces fruit in abundance and shade for our convenience during the heat of summer. This understanding of Hashem’s greatness and showing our subservience to Him is the main purpose of the mitzvah of Succah. Thus Avrohom Ovinu’s invitation to his guests to “Rest under the tree” made us worthy of the mitzvah of Succah which echoes the same theme. And if we enter our Succah with the correct kavono that ein od milvado – nothing has any power besides Hashem, all the mazikim who try to harm us will automatically lose their power and we will continue to survive in the shade of Hashem’s protection.

To be continued.