Friday, November 11, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family:
Click here:  Parshat VaYeira

Parshat Va'Yeira - "Let's not forget Mamre"
by Rabbi Herzl Hefter

In a parasha that contains the stories of the birth and binding of Yitzchak, and the overturning  of Sodom, I wish to write about a seemingly trivial point. The pasuk states: "And the LORD appeared unto him in the palace of Mamre" (Breishit 18:1).

Mamre, I believe, is the unsung hero in this week's parasha.  The midrash asks what Mamre did to merit having that God's revelation occur in his homestead:

And why was he called Mamre?  R. Azariah said in the name of R. Judah: Because he rebuked (Himrah) Abraham.  When the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Abraham to circumcise himself he went and took counsel with his three friends.  Aner said to him: 'You are already  a hundred years old, yet you would inflict this pain upon yourself?'  Eshkol said to him: 'Why should you go and make yourself distinguishable to your enemies?  But Mamre said to him: 'When did He not stand by you? --in the fiery furnace, in famine, and in your war with the kings [He was with you]!  Will you not obey Him, then, in this matter?'  Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him:  'Thou gave him good advice to circumcise himself: by thy life!  I will reveal Myself to him only in your palace.'  Hence it is written: 'And the Lord appeared unto him in the palace of Mamre.'

(Breishit Rabba 42:8)

This midrash is baffling.  Does Abraham, the model of obedience to God's will, really need Mamre to persuade him to perform the act of circumcision?

Commenting on this the Sefat Emet says:

Mamre understood that through the circumcision a covenant between Abraham and God would be forged, creating an exclusive relationship between Abraham and his offspring and God.  This would separate Abraham and his children from the rests of humankind.  Aner and Eshkol objected to this new development, but Mamre had faith and understood that this was the way it needed to be, and that he (Mamre) was not worthy enough to be part of this exclusive relationship with the Almighty.  He accepted the necessity of an exclusive covenant between Abraham and God even though it meant that he would be excluded and as a consequence be further away from God.  Paradoxically it was this very consent to a more distant relationship that brought him closer. This precipitated the Divine revelation in his homestead and he had a closer relationship with God precisely because he was willing to sacrifice it and endure alienation from God.

(Sefat Emet, VaYera, 5634)

Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib, author of the Sefat Emet, offers us a keen insight into the mysteries of the human heart.  I believe that the experience of sacrificing closeness to God for God generated a feeling of love and commitment in Mamre's heart that precipitated God's response.

I want to clarify this through the words of the Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, in his classic, the Mei HaShiloach:

Initially, when a person begins to desire to draw near to God, God hides His light from him in order to clarify and purify (levarer) the desire until God actually breaks his heart, and he realizes his imperfections. Through this [heartbreak] the individual merits an even greater revelation...

(Mei HaShiloach, Tazria, Part 1  s.v. Isha)

The Mei HaShiloach is referring, I believe, to the same phenomenon as the Sefat Emet, but from a different perspective.  The Sefat Emet is writing from the human perspective, whereas the Mei HaShiloach is writing from the Divine perspective.   God desires, or rather, demands, authenticity.  What is our real motivation when we desire closeness with God?  Perhaps we are seeking a spiritual high, or for meaning in our scattered lives, or self-fulfillment.  Such a striving may ultimately bring us to God but it still must be distinguished from an authentic search for God.  The Mei HaShiloach is concerned with the question of how we can know that we our search is authentic, our motives pure.  At this point God graciously (so to speak) steps in and hides his light.  What is our response to the hiding of His Light?  If we are seeking self-fulfillment or an amorphous spirituality, perhaps we will shrug our shoulders and turn to tai chi, yoga or meditation.  (I do not mean to denigrate yoga or tai chi, only that these activities should not replace a religious quest for closeness to God.)  If however, our desire is pure, we will cling tenaciously to our original quest: closeness to God.  The broken heart can be nothing but authentic.

Mamre, in his willingness to sacrifice his closeness to God for the sake of God, set a standard for religious authenticity.  Living at this level of intensity and self-scrutiny is not easy, but aspiring to live this way places us in the presence of the God of Abraham who revealed Himself in the home of Mamre.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

This week, the daf yomi dealt with many aspects of the non-sanctified gifts to the kohanim - certain cuts of meat from slaughtered animals, and the first shearing of sheep.   A major theme that the meaning and valance of a gift is shaped by the manner in which it is given and which it is received.  We may first note the difference between agricultural gifts to the poor and the above-mentioned gifts to the priests.  The Gemara (Hullin 134b) states that if there are no poor or no kohanim around, then in the case of the poor one does not have to search after them to find them, whereas in the case of the kohanim, one has to hold onto the gifts and ensure that it reaches the kohen.  Why the difference?  Because the Torah says regarding the gleanings of the poor from the field, "To the poor and to the stranger you shall leave them," (Vayikra 19:10, 23:22).   The gleanings of the field are just left for the poor, the field-owner has no need to find them.   Regarding the gifts to the kohanim, in contrast, the Torah says: "You shall give to the kohen" (Devarim 18:3), so it is the owner's responsibility to make sure that the kohen receives it.

Now, this difference works to the disadvantage of the poor, in this case.  However, there is a reason that the way of giving differs.  In the case of the kohen, the gift must be given in a way that reflects the status and importance of the kohen - it is being given to him not because he has no land and is poor (a theme that sometimes comes up in the case of the Leviim), but rather because "God has chosen him to stand and serve in the name of God" (Devarim 18:4).   Thus, there needs to be a face-to-face encounter, and be given in the context of respect for the office and role of the kohen.  The reverse is true in the case of the poor person.  To give directly is to emphasize the poor person's neediness and dependence.  The best way of giving to the poor respects the receiver's dignity, and is a giving that is - ideally - anonymous and, minimally, does not underscore the person's need to ask and to receive.  Leaving the gleanings, and letting the poor come and take, not only saves the poor person from the face-to-face encounter, but also allows him or her to feel a certain degree of control and perhaps even quasi-ownership vis-à-vis the grain and the fields in which he or she is gleaning.   One gift needs to be given the other needs to be left for the taking.

The difference between these two gifts plays out in another case as well.  Does a kohen have to give the gifts - if he has slaughtered a cow or shorn a sheep - to another kohen?  Does the poor person - who happens to own a small field - have to leave the gleanings for another poor person?  The answer to the first is no, to the second is yes (Hullin 131a-b).  What is the difference?  The kohen does not need to acknowledge the importance of his office to another kohen.  It would seem redundant and, perhaps more to the point, the other kohen does not hold a more elevated office vis-à-vis this kohen.  However, in the case of the poor person, giving to another poor person is a very meaningful act.  No matter how poor a person is, how bad off, there is always someone else that is worse off and whom he can help.  Beyond the benefit to the recipient, there is also the statement that it makes to the giver.  A person who is poor and is dependent on others may feel like less than a full member of society.  To be able to give, and not only to receive, reinforces for this person their full membership as a functioning member of the community. 

The giving to the kohen is a show of respect, but the giving to and by the poor no less so.  One shows respect for the office, the other for the dignity of the individual.  In a parsha that is so much about welcoming guests and caring for others, we should always remember that it is not just what or how much is given, but very critically how it is given, that can make all the difference.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Students continued learning intensely this week, and it was a week packed with learning in the evenings as well.   Tuesday and Thursday night saw the continuation of our successful Kollel program, which is now also drawing participation by various members of the community.  On Monday night, we had the privilege and honor of hosting a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman on "Culpability and Negligence in Rabbinic and Sasanian Law".   The lecture was given as a memorial lecture commemorating the 10th yahrtzeit of Yitzchak (Irwin) Haut, z"l, and sponsored by his wife, Rivka, and children Sheryl and Tamara.  There was a wonderful turn out from the larger community who participated in the lecture together with the YCT students.   The lecture is available on audio and video on a special page on our website, and the source materials will be posted soon.

On Thursday we had two guests at the yeshiva.  Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a rav in Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, and previous rabbi of Young Israel of Hillcrest and past president of the WZO, spoke to students after mincha about the importance of both serving Klal Yisrael and nurturing one's relationship with God.  He also spoke about the need to take stands on important issues, but also not to become a one-issue rabbi.  It was a wonderful opportunity for students to hear Torah, inspiration, and wisdom from a rav who has done so much for Klal Yisrael.

Also Thursday afternoon students heard from Steven Roth of Ptil Techelet on some of the history of techelet, its modern-day identification, and some of the halakhic issues involved.  This shiur will be posted to the internet in the next few days.

We would also like to thank an anonymous donor who donated a fleishig lunch to the students.   The lunch took place on Tuesday, which turned out to be a perfect Fall day, and students - together with staff from the yeshiva and the shul - enjoyed a beautiful lunch out on the building's balcony.  As Tuesday was also election day, and the HIR's lobby was being used as an voting site, we also invited the staff monitoring the voting booths to join us, and we all shared a lovely lunch together. 

Our community suffered two losses this week.  Last Thursday night, Rose Ruth Livson bat Avraham and Sarah Drisin, dear grandmother of Simon Livson (YCT 2012) passed away.  The funeral and shiva were held in her Finland.   And just this Tuesday, the grandfather of Ari Hart (YCT 2011), Sidney Black, Shlomo Nisan ben Tsivya, passed away after a long illness.   We wish the families a nechama for their loss.  HaMakom yinachem etchem bi'tokh sha'arei Tzion vi'Yerushalayim.

Finally, we have the pleasure this week of a guest parsha piece by a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Herzl Hefter. Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the Rosh Yeshiva of the newly founded  Har'El Yeshiva (,  for  men between the ages of 21 and 30 located in the Old City of Jerusalem, affiliated with  Isralight.  Har'El  combines traditional learning with religious seeking  and will bring Hasidut, creative writing, Moreh Nevukhim, and great books into the Beit Midrash and into its pursuit of Torah and Godliness .   
Apropos of the parsha, I would encourage you to look at the Shma Journal from this last Rosh HaShana, which focuses on the akeida.  In particular, there is a write-up of an exchange which I participated in, on the topics of ethics and halakha seen through the lens of the akeida, which I trust you will find it interesting.