Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Vayishlach - The Task of the Yetzer Hara

In Parshas Vayishlach we read of Jacob's nighttime struggle with a mysterious antagonist who attacked him and struggled with him until just before daybreak. When the "man" saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he dislocated Jacob’s hip joint. He then said to Jacob (Genesis 32:27), “Let me go for the dawn is rising.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man then told him that he would no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for he had become great before God and man. Jacob then asked for the man’s name but he refused to reveal it.

The Sages tell us that the mysterious antagonist was an angel, specifically שרו של עשו – the ministering angel of Eisav - who is also identified as the שטן (Satan) and the יצר הרע (yetzer hara - "evil inclination"). This struggle therefore symbolized the basic struggle between good and evil that takes place on many different levels.

Rashi (R' Shlomo Yitzchaki d.1105) explains that when the “man” asked Jacob to release him "for the dawn is risen," his intent was that he had to go at dawn to sing before God, "צריך אני לומר שירה ביום" – "I must recite song by day." The Talmud (:חולין צא) explains:
אמר לו: מלאך אני, ומיום שנבראתי לא הגיע זמני לומר שירה עד עכשיו
[The angel] said to him, “I am an angel, and from the day that I was created, my time has not come to recite song until now.”
This raises the obvious question as to why it happened that the very same day that the angel struggled with Jacob was also the very first time that the angel ever sang before God?

The Koznitzer Maggid (R' Yisrael of Koznitz, d.1814) explains (בשם חכם אחד), that an angel only gets to sing before God when it has fulfilled its purpose of existence. As we mentioned above, the angel that fought with Jacob was the yetzer hara - the so-called "evil inclination" - that tempts man to sin. The struggle between Jacob and the angel was therefore not a simple, physical wrestling match, but an attempt of the yetzer hara to seduce Jacob to sin in some manner. However, the ultimate purpose of the yetzer hara is not actually to cause us to sin, but to tempt us to sin and be defeated! Thus, when Jacob succeeded in completely defeating the yetzer hara  he enabled it to finally fulfill its true purpose, and the angel got to sing before God for the very first time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Vayeitzei - The Proper Attitude Towards Mitzvos

Towards the end of Parshas Vayeitzei, we are told that Jacob noticed that his father-in-law Laban had developed a negative attitude towards him and that there was resentment towards him among Laban's family. God then told Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. Jacob then informed Rachel and Leah of the situation and of God's command. Rachel and Leah responded (Genesis 31:14-16):
And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Do we still have a share and an inheritance in the house of our father? Does he not consider us strangers? For he has sold us and even consumed our money! For only that wealth that God has rescued from our father is ours and our children's. And now, whatever God said to you, do!"
This dialogue is very strange. Jacob told his wives that God had instructed him to leave Laban’s land and return home. They responded first by saying that Laban was unkind to them, and then that Jacob should do whatever God had instructed him to do. Why did Rachel and Leah respond in this way? Once they knew that God had instructed Jacob to leave, what difference did it make if Laban was good to them or not? Either way, they still had to listen to the commandment of God! Once God told them to leave, their personal problems with Laban shouldn't matter anymore.

R' Moshe Feinstein
Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986), in his Sefer Derash Moshe, answers that we learn from here that we should never feel that doing a mitzvah is difficult, even when we are going to do it anyways! Rather, we should always find ways to explain to ourselves that it’s easy to do the mitzvah. This is why Rachel and Leah first said that Laban was unkind to them. By saying this, they made it easier for them to follow God's command.

It is not proper for a Jew to feel that obeying the commandments is a great sacrifice, even if he is ready and willing to make that sacrifice! On the contrary, we have to recognize that there is no real benefit from disobeying God's commandments and there is no loss from obeying them. For example, if one does not work on the Sabbath, this does not mean he will earn less money, for God controls how much money we will earn anyways.

Every mitzvah is a pure benefit and blessing, with no loss at all. Not only is this true, but, Rav Moshe says, having a positive attitude about the mitzvos makes it easier to continue doing mitzvos both for yourself and for your children.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Toldos - The Voice of Jacob and the Hands of Esau

In Parshas Toldos we read of the incident when Jacob, in obedience to the prophetic directive of his mother, was required to approach his blind father disguised as Esau, his brother, in order to receive his blessing. Jacob raised the concern that Isaac would know he was not Esau by feeling him, so Rebecca clothed him in Esau's clothing and covered his arms and neck with kid skin (to make him feel hairy like Esau). Thus, when Jacob approached his father, Isaac heard his voice and felt his hands, and remarked (Genesis 27:22):
הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו
“The voice is the voice of Yakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.”

The Midrash Raba (65:20) writes on this verse:
אין יעקב שולט אלא בקולו – הקול קול יעקב, והידים ידי עשו – אין עשו שולט אלא בידים... בשעה שיעקב מרכין בקולו ידי עשו שולטות... ובשעה שהוא מצפצף בקולו... אין ידי עשו שולטות... בזמן שקולו של יעקב מצוי בבתי כנסיות אין הידים ידי עשו, ואם לאו הידים ידי עשו
Jacob dominates only through his voice (i.e. Torah and prayer) – “The voice is the voice of Jacob, and the hands are the hands of Esau” – Esau dominates only through the hands (physical force).... When Jacob lowers his voice, the hands of Esau dominate... and when he calls out with his voice... the hands of Esau do not dominate. ... When the voice of Jacob is found in the synagogues, the hands are not the hands of Esau, and if not, then the hands are the hands of Esau .”
This medrash teaches us that with our voices – in Torah study and prayer – the Jewish people determine whether violence will be the dominant force in the world. The commentaries add that when the Jewish people use their voices properly, then they merit that the hands of Esau will not only not be harmful, but will even be beneficial, serving the greater good and enabling the Jewish people to serve God fully. (דגל מחנה אפרים)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Greeks and Greek Philosophy in Traditional Jewish Thought

The Greeks first entered Jewish history via the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, towards the end of their “Classical Period”. Historians refer to the period beginning with the death of Alexander the Great as the “Hellenistic Period”.

Origins of the Greeks

In Genesis 5:32 we are told that Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In Genesis 10 we read how these three men were the ancestors of all the “seventy nations” of humanity. Japheth had seven sons, one of whom was named Javan (יון – pronounced “Yavan”). According to Jewish tradition, Javan was the ancestor of the Greeks. Traditionally, the Jews have always referred to the Greeks as Yavanim rather than Hellenes, the name that the Greeks used for themselves.[1]

Although the Greeks viewed themselves as one group, bound together by bonds of blood, culture, and religion, they were far from being a unified people. On the contrary, all of Greek history is made up of constant wars between the different Greek states. It was only when confronted by the clear threat of the Persian Empire that the Greek nations were able to unite in mutual defense. Even this was only achieved with great difficulty and lasted for a very short time. Not long after the Persian conquest was defeated, the Peloponnesian war broke out between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies.

Eventually, the Greek states were united through the conquest of Philip of Macedonia. Macedonia was a semi-Greek state to the north of Greece. When Philip was assassinated, his son Alexander, whom we know as Alexander the Great, succeeded him. Alexander’s rise to power marks the beginning of a new era in world history.

Greek Wisdom

The Greeks were unique among the nations in their pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. The Maharal (R’ Yehuda Loew, d.1609) writes (ספר נר מצוה):
... מלכות זה [יון] כנגד ... השכל, שהמלכות הזה היה בו החכמה והתבונה ... כי כל ענין המלכות זה שהיו מבקשים החכמה...
This kingdom [Greece] represents the… intellect, for this kingdom had wisdom and understanding… for the entire theme of this kingdom was that they sought wisdom.
The Sages recognized Greek culture as being uniquely superior to other non-Jewish cultures. Thus, for example, the one language in which it was permitted to write a Torah scroll, other than Hebrew, was ancient Greek. The Mishna (Megilla 1:8) states:
...בספרים לא התירו שיכתבו אלא יונית
For [Torah] scrolls they only permitted Greek.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:9) explains:
בדקו ומצאו שאין התורה יכולה להיתרגם כל צורכה אלא יוונית
The [Sages] searched and found that the Torah cannot be properly translated in any language except Greek.[2]
The Talmud explains that this was a fulfillment of the blessing given to Japheth, the ancestor of the Greeks, by Noah (Genesis 9:27):
יפת אלקים ליפת וישכון באהלי שם...
May God expand Japheth, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem…
The Greeks were the creators of philosophy. Indeed, the term “philosophy” is a Greek word that means, “love of knowledge”. In ancient times, the term “philosophy” was applied to all forms of wisdom, including the sciences. However, and perhaps more importantly, Greek philosophy emphasized the study of the nature of the world, the definition of good and evil, and other basic questions about existence and humanity. It is in this regard that we use the term “philosophy” today.

Although the Jewish people did not engage in formal philosophical study in ancient times, the Greeks still recognized the Jews as being uniquely knowledgeable in these fields. As historian John G. Gager has written, "In the Greco-Roman world, the earliest and most abiding view of the Jews was as a nation of philosophers."[3]

The influence of Greek philosophy – especially the works of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – on human thought has been absolutely immense, extending even into modern times. Thus, it is not surprising that many later Jewish sources discuss the teachings of these philosophers at great length. While the Jewish perspective on Greek thought is often highly critical, even the most critical sources will generally acknowledge the intellectual achievements of these men. For example, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, a strong critic of both the philosophers and of philosophy in general, makes the following statement defending them in his Kuzari:[4]
הפילוסופים אין להאשים אותם, מפני שהם עם שלא נחלו חכמה ולא תורה....
ולפיכך, בדין הוא שלא נאמין לאריסטו בחכמתו, מפני שהטריח את שכלו ומחשבתו בעבור שלא היתה בידו קבלה ממי שיאמין בהגדתו... ואלו היה הפילוסוף באמה שינחל בה מקבלות ומפרסמות שאינו יכול לדחות אותם היה מתעסק בהקשותיו ומופתיו להחזיק החידוש – עם קשיו – כאשר החזיק הקדמות, אשר היא יותר קשה לקבל.
The philosophers should not be blamed [for their errors], for they are a nation that did not inherit wisdom and Torah…[5]
Therefore, we cannot have confidence in the philosophy of Aristotle. For he labored with his intellect and thought because he did not have a reliable tradition …. If the philosopher had lived in a nation [like the Jews] with reliable and well-known traditions that could not be falsified, he would have labored with his logical arguments and proofs to strengthen the concept of creation – with its difficulties – as he [instead] did with the concept of eternity, which is even more difficult to accept.[6]
Thus, R’ Yehuda HaLevi argues that the failure of the Greek philosophers to recognize the truth of creation and of God’s relationship with this world stemmed primarily from their exclusive reliance on their own intellect because they came from a nation with no reliable tradition of revelation. Indeed, the Kuzari (4:13, 5:14) later quotes Socrates making this very point:[7]
אמר סקראט אל העם, חכמתכם זאת האלקית אינני מכחישה, אך אני אומר שאינני יודעה, אמנם אני חכם בחכמה אנושית.
(ר"ל, מאחר שאין לי דת מקובלת, בדין הוא שאהיה נוטה אחר העיון האנושי – פי' אוצר נחמד.)
Socrates said to the nation [i.e. the leaders of Athens], “I do not deny your wisdom of god, but I simply do not know it, however, I am knowledgeable in human wisdom.”
(Meaning, “As I do not have a received religion [i.e. a religion based on a revelation and reliable tradition], it is only logical that I should turn towards human understanding.” – Otzar Nechmad)
Many traditional sources argue that the immense intellectual achievements of these Greek philosophers had to result from Jewish influence. Thus, for example, there are legends that Socrates received his wisdom from Ahitophel and Asaph haKarchi[8], and that Plato[9] received wisdom from the prophets, particularly Jeremiah.[10]


The philosopher Aristotle was one of the greatest intellects of all time. His numerous works were all recognized as the authoritative works in their fields, and they covered every single area of human knowledge of that time. He wrote on the physical and biological sciences, on logic and mathematics, political science and psychology, art and poetry, and many other fields. His work was so influential that later generations treated his writings almost like holy script.

Aristotle was hired by Philip of Macedonia to tutor his son Alexander. Later, when Alexander became the king of Greece, and eventually most of the civilized world, he supported his former tutor, enabling him to found his own philosophical school in Athens and to engage in extensive research.

Jewish tradition has very mixed feelings about Aristotle. On one hand, Maimonides clearly had a very high opinion of Aristotle, writing:[11]

דעת ארסטו היא תכלית דעת האדם מלבד מי שנשפע עליהם השפע האלקי עד שישיגו אל מעלת הנבואה אשר אין למעלה ממנה.
The intellect of Aristotle was the ultimate intellect possible for a human being except for someone upon whom flows the Divine “flow” to the point that he achieves prophecy, above which there is no higher level.
Nevertheless, Maimonides was far from a slavish follower of Aristotle, especially when Aristotle’s conclusions differed from the Torah. Similarly, the Kuzari quoted above, and other sources, appear to see him as a basically honest and brilliant man who struggled to find the truth but failed due to his background. There is even a legend (almost certainly apocryphal) that, towards the end of his life, he became acquainted with the teachings of the Torah and recognized its truth.[12]

On the other hand, other traditional sources speak very negatively of Aristotle. For example, the Vilna Gaon (R’ Elijah of Vilna, d.1797) is quoted as saying "שודאי הוא שהיה אריסטו כופר מתחילה ועד סוף" – “It is certain that Aristotle was a denier from beginning to end.”[13]

The Rema (R’ Moshe Isserles, d.1572), in his work, Toras HaOlah (1:11), recounts a story of Aristotle which reflects the belief, mentioned previously, that Greek wisdom originally came from contact with the Jews, and which also puts Aristotle in a very negative light:
כתב בשבילי אמונה כי כל עיקר חכמת ארסטוטליס גנובה מחכמת שלמה ע"ה, כי כאשר כבש אלכסנדרוס מוקדן ירושלים, השליט לאריסטוטלס רבו על אוצר ספרי שלמה, וכל דבר טוב שמצא בהן כתב שמו עליו, ועירב בהן מקצת דעות רעות כמו קדמות העולם וכפירת השגחה לחפות עליו שלא ידעו הבריות שבאו אחריו שגנב החכמה מיהודי, ואפשר שכל דבר שלא מצא עליו מופת חותך בדברי שלמה לא האמינו
It is written in Shvilei Emunah[14] that the entire essence of the wisdom of Aristotle was stolen from the wisdom of [King] Solomon. For when Alexander the Macedonian conquered Jerusalem, he appointed his teacher, Aristotle, over the library of the books of Solomon, and every good thing that [Aristotle] found there, he wrote his name on, and he blended in some bad opinions, such as the [belief in] the pre-existence of the world and the denial of [Divine] providence, to cover himself so that the people who came after him would not know that he stole the wisdom from a Jew. And, possibly, anything in the words of Solomon which he did not find a clear proof for he did not believe.[15]
Interestingly, a number of works attributed to Aristotle were translated into Hebrew and were treated as valid sources of wisdom. In particular, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – known in Hebrew as Sefer HaMiddos – is particularly significant and widely cited.

Hellenism and Judaism

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888) writes[16] that Hellenism serves a vital spiritual function in lifting man out of the pit of savage vulgarity and licentiousness that is symbolized by Ham, the raw, uncultured man. Only after man has developed the higher and nobler sensibility symbolized by Japheth is it then possible for him to turn to the even higher spiritual aspirations of Shem:
[T]he education of raw unrefined humanity ton the sense of beauty is not the highest. Wavering, unsettled is the culture which only gives Man the satisfying of his own higher standards as the criterion of the activities of his life, but gives him no ideal external to himself, glowing in its own lights, as a beacon, a goal and a criterion. Only that which can elevate the mind to a knowledge of, and the feelings to a recognition of what is good and true in itself, leads a man to the height of what he is meant to be. …
But… this goal will not be achieved at once. … Out of the raw, uncultured man, a cultured man has first to be made. The demand which the God of Shem makes is no small one, it demands the complete devotion and and submission of the whole person to God. A person must first acquire “the taste” of something higher than he is in his raw nature, even if this something higher is at first also something that appeals to his senses. … This culture of beauty and grace… is a precursor of the semitic mission, a preparatory school for teaching people to reach the loftier concept of life, the still greater beauty which lies in a harmonious joining all the aspects of life under the single idea of devotion to God.

[1] The Greeks were divided into three tribes, the Ionians, the Dorians, and the Aeolians. Of these three groups, the Ionians appear to have been dominant. In particular, Athens – the center of Greek culture and, for much of Greek history, the most powerful Greek state – was Ionian. Ionia is also the name given to a region of Asia Minor on the eastern shore of Aegean Sea that was settled predominantly by Ionian Greeks. The dominance of Ionians in Asia Minor would have brought them into more direct contact with the Persian Empire and the other Eastern centers of civilization. The Ionians were also the dominant group responsible for Greek philosophy and science. All of these factors may explain why the Greeks as a whole were known, by the Jews and others, as Yavanim. Interestingly, the Ionians claimed to be descended from a man name Ion. This individual may well be identical with Javan the son of Japheth.

[2] However, Maimonides (Hil. Tefilin 1:19) writes that the Greek language was corrupted in later years and can no longer be used for Torah scrolls.

[4] Quoting from the arrangement of the Kuzari made by Rav Yechezkel Sarna, based on Kuzari 1:63-65.

[5] One of Rav Yehuda HaLevi’s basic teachings is the superiority of knowledge revealed by God (Torah) and passed down through a reliable tradition (mesorah) over knowledge found purely through human intellectual effort.

[6] In this paragraph, R’ Yehuda HaLevi focuses on what is possibly the most significant area of disagreement between the Torah and the philosophy of Aristotle. One of the most basic teachings of the Torah is chiddush ha’olam – that the world is created from nothing. Aristotle, however, taught kadmus ha’olam – that the world has always existed. It should perhaps be noted that the Abarbanel, in his Mifalos Elokim (5:3) argues that Aristotle, in making this argument, did not intend to argue against the Torah teaching that the world was created by supernatural means, but against other Greek schools of philosophy which believed that the world had come into existence by natural means.

[7] I do not know what R’ Yehuda Halevi’s source was for this quote, however, while not made explicitly, the sentiment is echoed in a few passages in Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates defends himself against accusations of heresy and atheism.

[8] Seder HaDoros (ג"א שפ"ה)

[9] Plato’s philosophical system, in particular, has a strong resemblance to concepts in Torah, particularly Kabala. A note printed in the beginning of the Tikkunei Zohar im Biur HaGra states:
חכמת הקבלה היא חכמת רוחניות התורה ושרשיה, כפי שבאה בקבלה לראשי האומה, והאור האלוקי הזה הופיע גם באהלי יפת, וגדולי חכמי יון נאותו לאור יקרות זה, והתקרבו במקצת דעותיהם לדעות חכמי הקבלה, וביחוד הפילוסוף אפלטון היוני...
The wisdom of kabala is the spiritual wisdom of the Torah and its roots, as it was received by the heads of the nation. This godly light also shown in the tents of Japheth, and the great sages of Greece enjoyed this precious light and came close, in part, to the opinions of the sages of kabala, especially the philosopher Plato the Greek.
[10] The Shalsheles HaKabala (R’ Gedaliah ibn Yachya, d.1588) makes the following statement:
קבלתי ממורי הגאון זקני זצ"ל כי הוא ראה בפי' הכוזר שעשה ר' נתנאל ן' כספי האומר אמר אפלטון אני הייתי עם ירמיהו במצרים ובתחלה הייתי לועג עליו ועל דבריו ולבסוף כאשר הרגלתי לדבר עמו ולדקדק במעשיו וראיתי כי דבריו דברי אלקים חיים אז אמרתי בלבי וקיימתי שהוא חכם ונביא
I received from my teacher, the gaon, my grandfather זצ"ל, that he saw in the commentary on the Kuzari written by Rav Nasanel ibn Kaspi (early 15th century) a statement quoting Plato saying, “I was with Jeremiah in Egypt, and in the beginning I mocked him and his words, but in the end, when I spoke to him regularly and carefully observed his deeds, I saw that his words were the words of the living God. Then I said in my heart and I determined that he was a sage and a prophet.”
(Page 137 in 1889 Warsaw edition.) Also see Seder HaDoros ג"א ש' and Midrash Talpiyos ענף ירמיה.

[11] Near the end of a letter he wrote to Rav Shmuel ibn Tibbon on the translation of Moreh Nevuchim.

[12] The Shalsheles HaKabala writes that a book was found, supposedly written by Aristotle, in which Aristotle recanted from all of his philosophical teachings and acknowledged the truth of the Torah. The Shalsheles HaKabala then goes on to quote at length from a letter, appended to this work, which Aristotle supposedly wrote to his disciple, Alexander the Great, in which he writes that he met a Jewish sage who proved to him the truth of the Torah and that he now wishes he could destroy all of his earlier works. Seder HaDoros even quotes a source that claims that Aristotle converted to Judaism!

[13] הקדמת ר' מנחם מענדל משקלאב לפי' הגר"א על מס' אבות – This statement may have been specifically intended to contradict the legends of Aristotle’s later change of heart.

[14] By Rav Meir ibn Aldabi (14th century).

[15] This last sentence is not from the Shvilei Emunah, but from the Rema. It appears to be an attempt to partially justify Aristotle’s mixture of false teachings into the wisdom of Solomon, similar to the argument of Socrates quoted from the Kuzari previously.

[16] In his commentary on Genesis 9:27 and in an essay titled, “Hellenism and Judaism” in Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol.2.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

On Peshat vs. Chazal

הנך רואה כי כל רודפי הפשט... הפך דעת רבותינו נפלו במהמורות השבושים, והאמת בפי רבותינו

"So you see that all [the commentaries] that pursue peshat (i.e. the "simple" meaning of the Biblical verses)... contrary to the opinion of the [Talmudic] Sages fell into the pits of error, and the truth is in mouths of the Sages."

הכתב והקבלה שמות יח:טו

Friday, November 9, 2012

Chayei Sarah - The Pleasant Deeds of Keturah

Towards the end of Parshas Chayei Sarah we read that Abraham took a wife named Keturah (Genesis 25:1). The midrashim, quoted by Rashi, tell us that Keturah was, in fact, Hagar, whom Abrahamn had sent away previously, and she was called Keturah because "her deeds were as pleasant as incense." (Incense is "ketores" in Hebrew). 

 Now, it is self-evident that, despite her failings, Hagar was always a righteous and worthy woman (or she would never have accepted into the home of Abraham). Yet these verses appear to indicate that at this point Hagar had reached an exceptional pinnacle of righteousness, so that the Torah changed her name to express her greatness. However, the Torah does not tell us exactly in what manner Hagar had changed. the only hint given to us is the allusion to the incense.

R' Shlomo Ganzfried
R' Shlomo Ganzfried (d.1886), best known as the author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, addresses this question in his commentary on the Torah, Sefer Apiryon, based on an insight drawn from an enigmatic Talmudic statement, "אוקירי לנשותיכי כי היכי דלתעתרו" - "Honor your wives so that you will be made wealthy."

R' Ganzfried explains that it is well-known that giving charity makes one wealthy (כמ"ש רז"ל עשר בשביל שתעשר - שבת קי"ט). It is also known that the charity performed by women is considered more meritorious than that of men, because of it more direct nature (כדאיתא במס' תענית כג: במעשה דר' זירא ואשתו). Morever, adds R' Ganzfried, the nature of women is to be more merciful than men and they therefore tend to give more charity than men.

However, if a husband does not properly honor his wife, by trusting her judgement and allowing her to make such decisions independently, then his wife will not be able to give charity properly, and certainly not to the degree that is natural for her as a woman. This is why the Sages tell us that if one honors his wife, he will become wealthy. For by honoring his wife and trusting her to distribute charity according to her nature, he will earn a greater merit for charity which, in turn, brings wealth.

However, the Talmud also states, "שהאשה צרה עיניה באורחים יותר מן האיש" - "That a woman is more stingy towards wayfarers than a man." How are to understand this? R' Ganzfried explains that even though, by nature, women are more merciful and generous than men, nevertheless men tend to have more compassion for wayfarers because they are more likely themselves to have experienced the difficulties of traveling away from home and needing to rely on the compassion of strangers. It is easier to have compassion for people when you have experienced similar difficulties in your own life.

Thus, the fact that men are better to identify with the difficulties of wayfarers means that, with regard to wayfarers, men tend to be more compassionate than women, in contradiction to the normal pattern when women are more compassionate than men.

This, concludes R' Ganzfried, explains why Hagar had now attained an exceptionally high level, for, as we saw in last weeks parsha (Genesis 21), Hagar had now experienced the difficulties of the wayfarer in her own life. Thus, she now had the natural advantage of a woman's compassion plus the advantage of having experienced the hardship of traveling on the road. Thus, the Talmudic lesson of " "Honor your wives so that you will be made wealthy" would apply to her to a truly exceptional degree. This is why her deeds are compared to the incense, for we are taught that (Talmud, Yoma 26a) that the incense service also brought the blessing of wealth.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Ten Trials of Abraham

According to the Talmud (Avos 5:3), Abraham was tested ten times and he passed all of the tests. The purpose of these tests was to "to demonstrate how great was the love of Abraham our Father" for he never questioned God's judgment.

In his commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides lists the ten tests, all of which are clearly stated in the Torah:
  1. The command for Abraham to leave his home and live in a strange land. (12:1)
  2. The famine that occurred in the land of Canaan after God promised to make Abraham into a great nation in that land. (12:2-10)
  3. The violence of the Egyptians when they abducted Sarah. (12:14-20)
  4. The war with the four kings. (14)
  5. Marrying Hagar after giving up hope that Sarah would have children. (16:1-2)
  6. The commandment of circumcision in his old age. (17:1)
  7. The violence of the king of Gerar who also abducted Sarah. (20)
  8. Sending away Hagar after she had borne him a child. (21)
  9. The difficult commandment to send away his own son, Yishmael. (21)
  10. The binding of Isaac. (22)
There are several other opinions on the exact numeration of the ten tests. Many of these alternate lists include incidents that are not written explicitly in the Torah but are only known from midrashim (such as Abraham being thrown into the furnace in Ur Kasdim).

Vayeira - The Concept of Heavenly Trial ("Nisayon")

Parshas Vayeira ends with the story of the final trial of Abraham, the Akeidas Yitzchak - the Binding of Isaac. The Torah introduces this story with the explicit statement that this was a test: "והאלקים נסה את אברהם" - "and God tested Abraham."

What is the function of a נסיון – a “test” from God? Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3:24) says that this topic is “מן הקשיים החמורים שבתורה” – “from the most difficult topics in the Torah.” The primary difficulty, of course, is that God already knows if the person will pass the test, which would seem to make the test unnecessary. Indeed, as the verse in Psalms 11:5 states, "ה' צדיק יבחן" - "God tests the righteous"; God only imposes tests upon those whom He already knows to be righteous.

Clearly, then, a Heavenly trial - a nisayon - is not a "test" in the conventional sense. Rather, it serves a positive function on the person being tested or the people around him.

The Midrash (ב"ר לב:ג and elsewhere) gives three analogies to help us understand the concept of Heavenly trials upon the righteous. As explained by the commentaries, these three analogies describe three different functions that can be found in Heavenly trials. In most cases, such as with the Akeidas Yitzchak, all three functions exist simultaneously.

The first analogy given by the midrash  is to a potter who bangs on his pots to demonstrate their durability in order that people should buy. Of course, the potter only bangs on his best pots for this purpose, banging on his worst pots would defeat his purpose. Similarly, God subjects righteous to trials in order to demonstrate their great virtues to the world so that others will emulate them. (This is the approach taken by Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim.)

Beating flax in ancient Egypt.
The second analogy is to a flax worker who beats on flax to improve the quality of the linen made from it. When beating the flax, care must be taken not to break the actual fibers. The fibers in poor quality flax are more susceptible to breakage, and therefore can only be beaten minimally if at all, and are used to produce poorer quality products.  The better the quality of the flax, the more the workers beat it to create a finer quality linen. Similarly, God subjects the righteous to great challenges because through these challenges they can grow to higher and higher levels of righteousness.

The third analogy is to a farmer who owns two oxen, a weak ox and a strong ox. The farmer uses the strong ox to do the hardest and most important tasks, while the weaker ox is only used for easy tasks. Similarly, God subjects the righteous to great challenges so that their merit will benefit the entire world.