Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Parshat Vayera (The Path of Avraham Avinu)

By Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Seeking the Good
2. Confronting Challenges
3. Some Family History
4. "Igniting" Others
5. A Modern Application

Our forefather Abraham was a truly kind man. In this week's Torah portion, we get a glimpse of both his hospitality and his desire to judge even the wicked people of Sodom favorably - by giving them "the benefit of the doubt." In reference to the verse, "You loved righteousness and hated evil," (Tehilim 45:8) our sages explain: "You love to discover your children's positive qualities, and you hate to find them guilty."

Perhaps the plain meaning of this verse is that God desires righteous behavior and despises evil - and therefore comes down hard on evildoers. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud chosen to explain it otherwise: "You love to find the positive qualities of your children - to give the people of Sodom the benefit of the doubt - and hate to find them  guilty." Why? Because they are your children, the children of the Creator of the World. In his classic work, the "Path of the Just," Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto says that the quality of "Chassidut," entails judging the Jewish people favorably. The Children of Israel are God's children, and nobody - including Hashem - wishes to hear criticism of His child.

Although our father Avraham wished to give the people of Sodom the benefit of the doubt, the moral situation in Sodom had so deteriorated that God could simply not comply by sparing the town - and so Sodom was ultimately destroyed. Soon after the destruction of the city, our sages tell us, Avraham noticed that the region was empty, that there were virtually no passersby. Avraham knew that his function in the world was to reach out to people and draw them closer to their God. For this reason, he travels to Avimelech, to Grar, to a town whose inhabitants were not exactly known for their moral genius. Far from being discouraged by the situation there, Avraham viewed it as a challenge.

Avraham's behavior teaches us us that we need not fear going even to undesirable places, where the spiritual situation is not ideal - as long as we have the goal of rectifying that which needs to be fixed. There is no need to be fussy, to insist on living only in a very religious, warm neighborhood. In fact, our sages advise us to contemplate whether our deeds "reach the level of our forefathers' deeds." In practical terms, this means that one must be ready to go on educational missions to even out-of-the-way places. One whose actions are idealistically and purely motivated, need not fear the impact of a negative environment on himself or his family.

My mother, may she rest in peace, and her sister, grew up in Balforia, a secular town. My late grandfather moved there to take on a position as a Rabbi and shochet (ritual slaughterer). There wasn't a tremendous demand there for a rabbi or a shochet, and previously, the residents had gotten along fairly well without either. Even after my grandfather arrived, locals told him that they didn't need a shochet, and that it was certainly possible to survive without one. Soon after his family settled in, though, local residents stopped eating unkosher food, and began instead placing orders for kosher meat. The reason: my grandfather was an impressive person whose dedication and sincerity commanded respect.

And what of his young children, my mother and aunt? They grew up there along with the secular youth. A veteran resident here in Beit El, Yeshai Michael, recounts what it was like. He tells of how, on Shabbat, a group of teenagers used to travel in a wagon, while the two young girls would walk alongside them in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath. In one sense, the girls were of the same social group, because there was really no other choice; from another perspective, they were, unlike their friends, observant of Torah and mitzvot. My grandfather was unafraid! Why should he have been?

Over time, he was able to raise his daughters there past their teenage years - and, in fact, until they each got married. Thank God, the sisters built homes completely dedicated to Torah and mitzvot. My aunt married a renowned Torah scholar, who served as the Rabbi of the city of Netanya until his death. My mother too, married a young man from out of town - and together, they built a strong Jewish home.

We need not live in a sheltered, protected reality; it is possible to face the challenges posed by modern society. We have to be courageous and strong; we need not hesitate to swim against the tide. Avraham our forefather, did just that. Obviously, one should not take on such a mission before one is ready. It takes time to build yourself up, to become established, with the goal of eventually having a positive influence on others.

Some of our students sign up for military service after their fourth year in yeshiva, and I am not always so pleased with the results. I expect that they would eventually return to the yeshiva with some young men from the army. The Chassidim are famous for saying that someone who has not successfully transformed two "Mitnagdim" (religious Jews opposed to the perspective of Chassidut) to "Chassidim," is not a true Chassid! A Chassid must be "on fire" to such an extent that he literally "ignites" everyone around him! His not doing so indicates that he lacks something.

This active approach was typical of Avraham Avinu, who, his entire life, was able to increasingly influence those around him; he was a master at encouraging people to recognize the Creator of the Universe. Avraham, for instance, became famous for encouraging his dinner guests to say Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals); Avraham loved people and thus brought them closer to Torah. When he saw that his town was almost desolate, he went to the corrupt city of Grar, in order to influence its inhabitants. Avimelech was so impressed by Avraham's character, that he sought to strike a convenant with him. Perhaps Avimelech did not accept everything Avraham had to offer, but Avimelech no doubt sensed that his counterpart was dedicated to a belief system and way of life that proved itself as being both moral and productive.

The culmination of this week's Torah portion is the Binding of Yitzchak. Avraham reaches even greater heights with his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son. Thus, just when Avraham seems to have reached a new pinnacle, he takes yet another step up, simultaneously elevating the entire world to a new spiritual height. Avraham also elevated the Jewish people throughout the generations, drawing them closer to God; Avraham also laid the groundwork for the ideal of self-sacrifice that has characterized our people over the generations.

Last fall, I participated in a gathering of the Pikuach Nefesh organization; the group met in Tel Aviv to discuss the need to maintain the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel, and to publicly oppose territorial concessions to the Arabs. Organizing the event were members of Chabad; the late Lubavitcher Rebbe stressed that any territorial concession in Eretz Yisrael is an invitation to danger, and poses a real threat to life. Pikuach Nefesh founders base themselves on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch's laws of Sabbath; there, the halachah states that the Sabbath can be desecrated in order to help residents of a border town attacked by non-Jews, even when these invaders officially only wish to engage in minor theft. The Sabbath leniency is based on the danger to life that would arise should local residents choose to stand up to the invaders. When the organizers asked me to speak, I noted that it is also forbidden to cede land based on the verse in Devarim (7:2). There, the Torah states that we are forbidden from permanently allowing non-Jews to settle in the land.

Many rabbis have written on the prohibition of selling - during the Shmitta year - lands of Eretz Yisrael, even temporarily, to non-Jews - and even the two top meters of earth. Their reason: It is forbidden to give non-Jews a foothold in the Land of Israel. Opposition to what has become known as the "Heter Mechira" is quite strong in some circles, despite the fact that the sale only involves a layer of the land, and is only temporary in nature. If so, the government's plan to give away entire regions of the Land to the Arabs in a permanent arrangement, is an even greater violation of the Torah! I noted that danger to life was indeed another reason to oppose territorial concessions, but that since many have spoken on that issue, I need not elaborate...

The positions of the religious Zionist public are not always completely grasped in religious circles, and are even more misunderstood in secular circles - especially by the Israeli political left. Nevertheless, we must continue to speak and act in accordance with our beliefs. This is not only our right, but our obligation!

The path we have chosen is that of Avraham Avinu. He was an individual who "swam against the tide"; he was a man, who, in the course of time, was able to attract a following...He and Sarah persevered on a path that resisted popular trends, with an eye to positively influencing others.

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