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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Tired and Fed Up

 People are tired and fed up.  We’ve had enough with the distancing and staying away from family.  There is a level of anxiety and depression, or just feeling out of sorts that has set in.  As I told someone the other day, the only good thing about what everyone is feeling is that everyone is feeling it.  What was supposed to last a few months has stretched into almost a year, and nobody knows how long it will continue.  Life and health are paramount, and we need to not slack off, and do everything to protect ourselves, and there are some very promising things on the horizon.  The question is, until it is safe to resume regular activities, how do we cope? 

As always, I think there is a straightforward lesson from the Parsha.  This week, in Vayetze, we read about our forefather Yaakov (Jacob), and his struggle to start the family that became the Jewish people.  He escaped his homeland Canaan and his vengeful brother Esav, and arrived penniless in a strange land.  His own uncle is a swindler and wicked man, not someone he can count on for support.  He decides to give his uncle seven years of work for his daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage.  He figures he has seven years to work for the love of his lifeand then go home and start his family.  But it didn’t work out that way.  Lavan swindled him, and now he is stuck for another seven years.  Then once again he was forced to stay with Lavan for an additional six years, and during that time Lavan changed the terms of his employment 100 times (Rashi Bereshit 31:42). 

How did Yaakov react to this unprecedented hardship?  The Torah tells us that he worked faithfully “with all his strength” day and night tending Lavan’s sheep.  In fact our sages tell us that he never had a decent night’s sleep while he was working for Lavan.  Why would he give so much, over and beyond his obligations (even as a very honest man), to create wealth for his swindling uncle?  Chassidus explains that Yaakov was involved in a spiritual pursuit.  In all physical things there is a spark of G-dliness, and with his work with the sheep Yaakov was revealing and elevating that holiness.  This was how he prepared the way for the establishment of the Jewish nation, the receiving of the Torah and the ultimate transformation of the world and Moshiach’s revelation.

Yaakov taught us that no matter the circumstances, disappointments or detours from our plans, we have the ability to adapt to the situation and make the world a better place.  Had Yaakov focused on how his plans had not worked out as he expected, we would not have been reading about him in the Torah, and maybe we would not be here.  We each have a mission that Hashem has given us, and Hashem has determined the circumstances in which we need to fulfill that mission.  It behooves us to accept that in these unusual circumstances, we can make a difference.  Reach out to someone, give more Tzedakah, pray more, study more Torah, and use the time productively. 

We will soon once again be gathering and going places.  Let’s make sure that when that happens, we can look back and say, “I made a difference during the pandemic.”


Huh?

 Sometimes you read a piece of Talmud and you scratch your head.  Huh?  What does that mean?  Invariably, with time and energy and digging deeper into the meaning, not only does it make sense but provides a profound lesson.  Here is an example:  In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our fathers) chapter 2, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai is quoted discussing his five greatest students.  Rabbi Yochanan was one of Judaism’s greatest figures.  He was a brilliant scholar (sorry, those are the best words I can find, but do not do justice to his great scholarship), a holy man (ditto), a brilliant leader and teacher, and credited with saving Jewish heritage and learning as the Jews went into Roman exile.  (You can read the story here.) 

In the ninth Mishna of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yochanan enumerates the merits of his five great students, all scholars, sages, leaders and teachers in their own right.  He says:  “If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenus were in the other, he would outweigh them all.” Then the sage Abba Shaul is quoted as stating that Rabbi Yochanan said:  “If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, Eliezer the son of Hurkenus included, and Elazar the son of Arach were in the other, he would outweigh them all.”  Which is it?  Somehow the measurement doesn’t work.  The commentaries say that in fact there is no contradiction here and both are correct.  Here is where the head scratching starts.  As the famous story goes:  Two litigants come before the Rabbi.  One presents his case, the Rabbi says “you’re right.”  The other presents his opposite case, the Rabbi says “you’re right.”  The Rabbi’s wife overhears this and asks her husband how they can both be right.  He says to her “you’re right!”

The solution to the paradox is that each has a quality that outweighs the other in a different area.  The explanation can be found in Rabbi Yochanan’s description of his two great students as he recounts their praises.  Of Rabbi Eliezer he says:  “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a cemented cistern that loses not a drop,”  Of Rabbi Elazar he says: “Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring.”  What does this mean?  There are two ways that a teacher can teach his or her student.  One way is to share with the student all of the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge.  Another way is to help the student develop tools to come to the understanding of the subject on his or her own.  Which of those methods is greater?  Well it depends on your perspective.  In terms of the knowledge being imparted, the former gets a lot more and greater knowledge.  However in terms of the long term impact on the student, the latter helps the student achieve more.  The disadvantage of the first method is that the student’s mind does not develop as much.  The disadvantage of the latter is that the student on his or her own cannot reach anywhere near the teacher’s understanding of the subject.

The Mishna is teaching us that there is value in both approaches.  Rabbi Eliezer was like “a cemented cistern.”  He grasped and retained all the wisdom and Torah knowledge that was taught by the previous generations in its highest, purest form.  Rabbi Elazar was described as “an ever-increasing wellspring.”  He was able to find deeper, innovative levels of understanding of the Torah he learned.  Rabbi Yochanan taught that each approach, in one way, outweighs the other, because we must have both.  Involving our own minds is crucial to making the Torah “our own” and sustaining it and growing in its learning and observance throughout our lifetime.  Yet this can only be true if we are innovating within the Torah teachings that have been given to us by the sages of the Torah, and we must be sure that we are retaining the purity and sanctity of Torah as it was given to Hashem at Sinai.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with this week’s parsha?  We learn about Yitzchak digging a whole bunch of wells.  It is interesting to note that Avraham also dug wells, but the Philistines filled them all in.  Yitzchak re-dug the wells, plus made a few more, and those are the  wells that lasted.  Avraham, along with his wife Sarah, was the first to bring understanding of Hashem to the world.  They did it by showering the world with kindness, welcoming guests and feeding them, and imparting their knowledge and goodness to the world.  They “dug wells,” they brought fresh, wonderful water to the world, but they did not really change the world itself.  The people they taught drifted away after they passed, and the wells were stopped up.  Yitzchak, with his wife Rivkah, continued their work.  Now that the light had permeated the dark world, they set about to refine the world and have the world itself move toward Hashem.  The wells they dug were permanent because they were created from the ground up as opposed to top down. 

In our own lives, we sometimes clearly feel our connection to Hashem.  I think every Jews feels a spiritual connection on Yom Kippur at Ne’ila when the ark is open and we call out Shema Yisrael.  Perhaps at the Seder, or Shabbat dinner, or whole we are praying or studying Torah.  But there are so many times when we don’t feel the soul connection, and it is a struggle to maintain our Jewish lifestyle.  We should always remember that this is not a bad thing.  When we struggle from a place of spiritual darkness to find the fresh spring water of our soul under the cover of the course materiality, it is this struggle that truly transforms us and it is overcoming this struggle that makes our Judaism last.

This is one explanation of why Yitzchak’s name means “will laugh.”  When Moshiach comes, we will then laugh with great joy, recognizing the positive power of what now seems to be the bitterness of the exile.  We will then see that the entire purpose of the struggle is to transform us “from the bottom up” and to reveal the true essence of everything – the Divine spark from which it was created.


How much is 400 shekels worth?

 How much is 400 shekels in today’s money?  The shekels that Avraham gave to Efron for the purchase of a gravesite for his wife, Sarah, as described in this week’s Parsha, were not ordinary shekels.  The Torah describes them as shekels that were accepted by all merchants, in other words very high quality.  In those days, the value of a coin was the actual value of the silver, and coins would wear out after a while.  Avraham’s coins were top of the line. 

The following is partially based on a wonderful commentary by Rabbi Schneur Ashkenazi. When Avraham asked the Chittite people of Chevron to give him a “burial property” for Sarah, they offered him “the choicest of our graves.”  Avraham was not satisfied, and asked for the mayor of the city, Efron.  Avraham did not want just a grave, he wanted a property, and specifically the Cave of Machpelah, and he offered to pay “its full value.”  Efron offered it to him as a gift, but Avraham insisted on paying its full value.  This was the first property that was purchased for the Jewish people in Israel, and Avraham did not want it as a gift.  So from offering it free, Efron moved to extortion.  “What is 400 shekels between good friends like us,” and Avraham paid it in full, with high quality shekels.  So how much did he overpay?  A couple of generations later, his grandson Yaakov bought a large property in Shechem to accommodate a large family and a huge number of sheep and cattle, servants and more.  He paid 4 shekels.  So Avraham paid 100 times as much as that for a small cave to use as a grave.  A search in the internet came up with values ranging from $100,000 to $128,000.  For a grave.  Why would Avraham go to such lengths and pay such an exorbitant amount for a grave? 

Another question is why would the Torah spend so many verses telling us about the negotiation on a real estate deal?  There must have been other real estate deals throughout the period of our forefathers, and the Torah doesn’t describe the negotiations!  An example is the purchase of the property I mentioned above by Yaakov.  The Torah just says that he bought it for “100 kesita” (which is about four shekels).

Avraham taught us the value of a human body.  There are many who question the reverence we give to “skin and bones.”  I was once having a conversation with a Jewish pathologist who defined himself as an “atheist,” and he told me: “I see what’s left after death, it’s just tissue.”  I asked him what this tissue was doing before death, and what made it alive before.  He did not have a good answer.  I think he said something about “biology.”  It is a tragic reality today that many people choose cremation (the Nazis’ destruction of choice) over burial, and there are even Jewish mortuaries that perform cremations.  Another non-Jewish practice that has crept into our communities is above-ground burial.  Avraham taught us that this “tissue,” this skin and bones, , is so precious that it must be buried properly, with dignity, in the ground. 

There is a lot to be said on the subject.  Here are just a few points.  In many cultures, when a person was executed, they would be hanged in order to make an example for others.  The Torah tells us that a person who is executed may not be left hanging and must be buried before nightfall, because “a hanged person is a curse to G-d.”  Our Sages explained that our body was created in the image of G-d, and leaving a body hanging would mean so to speak that the image if G-d is hanging.  (Exactly what ‘in the image of G-d means, since G-d does not have an image, is a great subject on its own.  Suffice it to say here that the human body is in the form of the spiritual Divine attributes through which Hashem expresses Himself in the creation of the worlds.)  That verse is referring to a murderer who has fallen to the lowest dregs of human behavior, yet his body must be treated with the reverence due to the image of G-d.

The body is the vehicle for the soul – the divine spark, the part of Hashem that is within each of us, that came to the world to bring light and transform the world to holiness.  It is specifically the physical body that is able to perform Hashem’s will – the brain thinks and understands Hashem’s Torah, the heart feels love and awe of Hashem and His creations, the mouth speaks good words, the hands and the rest if the body perform acts of goodness, kindness and holiness.  Every part of the physical body is connected to the soul and can be used to connect the world with its divine source.

In the Talmud, burial is compared to “planting.”  Just as when a seed is planted in the ground the seed decomposes and a new plant with new life emerges, so the body is planted in the ground to decompose and ultimately to be brought back to a new life during the resurrection after Moshiach comes.  Avraham recognized the unique greatness and holiness of Sarah, and did not want her buried in any grave among the corrupt Chittites.  He was willing to pay any amount to bury her with the dignity that such a great vehicle, or “temple” to the divine light deserved, in a cave designated for holy people like her.  This was the first “Jewish cemetery,” and this is something that throughout history Jews have insisted on – to bury our holy and revered bodies in a Jewish cemetery that has been properly consecrated. 

May we soon merit the coming of Moshiach and Techiyat Hameitim – the resurrection of the dead.  How great will it be to meet Avraham and Sarah, as well as all our ancestors and loved ones. 


Red, Blue and Welcome

 Like most people, I imagine, I have been watching a line with two colors - blue on the left and red on the right. The two colors are inching toward a central point that says “270.”  In another line, the red and blue inching toward “50,” and in a third, toward “218.”  I am struck by a few things as I watch these two colors get closer to each other: How close the race is, how long it is taking to come to a resolution, the rhetoric on both sides, including threats and insults, and the explosion of craziness on social media. Eventually I actually stopped looking at it.  Through it all, what hits me the most is the polarization that these two colored lines represent.  We are talking about “opponents” as if this were two sides in a war.  Kabbalah says that the most beautiful cloth is one that is multicolored, but that is a mixture of colors.  When each color is clearly separate from the other, that is a different story.  What is very troubling is where this is all leading.  Is this the new normal?  Is half the country going to be pitted against the other half?  Are people going to take to the streets again, with the threat of violence and damage to innocent people, instead of working through a system of laws and healthy debate?  Are we as Jews going to have to worry again that our stores and synagogues will be looted and burned, just because people’s passions are aroused and we are Jewish?

 

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  I don’t know where this will lead and I don’t have any global solutions.  What I do know is that for millennia we have always looked to the Torah to find the path that we should follow.  Specifically the Parsha of the week, being the eternal word of Hashem, has the answers to all our dilemmas.  I can’t say with any authority that I know exactly what the real lesson of the Parsha is, but I do have an idea. 

 

Avraham Avinu, our forefather Abraham, and his wife Sarah Imeinu lived in a very dark time, in a corrupt country filled with corrupt people.  This was the era of Sodom and Amora, the time of the Tower of Bavel, a time of idol-worship and immorality.  The way they dealt with all of this was with kindness and hospitality.  They spent their time, wealth and energy feeding people who were so spiritually low that they worshipped the dust on their feet.  They were not fazed by the fact that they were bucking the trend, to the extent that the Talmud says that the name Avraham “Ha’ivri” (which we read in English as “Hebrew”) means on the other side, because Avraham (and Sarah) stood on one side ideologically and the entire world (!) stood on the other. 

 

Avraham and Sarah went about their work, one person at a time, spreading love and kindness, and teaching people softly and gently about the Creator.  They were so successful that they brought hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, “under the sheltering wings of the “Shechinah” (Presence of G-d).  We, the Jewish people, cannot allow the polarization of the world around us to tear us apart.  Our primary identity is that of Hashem’s servants.  Our mission is to transform the world to holiness.  I have had many discussions over the last few weeks about how this should be accomplished, and I feel very strongly that it is not done by fighting or telling people how wrong they are.  This only leads to division and polarization, and as I said, we cannot afford this. 

 

We need to take a page out of Avraham and Sarah’s book.  Remember that our differences and divisions are not what define us.  If you see someone who disagrees with you politically, even if they are diametrically opposed and are on the complete other side of the political spectrum, show them love and kindness.  Our greatest success as a people is our person-to-person kindness and love.  With all the great and heroic deeds that Avraham performed, Hashem says (Bereshit 18:19): “I know him lovingly because he teaches his children and his household after him to do kindness and justice.”  This refers to Avraham’s kindness and justice – welcoming, offering food and drink, discussing lovingly without judgment.  That is always important, but especially now.

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