Archive for the 'Sefer Bereishit' Category

Life & Death

November 18th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

ועתה, השב אשת האיש כי נביא הוא, ויתפלל בעדך וחיה; ואם אינך משיב, דע כי מות תמות, אתה וכל אשר לך
And now, return the man’s wife for he is a prophet and he will pray for you and you will live; and if you do not return (he), know that you will surely die, you and all that is yours

Bereishit 20:7

Here God tells Avimelech two things:

  1. If you do not return Sarah to Avraham, you and all that is yours will surely die
  2. If Avraham prays for you, you will live

Logically then, if Avimelech returns Sarah to Avraham but Avraham does not pray for Avimelech, then Avimelech will not die (because he returned Sarah) and also will not live (because Avraham did not pray for him). Kind of paradoxical, isn’t it?

I think that the answer to this at the end of the incident with Avimelech. (This is my own interpretation. If anyone has seen this or a different explanation please share…):

ויתפלל אברהם אל האלהים, וירפא אלהים את אבימלך ואת אשתו ואמהתיו וילדו. כי עצר עצר יהוה בעד כלרחם לבית אבימלך, על דבר שרה אשת אברהם
And Avraham prayed to the Lord and the Lord healed Avimelech and his wife and his slave girls, and they had children. For God had sealed up every womb in the house of Avimelech, because of Avraham’s wife, Sarah

Bereishit 20:18

Before Avraham prayed for Avimelech, the entire royal household had become sterile. No one could have children. As a result of Avraham’s prayers they were all healed and were once again able to have children (and did). Without Avraham’s prayers, they would not have died; They would have remained alive, and childless. Or to put it another way, they would not have really been able to live. The Torah here is making a value judgement on having children – if one has children, it is as if he is alive. If one does not have children, one may be breathing, but one is not truly living (or is even thought of as being dead – see Nedarim 64b)

The Sin of Sodom

November 18th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

ADDeRabbi posts about the real sin of the city of Sodom. He writes that the sin was primarily the motivations, rather than the actions, of the citizens of Sodom.

(However, most of the commentaries on the passuk do not go this far, but rather define the primary sins of Sodom as inappropriate sexual behavior and love of theft/robbery)

Rushing to Perform a Mitzva

November 17th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

ותשקין את אביהן יין בלילה הוא; ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את אביה, ולא ידע בשכבה ובקומה
And on that night they gave their father wine to drink; and the first born (daughter) came and slept with her father, and he was not aware of her lying down nor of her getting up

Bereishit 19:33

When first addressing the actions of Lot’s daughters, it is hard to view them as anything other than depraved acts. They got their father drunk in order that each would be able to sleep with him and have a child through him. However, when taking their motives into account, Chazal view their actions in a different light. The daughters of Lot should not be viewed as sinners. Instead, their actions should be viewed as positive deeds.

א”ר חייא בר אבין א”ר יהושע בן קרחא: לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה שבשביל לילה אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה זכתה וקדמתה ארבע דורות בישראל למלכות
Rav Chiya bar Avin said in the name of Rav Yehoshua ben Karcha: a person should always strive to perform a mitzva first, for because of the one night that the older daughter preceeded the younger daughter, she merited to have her line join the progeny of the Jewish kings by four generations

Talmud Bavli Nazir 23b

Rav Baruch haLevi Epstein in his commentary Torah Temima, on this passuk, footnote 21 explains that Lot’s daughters had good intentions in what they were doing. To them, the entire world had been destroyed. They did not know if there were any other people left in the world – if there were none, then it was up to them to ensure that man would continue. So they each slept with their father in order to keep the world going. This act, which under any other circumstance would be a grave sin, is deemed to be a positive act on their part (called a dvar mitzva by the Gemara above).

And as their actions were positive ones, we have what to learn from their zeal in performing this mitzva. The older daughter was the more zealous of the two. She made sure that she was the first one to perform this mitzva (and as the Gemara states, merited that her descendents joined the Davidic line four generations earlier than the descendents of her younger sister: Oved – son of Ruth the Moabite, descendent of Lot’s older daughter – Yishai, David, Shlomo, Rechav’am – son of Na’ama the Amonite, descendent of the younger daughter of Lot.

A sinful act worthy of distain has transformed into a prime example of זריזים מקדימים למצוות – the zealous strive to perform mitzvot as soon as they can – and of the rewards granted for such zealousness.

Rivka’s Age II

November 15th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

parshablog responds to DovBear’s post about Rivka’s age with different insights to the midrashim at the root of the issue, as well as a comment on midrashim in general.

A choice quote:

One thing I have seen is that people in general have an unsophisticated view of midrash. Midrash is a close reading of text, which picks up on fine points, details and nuances. It often serves a homiletic purpose, or emphasises/exaggerates features that are in the literal story itself. It is also an art form.

Those who take every midrash absolutely literally are missing the point. Those who try to harmonize competing midrashim are missing the point. Those who are upset at the midrash and rail against it because they think it improbable or against a literal reading are also missing the point.

Well put. Midrashim are not there to be quoted willy-nilly to make whatever proof the reader wants to make. Each midrash is coming to address one specific aspect of a character, story, theme, etc. Most are not meant to be taken literally. And all must be viewed and studied in context in order to make sense.

How Old was Rivka when she Married Yitzchak?

November 14th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

DovBear discusses how old Rivka really was when she married Yitzchak.

Hint: there are some opinions out there that say that Rivka was older than three years old. (Don’t forget the comments)

How to Stand Like a Mensch

November 14th, 2005 by Adina

ויקח חמאה וחלב, ובן-הבקר אשר עשה, ויתן, לפניהם; והוא-עמד עליהם תחת העץ, ויאכלו
And he (Avraham) took butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared and placed it before them (the angels), and he stoof before them (lit. “over them”) under the tree, and they ate

Bereishit 18:8

In the verse cited above, what does the word עליהם – over them, imply? Why is Avraham standing over the angels?

The Kedushat Levi explains why Avraham is standing, “omed” in a beautiful way. He explains that it is part of hosting guests and performing the mitzva of hachnassat orchim, not to have airs, nor to put onself at a higher stature than one’s guest, so that the guests feel comfortable and welcome.

The Kedushat Levi goes on to explain that it is well known that a tzaddik (“righteous person”) is referred to as a “holech”, someone who walks, since he is continually moving, growing and raising himself up to higher levels from time to time. In contrast to this, a malach , or angel, is called an “omed,” one who stands, since the angel remains all the time at a fixed place of holiness. (In Kedusha of the repetition of the Amidah prayer, we try to emulate angels by keeping our feet together, maintaining a high level of holiness, but literally incapable of walking with a symbolic “regel achat,” one leg). This concept of walking versus standing can be seen in a passuk in Zechariah 3:7 – “And I have given you walkers among these who are standing (referring to the angels)”. Therefore, when the three angels came to Avraham he did not want to appear on a higher plane than them, so he acted as if on their level (the level of an angel), as an “omed”, one who stands. Avraham changed to become an “omed aleihem”, as the Kedushat Levi understands this phrase to mean that Avraham acted on their madregah, “bishvilam” – for them, for their comfort.

Another question for anyone brave enough to comment: Why are the angels under a tree? And not just any tree, but the tree…

She’s my Sister – Again!

November 14th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

Moshe shares some insights into Avraham’s strategy for protecting his wife, by twice (once Egypt, once by the Pelishtim) calling her his sister.

Double Vision

November 13th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

וישא עיניו וירא, והנה שלשה אנשים נצבים עליו; וירא וירץ לקראתם מפתח האהל, וישתחו ארצה
And he (Avraham) raised his eyes and saw, and behold there were three men standing by him, and he saw and ran to the door of the tent to greet them, bowing down to the ground

Bereishit 18:2

וירא בשכינה, וירא במלאכים…אמר אם רואה אני ששכינה ממתנת עליהם אני יודע שהם בני אדם גדולים.
And he saw – the Divine presence; And he saw – the angels…(Avraham) said: if I see that the Divine presence waits for them, I know that they are men of importance.

Midrash Bereishit Rabba 48:9

We read twice in the same verse that Avraham “saw”. Why is this verb repeated? According to Midrash Rabba (see above), the first time Avraham “saw”, he saw the Divine presence. The second time he “saw”, he saw the angels who were standing in front of him. Why is Avraham’s attention divided in this way?

(More on that very soon). The Midrash goes on after this to say that when Avraham was looking at the angels, he was examining them to see if they were really important men. Some of the commentaries on this passuk make point out that when Avraham went to take care of the angels (who appeared to him as three men) he was forgoing the Divine presence (the shechina for the sake of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim – welcoming of guests. If this mitzvah was so important as to take precedence over the shechina, why would it matter whether the guests were men of importance or not? Whether or not the guests are men of importance, they are still nothing when compared to the shechina. Therefore, the fact that this mitzvah took precedence over the shechina should have been independent of who the guests were. So what was Avraham looking for?

The Netziv (Rav Nafatali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) addresses these questions in his commentary HaEmek Davar. At first, Avraham was busy with welcoming the Divine presence. In addition to this giving Avraham great enjoyment (at least on the spiritual level), Avraham was also fulfilling the positive commandment of Loving God. This is a commandment that applies to all people at all times. However, if in the middle of fulfilling this mitzvah (or any other positive, non-timebound mitzvah) one is called to perform another mitzvah which must be performed at that time, the second mitzvah takes precedence. Thus, Avraham was obligated to stop performing the first mitzvah (Loving God) in favor of the second mitzvah (welcoming guests).

However, the halacha to stop performing one mitzvah for the sake of a second mitzvah only applies for a person when He is the very person who Must perform the second mitzvah. If the second mitzvah can be performed through an intermediary party, then one can continue to fulfill the first mitzvah, while sending off one’s messenger to fulfill the second.

Thus it was with Avraham. When the three men came along, he looked them over, examined them to see if they were important people. This was not to see whether or not they were worthy of being welcomed – the mitzvah of welcoming guests applies to every guest. Rather, it was to see whether they were so important that it would be insulting to them if anyone other than the host himself (Avraham) was the one greeting and serving them. Once he observed that the Divine presence would wait on their behalf, and observed the way that they treated one another, he saw that they were truly important people. For important people like that, it would not suffice to send a servant to welcome them. For guests like these, Avraham had to do the welcoming. And for this, the Shechina could (and did) wait.

Choose Your Neighbors Wisely

November 11th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

When Avram asked Lot where he wanted to live, Lot chose to live in Sodom, a place full of wicked people who were rebellious to God. Lot may have had good intentions in choosing to live in Sodom. He may have thought that he could do kiruv. He may have thought that he would not be affected by the environment in which he lived.

ויקחו את לוט ואת רכשו בן אחי אברם וילכו, והוא ישב בסדם
And they took Lot, the nephew of Avram, and his posessions and went, and he (Lot) was settled in Sodom

Bereishit 14:12

When the four kings kidnapped Lot and family and took his posessions, it was not despite the fact he lived in Sodom. Rather, Lot’s decision to live in Sodom was the very cause of his kidnapping (Rashi on 14:12). Lot decision to live in a wicked city had a direct affect on the the wellbeing of himself and of his family.

On the other hand, Avram chose to surround himself with those whom he could trust, his ba’alei brit.

ויבא הפליט ויגד לאברם העברי; והוא שכן באלני ממרא האמרי, אחי אשכל ואחי ענר, והם בעלי ברית-אברם
And the Palit came and told to Avram the Ivri (what had befallen Lot), and (Avram) was dwelling in Elonei Mamre the Emorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Ever; and they were Avram’s allies/kinsmen

Bereishit 14:13

Although Avram’s decision to surround himself with friends (who according to some commentators are called the ba’alei brit because they are the ones who gave him suggestions on how best to fulfill God’s commandment of brit milah in the coming parasha) may not have been the cause of Avram’s righteousness – however it is certainly an indicator of Avram’s spiritual level. It shows that even someone on Avram’s level can benefit from living among kind, just people. It is as well a lesson for us, the descendents of Avram.

This has been codified into halacha by the Rambam:

דרך ברייתו של אדם להיות נמשך בדעותיו ובמעשיו אחר ריעיו וחבריו, ונוהג במנהג אנשי מדינתו. לפיכך צריך אדם להתחבר לצדיקים ולישב אצל החכמים תמיד, כדי שילמוד ממעשיהם; ויתרחק מן הרשעים ההולכים בחושך, כדי שלא ילמוד ממעשיהם
Man’s nature is to follow after the thoughts and actions of his neighbors and friends, and act in the way of his countrymen. Therefore one must attach himself to the righteous and constantly sit by the wise, in order to learn from their actions; And (one should) distance oneself from the wicked who walk in darkness, in order not to learn from their actions.

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dei’ot, 6:1

May we all merit to learn from both Avraham Avinu and Lot the way in which we should and should not act.

Going Over the Line

November 8th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

ולא נשא אתם הארץ לשבת יחדו כי היה רכושם רב ולא יכלו לשבת יחדו. ויהי ריב בין רעי מקנה אברם ובין רעי מקנה לוט והכנעני והפרזי אז ישב בארץ
The land could not support them living together; their wealth was so great that they could not stay together. Friction developed between the herdsmen of Abram’s flocks and those of Lot. The Canaanites and Perizites were then living in the land.

Bereishit 13:6-7

Why does the Torah mention two times that Avram and Lot could not dwell together? According to the Netziv, it is to emphasize that their inability to be in the same place was not because there was not enough arable land for the two of them. Rather, it was because their was a clash between their temperments and their spiritual levels.

Yet despite this, Avram did not make any proactive steps to separate himself from Lot until friction developed between their respective sheperds. Why did he wait so long?

The Netziv explains this in verse 7. Avram could have gone on for quite some time, maintaining his relationship with Lot to the point where they would not have to separate outright. However, he was prompted to take action by the Chillul Hashem that was going on. Avram was known far and wide for his righteousness and closeness to God. So what impression does it make on everyone around when Avram’s sheperds are getting into fights (even if they didn’t start it)? Especially when all of the neighbors, the Canaanites and Perizites were capable living together without getting into fights? It was to prevent this desceration of God’s name that Avram made sure that he no longer had anything to do with Lot.

(The implications of this for the meaning of Yishuv haAretz are important – perhaps we can say that one cannot fulfill this mitzva if he can’t get along with his fellow Jew. Additionally, it is evident from here that Chillul Hashem may be most accurately measured in how your non-Jewish neighbors view you. Things to think about…)