Monday, November 28, 2016

More Than Meets the Eye

By HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed 

Dedicated to the memory of R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

1. Two Approaches
2. A Comparison
3. Self-Restraint
4. Tzaddik Talks, People Listen
5. The Birth of Ya'akov and Esav
6. Internal Struggle

Two distinctly different approaches can be taken to the events that unfold in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Toldot. At first glance, the story is filled with conflicts and other hardships; it opens with a report on Rivka’s barrenness, goes on to discuss the quarrels between the shepherds of Avimelech and those of Yitzchak, and concludes with Ya'akov's struggle to obtain the blessings designated for him. Ultimately, Ya'akov is compelled to flee from his brother Esav, who wishes to kill him over the blessings. The events have another, even deeper dimension as well. Yitzchak and Rivka quickly understand that their home will not be just any home. Far from it: from this abode, two distinct leadership approaches - as represented by Ya'akov and Esav - will be introduced to the world. In order to give birth to these unique children, much preparation, personal spiritual growth, and prayer is needed.

Yitzchak no longer limits his achievements to the spiritual realm. In fact, he becomes very wealthy despite the severe physical conditions in the Land of Israel at the time. At first, his successes arouse, in his neighbors, strong feelings of antagonism towards him. Paradoxically, as Yitzchak's strength increases, his neighbors come to appreciate its unique nature, and soon agree to strike a covenant with him. "We have seen that God is with you," they declare.

The blessing of the first-born, set aside for Ya’akov, hits a snag, with Yitzchak apparently interested in awarding it to Esav; the confusion and delay surrounding this issue are designed to reveal to Yitzchak, Ya'akov, and in fact, the entire world - the Divine, irrefutable nature of the match between Ya’akov and the blessings in question.

Just as in this week's Torah portion, everyone’s private life can also be viewed from two perspectives. The world can certainly be understood as a trouble-filled place, where innocent people often suffer great misfortune. And yet, it is also possible to see the world as a place replete with challenges, a forum in which each person is pushed to exhaust his individual potential, to give full expression to each one of his talents. Successfully confronting these challenges benefit not just the person immediately involved, but the world as a whole.

One cannot help but notice the sharp contrasts between the personalities and lives of Yitzchak Avinu and his father, Avraham. The latter is an activist determined to disseminate the fundamental belief in the world's one God; his outreach is evident in the assertion of our sages that Avraham converted men, while his wife Sarah converted women. Avraham's activism had tremendous impact on both his immediate environs and distant locations. His idealism comes to the fore early on, when, the midrash tells us, Avraham - the world’s first monotheist - miraculously survives Nimrod's fiery furnace.

At other end of the spectrum is Yitzchak, who is of an unquestionably passive character. In the course of his life, he doesn't seem to truly struggle or confront his surroundings. Even the basic task of finding a proper wife is "arranged" for him by his father's servant, Eliezer. On the surface of things, this would seem to be a flaw in Yitzchak's personality; one may have perhaps thought that a mature young man would be more active, take greater control of his own destiny.

A deeper look at Yitzchak’s personality and his role in the world, however, indicates that it is precisely because of his lofty nature and the sublime quality of his mission - that Yitzchak was relieved of dealing with "this-worldly" concerns.

Our rabbis explain that Yitzchak personifies "Midat HaDin" - literally, the attribute of Strict Justice. What does this quality mean, and how does it apply to a person? According to our tradition, "Din" relates to the extent to which a person has succeeded in completely attaining control over himself, and in Yitzchak's case, submitting himself to the will of God. In Yitzchak's life, this quality finds its most profound expression during the "Akeida," - when he showed that he was willing to sacrifice his very life in response to a Divine command. When Yitzchak is relieved of material concerns, he is freed up to sanctify and elevate himself to the status of what our sages call "Olah Temimah" - or "Pure Burnt Offering." This dedication does not simply contribute to Yitzchak's own personal path towards perfection; it also bestows blessing - in the form of both spiritual and physical bounty - on the entire world.

After our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook of blessed memory, passed away, the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren was asked to deliver a eulogy in his honor. In the course of his talk, Rabbi Goren repeatedly said that Rav Tzvi Yehuda instilled a fear in people, an emotion that discouraged anyone he encountered from disobeying him or strongly disagreeing with him. Rav Goren explained that the sages referred to this phenomenon in the Tractate of Berachot with the following words: "Any one who fears Heaven - his words are accepted by others." When a person truly fears Heaven, when he submits himself to God's will, those around him experience first hand this person's strong attribute of self-discipline; it radiates outwards and prompts others to follow his directive...

This dynamic was certainly an essential element of the personality of Yitzchak Avinu. He submits himself to the Divine will, cultivates his own personal attribute of fear of Heaven, and from this internal greatness, he elevates daily life - as he grows in both importance and wealth. This upward spiral continues until all associated with him recognize his greatness. Even Avimelech chooses to strike a covenant with Yitzchak.

Yitzchak Avinu's role in reference to mankind is comparable to the role of the Sabbath in relationship to time. On Shabbat, we refrain from performing acts of creative labor; in fact, we completely detach ourselves from daily routine. All this with an eye towards our own spiritual improvement. A Sabbath observer is also able to subsequently inject blessing into the other six days of the week. So, too, Yitzchak's elevated status served as the source of blessing for the entire world. It took form on a personal level by miraculously bringing him great wealth. "That year, Yitzchak reaped one hundred times the regular crop..."(Bereishit 26:12) "And the man became greater and greater..." (26:13)

After Yitzchak managed to withstand the trial of the Akeida, and after Avraham found just the right match for his son, we would have expected Yitzchak to continue unfettered on the path towards consolidating his home. But this is not what happened at all. At first, he could not father children, given the fact that Rivka was barren. Our sages teach us that Rivka suffered from a serious physical deficiency - she had no womb - and she therefore had no hope of giving birth to a baby. Despite the couple's predicament, Yitzchak and Rivka entreated God to heal her, to transform her body into one that could produce children. It worked.

In reference to Yitzchak's prayer, the Torah says, "Vay'etar Yitzchak." The plain meaning of this phrase is, "Yitzchak entreated." Through the midrash, we are offered two other explanations: According to Rabbi Yochanan, Yitzchak poured out his heart to God generously (literally, "in a wealthy fashion.") R. Yochanan bases his explanation on the fact that the root of the word "Vay’etar" - "Atar" - means "wealth." Reish Lakish, however, says that the term means that Yitzchak "overturned the decree" of barrenness on his wife, Rivka. Reish Lakish derives his explanation from the Hebrew word for a pitchfork, a farm implement used for "turning over" hay...

Rabbi Yochanan was known as a complete Tzaddik, a fully righteous person. He lived in Eretz Yisrael his entire life; he lived to a ripe old age; he lead a steady, consistent life and did not experience any major upheavals. It may be for this reason that he understands Yitzchak as having prayed "generously" - in terms of both the quality and quantity of our forefather's supplications.

Reish Lakish, on the other hand, was a Ba'al Teshuva - a penitent - and was thus on a higher level, in a certain sense, than his colleague. (The sages teach that a Ba'al Teshuva is greater in that he has had to overcome his evil inclination more than a complete Tzaddik, who has not had to face such challenges.) Reish Lakish gave "more of himself" to God. He was a sage whose life knew many ups and downs, numerous upheavals and revolutions. In fact, Reish Lakish was originally a robber, and "worked on himself" to such an extent that he was able to eventually become one of the prime scholars of the Talmudic era. Thus, Reish Lakish understood Yitzchak's fervent prayer - comparable to a pitchfork that picks up and tosses hay in a haystack - as having effected a major upheaval, even revolution - in his wife Rivka's physical health.

Our teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook of blessed memory, used to say that the unique quality of the Land of Israel is that it has the power to transform reality, turn bad to good, impure to pure, forbidden to permissible. The Torah describes our land as a "Land Flowing with Milk and Honey." Milk, note the sages, should have been forbidden by the Torah, given the fact that it is extracted from a creature - a cow - while the animal is still alive. Nevertheless, the matter was discussed in Tractate Bechorot, and the sages eventually permitted the drinking of milk based on the verse that states that the Land of Israel "flows with milk and honey." If the Torah praised the Land as being a place flowing with milk and honey, they reasoned, it is hard to imagine that these very products would be forbidden to consume!

Although the honey cited by the Torah is a specific reference to date honey, it certainly also refers to honey produced by bees. At first blush, bee honey, too, should have been forbidden by the Torah - since it originates in the body of a live insect. Here, too, the sages conclude, however, that the special verse sanctions the consumption of this product. Milk and honey, two products that Eretz Yisrael is famous for- are symbolic, then, of the unique power of our land to sometimes overturn or transform previously-existing realities.

Yitzchak Avinu's self-discipline and mastery over himself, combined with the unique qualities of Eretz Yisrael, a land he cleaved to and never left - facilitated a miracle, by transforming the barren Rivka into an expectant mother.

Rivka's pregnancy did not mark the end of her suffering, though. The pregnancy itself became very complicated and rather painful - "The two boys ran about within her," says the Torah. Our sages explained this "running" in the following manner: When Rivka would pass by a synagogue, Ya'akov would kick, in an effort to get out (to worship in the Synagogue) Similarly, when she would pass by an idolatrous temple, Esav would press to leave (to worship there).

The ability to distinguish between good and evil develops within a person only as he matures; it is therefore very difficult to accept the sages' description of the pregnancy literally - as if Esav had already chosen idolatry as a way of life, while Ya'akov chose Torah! Esav was obviously not consciously aware that his mother was passing by an idolatrous temple - and Ya'akov didn’t consciously understand that his mother was passing by a synagogue.

If so, what is the meaning of the midrash?

The differences between Ya'akov and Esav don't derive from two variant worldviews; their differences are intrinsic. Ya'akov and Esav, so to speak, may even be said to be two different types of creations. Ya'akov, by his nature, is drawn to the world of spirit. Material reality, for him, is just a means by which he develops his spiritual potential. Esav, however, is drawn by his nature to the material, to the physical. Since the distinction between Esav and Ya'akov is natural and intrinsic, even before they were born, we read of them being drawn to the house of idolatry and synagogue, respectively.

The birth of Ya'akov and Esav was unlike any other. Two diametrically opposed paths were born, two clashing perspectives, each of which was to govern the world in his own special way.

There is no doubt that Ya'akov Avinu represents the natural and true heir to the legacy of Yitzchak and Avraham. It therefore follows that the blessing, which symbolizes the path of Avraham, should be awarded to Ya'akov. Here, too, though, the most natural and most correct situation did not come easy. Here, too, we encounter complications, and Ya'akov is forced to obtain the blessing of the birthright in a rather deceptive fashion. Why? Why was Yitzchak Avinu willing to choose Esav over Ya'akov?

Numerous commentators have attempted to explain Yitzchak's behavior, but it seems to me, that perhaps the greatest lesson can be learned if we are to leave this question unanswered. Suffice to say that the blessings bestowed by Yitzchak upon Ya'akov are not the "property" of Yitzchak; they are Divine blessings designated specially for Ya’akov and his heirs by God. Yitzchak is simply a messenger.

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