motzei Shabbos: Chayei Olam

Introduction:

“If those who never lived, now live, surely those who have lived, will live again!”

– Geviha ben Pesisa; found in R’Nissan Dovid Dubov’s To Live and Live Again

In this commentary, the miraculous nature of the Tehillas HaMeism (Resurrection of the Dead) is compared to the miracle of life itself. Do we ever stop to think about this? Judaism teaches that before a soul is fused with the newborn, that soul is waiting in the treasury of souls, to enter this world, upon being assigned a mission. This journey, and the subsequent placing of the soul in a body – if we consider for a moment this amazing feat – is astounding beyond compare; for, where there was no life, there is now a life brought into the world. How much more so should we be able to wonder at the ability of G-d to restore the soul to the body, after the body has been resurrected? And, yet, in reflecting on this, one may begin to ponder even more, whether life itself or life after death is more miraculous.

parashas Chayei Sarah

selected passages: Genesis 23:1-20, 25:7-10

In parashas Chayei Sarah, meaning, the “Life of Sarah,” there appears to be an immediate incongruous passage, at the beginning of the parashas. While the first pasuk (verse) notes how many years made up Sarah’s life, the very next verse mentions that she passed away. The following passage continues with a narrative concerning Abraham’s mourning for her, and subsequent challenge in obtaining a proper burial place for her. Yet, hidden within the very first Hebrew word of the parashas, is a remez (hint) towards the naming of the parashas having to do with the life of Sarah: vayihyu, meaning “life,” according to R’ Bachya implies “something that exists permanently,” thereby, it could be inferred that this hints towards the understanding that her soul would “take up permanent residence in the celestial regions” (R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 23:1, sefaria.org). Thus, the title of the parashas, Chayei Sarah (the Life of Sarah) points toward the reward of chayei olam – eternal life – for the righteous.

This perspective on the hidden meaning of the parashas, is further exemplified by a reference to chayei olam (eternal life), in regard to the life of Abraham: “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). This phrase, “gathered to his people” (vayei’asef el amayv) is likened by Sforno to the bundle of life: “the bundle of souls who are part of the life after death” (Sforno, sefaria.org). Sforno continues, “there are all kinds of different spiritual levels among the righteous souls; not all attained the same level of righteousness while on earth, although all of them share the experience of enjoying eternal life” (Sforno, commentary on Genesis 25:8, sefaria.org).

The Bundle of Life

parashas Chayei Sarah 5782

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” – Genesis 23:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

It’s interesting to note, that Judaism is often regarded as a worldly religion, focusing on our earthly lives, while not placing much emphasis on the next life, otherwise known as Olam Haba – the World-to-Come. However, when we delve into Torah, looking below the surface of the plain meaning, we begin to see a different picture. Additionally, the teachings of Chazal (the Sages), can inform us as well, concerning a perspective that brings us into a fuller knowledge of Torah.

Torah itself may be compared to the ocean, perhaps, because its depths are unfathomable. Moreover, it is recorded in Torah, that the number of creatures in the ocean is uncountable; perhaps, this also applies to Torah itself, in regard to the many facets of Torah. It is said that there are seventy faces of Torah, connotating the teaching that Torah presents its mysteries in many ways.

The parashas begins with the death of Sarah, a seemingly disconnected beginning to a narrative entitled Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah. Yet, the first word of the parashas, vayechi, meaning “life,” according to R. Bachya implies “something that exists permanently,” thereby, it could be inferred that this hints towards the understanding that her soul would “take up permanent residence in the celestial regions” (R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 23:1, sefaria.org).

In this respect, Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah may be understood as an implicit message or remez (hint), concerning Sarah’s continued existence in Olam Haba. Thus the title of the parashas points to the promise of an Afterlife for the righteous in the World-to-Come. We see this promise reiterated, in regard to Abraham, towards the end of the parashas: “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8).  

This phrase, “gathered to his people” (vayei’asef el amaiv) is likened by Sforno to the bundle of life: “the bundle of souls who are part of the life after death, all of whom the righteous of the various generations who were like him in lifestyle” (Sforno, sefaria.org). Sforno continues, “there are all kinds of different spiritual levels among the righteous souls, not all attained the same level of righteousness while on earth although all of them share the experience of enjoying eternal life” (Sforno, commentary on Genesis 25:8, sefaria.org).

“Thy people shall all be righteous, they shall inherit the land forever.”

– Isaiah 60:21, JPS 1917 Tanach

Gateway to Gan Eden

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” – Genesis 23:1

Abraham purchases a burial plot for Sarah in the land of Canaan. This becomes the first piece of real estate that was purchased in the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants. “Sarah died in Kiriatharba — the same is Hebron — in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 23:2). This purchase established a “foot in the door” of eternal promise for the descendants of Abraham.

“I will give to you, and to your seed after you the land where you are an outsider – the whole land of Canaan – for an everlasting possession, and I will be their G-d.” – Genesis 17:8

There is a midrash that refers to the Cave of Machpelah where both Sarah and Abraham were buried, as the gateway to the Garden of Eden. For the purposes of this essay, what may be inferred, is that those who were buried there, attained entrance into the Garden of Eden. This can be supported in regard to both Sarah and Abraham.

For Sarah, there is clue given that her soul continued to live, and where else, except for Gan Eden, where the righteous bask in the kavod (glory) of the L’RD? This clue is found in the first phrase of the parahshas, vayihyu chayei sarah, and this was the life of Sarah. The verb, vayihyu is spelled in an irregular manner, implying something that has a sense of permanence. R. Bachya explains, that this is a reference to the soul of Sarah, continuing to live on in Shamayim (Heaven).

As for Abraham, consider the following: “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). This phrase, “gathered to his people” (vayei’asef el amayv) is likened by Sforno to the bundle of life. The “bundle of life,” that he refers to is found in reference to a prayer expressing the intent of Abigail, David’s future wife, for the eternal well-being of David: “yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the L’RD thy G’d” (1 Samuel 25:29).

In the Merit of

“The L-RD, the G-d of heaven, who took me from my father’s house, and from the land of my nativity, and who spoke unto me, and who swore unto me, saying: Unto thy seed will I give this land; He will send His angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife for my son from thence.” – Genesis 24:7, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Therefore, I know that He will send His angel to make Your way prosper, to fulfill His promise to me.” – Rashbam, sefaria.org

When the time arrived for Abraham to find a wife for his son, Isaac, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezar on the mission, back to the land where Abraham had lived. Abraham explained to Eliezer that H’Shem would “send his angel” before him on the journey. When Eliezer arrived, he prayed, “‘O L-RD, the G-d of my master Abraham, send me, I pray Thee, good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham” (Genesis 24:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). In this manner, he prayed in the merit of Abraham, as per the tradition even today, regarding the prayers of the chassidim, in the merit of their Rebbes.


What is fascinating to note, is that within this parashas, there is another mentioning of prayer in the merit of a righteous person. Preceding Eliezer’s return, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming” (Genesis 24:63, JPS 1917 Tanach). Tradition infers that the field where Isaac meditated, i.e., “prayed,” was the field of the cave of Machpelah, where Sarah was buried. Therefore, commentary speaks of him, praying in the merit of his mother (the matriarch of the Jewish people) for Eliezer’s mission to be successful.


“The angel of the L-RD encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.”

– Psalm 34:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

The Essence of a Test

“G-d did prove [test] Abraham, and said unto him: ‘Abraham’; and he said: ‘Here am I’ [Hineni]. And he said, ‘Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee [lech lecha] into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.’”

– Genesis 22:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

As for Abraham’s response, when he was called by H’Shem, “Hineni,” commentary reads, “Such is the answer of the pious: it is an expression of meekness and readiness (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22; sefaria.org). With one word, Abraham demonstrated his commitment to G-d as his servant; so, that in a state of preparedness to obey whatever commanded of him, when told to bring his son, Isaac up as an offering, he did not flinch.

The question may be asked, that if G-d is omniscient (all-knowing), why did he need to test Abraham’s faithfulness towards Him? Nachmanides’ comment, seems to answer this question, that Abraham showed he was willing to “bring forth the matter from the potential into actuality so that he may be rewarded for a good deed, not for a good thought alone” (Nachmanides on Genesis 22:1, sefaria.org).

This is the nature of our lives, that G-d would test the quality of our every breath, were it possible, to see if we are willing to serve Him with our all – that is every ounce and fiber of our being. Yet, the tests that are designed for us, the challenges that are tailor made for each individual, are done so in order to create an opportunity for our strengths to be expressed in actuality, thereby demonstrating the veracity of our positive character traits. Additionally, “G-d trieth the righteous” (Psalms 11:5), in order to increase a sense of righteousness within an individual, so that moral rectitude will permeate his being (Bereishis Rabbah 34).

Abraham, the Hebrew

motzei Shabbos: parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Abram the Hebrew – now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre.”

– Genesis 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

I would like to give a brief shpiel, in regard to the designation of Abraham as an Ivri. This word, denoting his ethnicity, as it were, is transliterated as “Hebrew.” And, in fact, if somebody speaks Ivrit, that means he speaks the Hebrew language. While for all intended purposes, on behalf of those who would like to instill a sense of continuity into Judaism, by claiming that Abraham was the first Jew, this is not actually the case, according to the most basic chronology in regard to the use of the word, Jew, as referring to a specific population or adherent of the religion referred to as Judaism. It would be more to say that Abraham was the first monotheist, as will be shown later in the discussion on the actual meaning of the word, Ivri.

The term Jew is derived from Judah, who was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Each of the twelve tribes of Jacob consisted of persons who were referred to as members of their particular tribes, such Benjamites, Ephraimites, and Danites. So, a Judahite would have specifically been a member of the tribe of Judah. Not until sometime after the destruction of the first temple, and the seventy year exile, did the term Judahite become a more general designation. Why? Because, primarily, only members of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin returned to Israel after the seventy year exile – the Judahites, being the more populous tribe.

So, what is the significance of pointing out the difference between the words, ivri and Jew, inclusive of their actual use in history, as opposed to placing meanings upon them, derived from a perspective that recasts, specifically, the word “Ivri” in a quasi-religious light? One benefit is clear, in regard to being able to draw out the actual implications of the word Ivri (Hebrew), that referred to Abraham, and his descendants, who also became known as Israelites. For example, the word Ivri is said to mean “the other side;” thus, Abraham was from the other side of the Euphrates River (Rashi; Genesis Rabbah 42:8). From a symbolic perspective, commentary notes that Abraham was on the other side, in regard to his newfound monotheistic faith, while the rest of the world was steeped in idolatry.

Another point of significance is to make clear that the word Jew, eventually designated the same people known as Hebrews and Israelites, only many generations later, while living in the land of Israel, during the second Temple period. Yet, even to think of Abraham’s descendants living in Israel at that time as Jews, in the same sense that we think of ourselves today, would not be exactly correct either. Namely, because there was no religion, per se, in and of itself, called Judaism at that time. What we think of as the Jewish religion today, was simply the national way of life at the time, mostly centered around Temple worship, as well as synagogues that had been established around the country. The Judaism that we practice today is the result and consequence of our expulsion from Israel after the second Temple was destroyed in 70  C.E. At that time, a center of learning was established in a city called Yavneh, where the sages learned, and from where the Mishnah was eventually codified. Centuries later, Judaism continued to flourish, because of the continuity provided for by way of the Talmud, the observance of the mitzvoth (commandments), and the traditions.

A Test of Integrity

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine and he was the kohein (priest) of El (G-d) the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18

“Five possessions did the Holy Blessed One, set aside as his own in this world, and these are they: The Torah, one possession; Heaven and earth, another possession; Abraham, another possession; Israel, another possession; The Temple, another possession.” – Avos 6:9, sefaria.org

“G-d acquired these five possessions to serve as the instruments by means of which He can bestow His kindness and generosity on man, to let him rise to the lofty position of comprehending His greatness.” – Akeidat Yitzchak, sefaria.org

A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.

While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; sefaria.org). That is to say, that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.

Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. The tests designed for Abraham, throughout the narrative of his life, as recorded in Torah, may also be understood this way.

“The L-RD trieth the righteous.” – Psalms 11:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Pivotal Points

parashas Lech Lecha 5782

“Ten generations from Noah to Abraham, in order to make known what long-suffering is His; for all those generations kept on provoking Him, until Abraham, came and received the reward of all of them.” – Pirkei Avos 5:2, sefaria.org

“Based upon the merit of Abraham, G-d did not destroy again the whole world. Abraham taught them that repentance was possible, and therefore G-d did not destroy the world.”

– English explanation of the Mishnah; sefaria.org

Inasmuch that Noah and his family was spared when “Noah found favor in the eyes of H’Shem,” so, too, according to the mishnah, the world was spared through the merit of Abraham. In light of this comparison, two points become evident. First, the necessity of G-d’s of Attribute of Mercy, as a means of relating to mankind, despite His strict attribute of justice. Second, that in each case, a righteous person was chosen to offer repentance to others, and ultimately to become the means through which a type of redemption would occur for all of mankind.

In the case of Noah, it is evident that G-d favored him for a specific reason. Immediately following “Noah found grace in the eyes of the L-RD,” the Torah  states that Noah was “a man righteous and wholehearted; Noah walked with G-d” (Genesis 6:8-9). As for Abraham, there is no such immediate recognition of his character, when he is called out from the land of Ur, to the land that he would be shown. He is told by H’Shem, that he would become a great nation, that his name would be great, and that the nations would be blessed through him. Before Abraham, Sarah, and his nephew Lot set out for Canaan, there were “persons that they had acquired in Haran.”

These souls are said to be converts to Abraham’s newfound monotheistic faith. It is this faith as demonstrated by his obedience to the L-RD’s calling, that Abraham is considered righteous: For, “he believed in the L-RD; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, JPS). “O ye seed of Abraham His servant, ye children of Jacob, His chosen ones. He is the L-RD our G-d; His judgments are in all the earth” (Psalm 105:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The Devotion of Abraham

L’Shannah Tovah

B”H

shiur for Rosh HaShannah 5781
Conviction: the Strength of Hineni
The Akeidah: Binding of Isaac

“And it came to pass after these things, that G-d tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, [Hineni] Behold, here I am.”

– Genesis 22:1, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Such is the answer of the pious: it is an expression of meekness and readiness.”

– Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22, sefaria.org

Abraham was called to bring his son Isaac as an offering to Mount Moriah – the future location of the Temple. He answered, initially, without having specifically been told yet what commandment he was to fulfill. He answered with one word, “hineni,” “an expression of meekness and piousness.” Meekness denotes humility, in the face of G-d’s greatness. Readiness to serve H’Shem connotes the ideal mindset of a righteous person. Abraham made a committment to carry out G-d’s will, inasmuch that his response was one of unequivocal piety, in regard to the will of H’Shem.

Therefore, it is an even greater accolade to his merit, that upon hearing that he was to bring up Isaac as an offering, he did so without wavering. Consider the ramifications: Sarah was barren for thirty nine years, before G-d fulfilled the promise of a child. Abraham was ninety nine when Sarah gave birth. Isaac was the sole heir to the legacy of Abraham and Sarah, the next in line to fulfill the mission, whereof Abraham was called out from his homeland, to a place that he would be shown. To bring up Isaac as an offering was tantamount to the end of all the hope and aspirations of over fifty decades of patient waiting.

Yet, both father and son, Abraham and Isaac went willingy up Mount Moriah. Isaac permitted himself to be bound to the mizbeach (altar). Yet, when Abraham reached out for the macholes (knife), an angel stayed his hand, saying, “‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou art a God-fearing man, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me’” (Genesis 22:12, JPS). Abraham was further blessed, “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gemesis 22:18, JPS). Perhaps, this may be seen as a segue to Rosh HaShannah, when the entire world is judged; and, H’Shem decides how many blessings we will receieve.

“L’Shannah Tovah Tikateivu”
May you have a good year, and be inscribed in the Book of Life.