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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Chayei Sarah

 You are in the middle of your workday. Appointments, phone calls, emails, documents to read and letters to send, bills to pay and deals to make. The day is short, your staff is leaving soon and other companies that you need to deal with are soon closing. But it’s almost sunset. So you stop everything and take out your Siddur (prayer book), turn to face east and pray for five minutes. (Ideally this is done with a minyan - a quorum of ten.) You prayed this morning, but that was before you started your day. You will pray again tonight, after your day is done. This prayer requires a special kind of devotion and sacrifice, this is the afternoon prayer called Mincha. The Hebrew word Mincha means a gift, and this is a gift that you give Hashem.

The first Mincha that we know is mentioned in this week’s Parsha. “Yitzchak went out to “speak” (in Hebrew “lasuach”) in the field toward evening.” (Bereshit 24:64.)  Our sages say that this was a prayer. Our three daily prayers were founded by our forefathers. Shacharit in the morning by Avraham, Mincha in the afternoon by Yitzchak and Maariv at night by Yaakov. 

Mincha is the shortest of the three prayers, but our sages tell us that it is the most powerful, because of the statement it makes. When a person is willing to stop everything in the middle of the work day to pray and connect to Hashem, he or she is affirming that the success of our work comes from Him. If it is our own expertise and work that brings us wealth, it doesn’t make sense to stop at the height of the income producing work. When we realize, however, that our work is only a part (albeit an important one) of the equation, and the outcome is ultimately determined by Hashem’s blessing. We then know that not only will Mincha not hurt our income, but on the contrary, it will bring enhanced blessings to our work.

There are many stories of the impact of Mincha and the blessings it brings. A famous one is the story of Dr Velvel Green from Minnesota who was a scientist working on the Apollo program. The local Chabad Shliach, Rabbi Feller, went to visit him in his office with a request relating to the upcoming Chabad dinner. Dr. Green was not connected to Chabad or the Jewish community and was not excited about meeting a Chassidic rabbi, and had only given Rabbi Feller a ten minute meeting. By the time Rabbi Feller went through security and got to Dr. Green’s office, the sun was setting and Rabbi Feller turned to the east and prayed. Dr. Green has never seen anything like this. He was so impressed that Rabbi Feller found praying at that time to be more important than the reason he had come, using up the precious few minutes that he had given him, Dr. Green immediately agreed to the request and a strong bond was created between them. Dr. Green gradually adopted a Torah lifestyle, and he became one of the foremost spokespersons for the synthesis of Torah and science on our generation. (I heard the story, with several more details, from Dr. Green when he visited Palo Alto.)

This concept is on my mind now because I am about to stand up and pray Mincha on a plane 35,000 feet in the air. I will face forward, because I am heading east to New York for the annual Chabad convention, where I will meet with about 4,000 of my Chabad colleagues. I am sure we will trade many stories like this one, because when people dedicate themselves to bringing this message to the world - the fact that the material world can and should be permeated with faith in Hashem as expressed by Mincha, many great things happen.

Vayera

 There is a well-known, perplexing story in this week’s Parsha, the story of Lot’s wife (according to some sources her name was Idit), who turned into a pillar of salt.  To this day, tour guides in Israel point to a certain pillar on “Mount Sodom,” near the Dead Sea, and identify it as Lot’s wife.  The Torah relates that the people of the five cities of the Sodom area were so wicked and depraved, that Hashem decided to wipe them out and turn the beautiful, verdant area into a wasteland.  Avraham’s nephew Lot, his wife and two daughters were to be spared, and two angels came to save them.  The angels told Lot and his family that Hashem was about to destroy the city, but that they would be saved, and that they should quickly escape to the mountains.  There was just one condition: Don’t look back.  Lot’s wife couldn’t resist and she looked back, and turned into a pillar of salt.  Another head-scratcher.  There are many questions on this story, here are three.  Why couldn’t she control herself and not look back, the only condition for her being saved?  What was so terrible that she looked back? Why salt?  There are many wonderful commentaries that discuss these questions and others.  I would like to focus on the lesson to be learned in our daily lives, based on a lecture given by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson (available on theyeshiva.net). 

The written Torah is not a history book, but a guide to life.  Every story that is recounted in the Torah is there because it informs us about our own lives and how to fulfil our mission on earth.  So in addition to the actual story that happened as described, there are mystical meaning that apply directly to each of us.  Each of us has a little Sodom.  A sage known as the Ri of Panu wrote that the custom of dipping our Challah in salt is to remember Lot’s wife and to repair her sin, which means that this is something we need to relate to in all generations and at all times. There are things we do that are improper and inappropriate, negative to Hashem and negative toward others.  The Torah tells us that we have to run away from these destructive behaviors as quickly as we can.  The question is, are we able to truly move away from our indiscretions, or do we get stuck in the past.  Sometimes we run away from Sodom but we remain stuck there.  

Let’s take a look at salt.  Salt on its own is inedible, it tastes bitter and horrible and can’t be eaten.  Add a little salt to your food, and it enhances all the flavors and makes the food much more palatable.  Salt represents guilt and remorse.  We cannot go through life without recognizing our mistakes and trying to fix them.  A little remorse is very important to ensure that we will work to fix our mistakes, to identify what led us down the wrong path and to help us change our ways.  Just as a little salt enhances the flavor of our food, a little remorse helps improve our lives, and therefore we dip our bread in salt at every meal.  But it is important to remember that the salt is not the meal.  The food is the meal, and the salt is there to enhance its taste.  Too much salt will ruin the food.  

Our purpose in life is not to feel guilty.  There are some who associate guilt with religion.  If I feel guilty it shows that I hate my sins.  Well, actually being overwhelmed with guilt shows not that we hate our sins but that we hate ourselves.  If we hate our sins, we will get away from them.  Excessive guilt is really self-centeredness, which can be expressed in a few ways.  There are arrogant people who consider themselves great and wonderful and feel as if the whole world belongs to them.  Then there are those who feel low and guilty, constantly thinking about what they have done wrong and how incompetent they are in life.  That is as much self-centered as arrogance, because it is all about me.  That is looking back, staying in Sodom even while trying to run away from it.  Instead of focusing on our mission, moving out of the negative impulses and bringing light and goodness to ourselves and the world, we turn into a pillar of salt, wallowing in guilt and giving up on ourselves. 

The Torah tells us, don’t look back and become a pillar of salt.  Don’t get stuck in your past.  Yes, at every meal put a little salt on your challah, identify the negatives and move forward, but remember that the food is the bread, not the salt.  At this moment you have a mission to perform, and regardless of your past, you have the power and ability to perform that mission.  Take a few moments at the end of the day and consider what needs to be fixed and how to do it, but don’t ever identify yourself as a sinner or a failure.   

In the current JLI course that we began last night, we discussed that the fuel of life is positive emotions, and that negative emotions hold us back and are the source of most failures in life.  It is not too late to sign up and learn how to avoid getting mired in negativity and avoiding becoming a pillar of salt.  

Lech -Lecha

 Whenever I read the story of our forefather Avraham and our foremother Sarah, I am struck by the power and impact of their lives. A pioneer is someone who breaks out of the mold and starts doing things differently. After a while people take the new method for granted and don’t realize the sacrifices that the pioneer had to make to blaze the new trail. We see this in many areas of life, especially today in technology, where yesterday’s unimaginable becomes tomorrow’s normal.

Let’s imagine the world that Avraham and Sarah lived in. The average person worshipped the dust on their feet as a deity. Monotheism was considered apostasy and treason against the ruler Nimrod who considered himself a god. Abraham and Sarah introduced faith in one G-d. Not only did they themselves believe this, but they taught and spread the belief far and wide. Abraham was thrown into a furnace for this belief, and survived miraculously. They were the ones who introduced the idea of welcoming guests and offering unconditional kindness to strangers. Today we consider this the work of the righteous, and when we hear of someone who exceedingly generous we are greatly impressed, but nevertheless we expect people to do it. In those days there was no such thing. It was a completely new idea. The fact that we do it today is because we emulate them.

Those are just two examples of many, many things that Avraham and Sarah introduced to the world. Our sages taught: “Ma’asse Avot Siman Labanim” - the works of the forefathers and foremothers are a “sign” for their children. This statement has many layers of meaning. On a superficial level it could mean that we should learn from and emulate their actions. On a deeper level it means that what they did set the stage for their children and gave us the strength to accomplish our mission on earth.

This concept also applies to the troubling story of Sarah being abducted by Pharaoh. Avraham asked her to say that she was his sister because he knew that she would be forcibly taken by Pharaoh as a wife, and that Pharaoh would have no qualms about killing her husband in order to make sure she was single. Twisted sick logic, but that was Egypt. Hashem plagued Pharaoh and he was unable to touch Sarah. He sent her away with many gifts adding up to a huge treasure. Following what I mentioned before, that everything that happened to Avraham and Sarah was a “sign” for their children, Chassidus explains that it was this event that set the stage for the subsequent Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Pharaoh’s inability to take control of Sarah and his being forced to let her go led to the later Pharaoh’s inability to permanently enslave the Jewish people and their ultimate release “with hand held high.”  Pharaoh giving Sarah much treasure led to the Jews leaving with a great treasure from Egypt.

Many thousands of pages have been filled with the lessons there are to learn from the lives of Avraham and Sarah. One striking point is the depth of meaning in the seemingly simple stories of the Torah. As I have written many times, the written Torah cannot be understood without its interpretation in the Oral Torah. There are so many layers of meaning to every verse and every word if we are willing to take a little time and study the rich tradition of our Torah as it has been handed down by our Sages through the ages.  

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