Parshas Lech Lecha

SHIUR HARAV Y.D. SOLOVEITCHIK זצ’’ל ON פרשת LECH LECHA

(Shiur date: 1955) Based on tape #5126 available from Milton Nordlicht. (c) (1999) Josh Rapps & Israel Rivkin, Edison, NJ. Permission to reprint this summary, with this notice, is granted [lightly edited/corrected by me]

Avraham is portrayed as the great personality of Jewish History. The previous 2 parshios are a preamble to Avraham, the other patriarchs and the birth of Knesses Yisrael. Avraham’s life culminated at the time that he consummated a covenant with Hashem. He did this twice. The covenant was consummated many years before the birth of Isaac. The sole purpose for the birth of Isaac was to carry on the Bris. There ar e 2 covenants in this parsha. The first is Bris Bayn Habesarim. The Torah says Bayom Hahu, on that day Hashem made a covenant with Avram to give him and his children the land of. At the end of the Parsha there is another covenant, which included Bris Milah, and again the gift of the land to Avraham and his children is repeated. [It is interesting to note that at the Akeidah there was no new Bris, rather the original Bris was reaffirmed.] Hashem commands Avraham to include Ishmael and circumcise him, but the covenant will not be passed to his children.

The first covenant very clearly revolved around the gift of the land to Avraham. Why not have only one Krisas Bris? When thinking about the granting of the land to the Jewish People, we very often overlook the second Bris with Avraham and instead focus on the Bris Bayn Habesarim. Another question is why separate the 2 covenants with the story of Ishmael and Hagar? Why not juxtapose the 2 covenants immediately next to each other?

The Rav answered the first question that Bris Bayn Habesarim says that Hashem gave the land to the children of Avraham. It does not say for how long. The first Bris did not guarantee the eternal ownership of the land. The second Bris says that it is given to the Jewish Nation forever.

Jewish History is very perplexing to one who attempts to understand the continuity of the Jewish Nation. How were we able to survive tragedy and holocaust throughout the millennia? In fact there is a doubly fascinating aspect here. The first is based on the Bris Bayn Habesarim, that Eretz Yisrael has waited for us. The Midrash says Vhashimosi Ani Es Haaretz (And I will lay waste to the land), this is a good thing for Bnay Yisrael, for it means that the enemies of Israel will derive no benefit from the land and would never conquer it and claim it. If one would analyze the colonial periods of the 1600s through the 1800s we find that major portions of the world were colonised. The Americas, Australia etc. The non-Jewish world excelled in their colonising ability. However many countries attempted to colonise Eretz Yisrael. Germany which was well known as being expert colonisers failed to colonise Eretz Yisrael. It is interesting to note that many of the nations around Israel were much more developed than Eretz Yisrael through this period. Egypt and Iraq were much more developed than Eretz Yisrael. Eretz Yisrael remained untamed and barren, a land of sand, stones and sea. Had the land been colonised it would have been much more difficult for the Jews to return. Eretz Yisrael is Kolet, absorbs, its inhabitants. Eretz Yisrael also has the ability to expel, L’Hakey, those that it rejects.

The Beis Halevi says that when Jeremiah says “Al Har Tzion Sheshamem Shualim Hilchu Bo, Atah Hashem Lolam Teshev” it implies a blessing for the Jewish people. Many wanted to settle the land but were unsuccessful. This is a sign that the Kedusha is eternal. Its stones could not be colonised. The land remained loyal to the people. Reb Yehuda Halevi in his Kinos says “Tziyon Halo Tishali L’shlom Asirayich”. How do we know that Tzion inquires as to the welfare of its inhabitants, the Jews? It is written in the barrenness of the hills and land of Judah and Israel, the fact that no one else was able to colonise it.

In Judaism we have the concept of Agunah. It implies someone who is locked in limbo, who is constantly waiting for her husband to return even though she is ageing and realises that her chance to remarry is slipping away with each day that passes. Yet she waits. The land of Israel is an Agunah in this respect. It waits for its mate to return even though he has been gone for so many years. The Bris Bayn Habesarim guaranteed that the land would remain loyal to the people.

If the inanimate land elects to remain loyal to the people, it has the ability to remain loyal indefinitely. However the problem is how to ensure that the people remain loyal to the land? A husband can be an Agun as well, someone who waits for his wife to return. The Jewish Nation has been an Agun, waiting for the land. Achad Ha’am (someone far from religion) wrote that he came to Jerusalem and visited the Kotel on Tisha B’av and observed how Jews from Aydot Mizrach were mourning. He observed that the stones are witness to the destruction of our land and these people are witness to the destruction of our nation. He asked which is worse? He answered that a land that was destroyed can be rebuilt by those that return, like Ezra and Nechemia. But who will rebuild a nation that is destroyed?

Achad Haam’s mistake was that the group of people he observed were not witnesses to the destruction of the land. But the principle is correct. The question is how can a nation express its identity and live uniquely under such conditions? Everything about the Jew is different than the world around us. The way we write, the way we pray, the way we set our calendar are all examples of how we differ from those around us. Jews lived in Europe for a thousand years and remained loyal. Eretz Yisrael is another example of the uniqueness of the Jewish Nation. Rationally one should not support Israel, how can it survive against so many enemies? Yet this is the great wonder and power of our nation, our ability to wait for the land and to return to it. The same applies to the relationship of the Jew to Torah, especially Torah Sh’beal Peh. Just like one can’t learn and appreciate Mathematics by simply reading a book. It is a method that must be incorporated in the thought processes of a person. The same is true of Torah Sh’beal Peh, it is a method that becomes part of a Jew’s personality, distinguishing him from those around him.

The fact that people would wait for a land for so many years is based on Hashem granting us the land L’dorosam, forever. This eternal gift was granted in the covenant associated with Bris Milah and not in the covenant of Bris Bayn Habesarim. The second covenant grants the land eternally to a people that keeps Torah Sh’beal Peh, a people that rejoices differently and cries differently. This is the essence of Bris Milah. Milah is a Chasimah. Chasimah is not just a signature but rather it is the mark of the individual. It expresses the uniqueness of the individual that no one else can copy. Milah is called Chosam Bris Kodesh because the Jewish Nation is different and unique from all others. It is this uniqueness that guarantees our constant yearning for and connection to the land. Why is the story of Ishmael introduced between the two covenants? Because any nation can survive while they are on their land, even Ishmael. The distinguishing characteristic between Ishmael and Isaac is in their ability to maintain their uniqueness when they are removed from the land. That’s why Hashem says that He will transfer the Bris and its fulfilment to Isaac and not Ishmael. Because Isaac and his children will remain unique forever. Hashem retains responsibility to recognise and fulfil the Bris Bayn Habesarim so that the land maintains its loyalty to the people. However our job is to fulfil the covenant of the Bris Milah and to retain our uniqueness and identity as the Am Hashem.

The Israeli Flag in Halacha

The following is a question and answer posted to Rav Aviner. I hadn’t seen the Rav, Rav Soloveitchik’s beautiful חידוש on this topic (or had ale forgotten), so I am reposting.

Question: Is it permissible to throw away a worn Israeli flag or must it be placed in the Geniza?

Answer: It may be thrown away, but not in a disrespectful manner (In the book Nefesh Ha-Rav pp. 99-100, it is related that one year the Agudat Yisrael Conference was held in a hotel in Yerushalayim and there was an Israeli flag flying on the roof. Some of the participants, who were opposed to the State of Israel, were unhappy about this, but instead of requesting that the flag be removed they asked if all of the flags of the participants’ countries be flown as well. After this was publicized, Ha-Rav Yosef Soloveitchik stated at the Mizrachi Conference that while the Jewish People had flags in the desert, they were temporary and not for all generations. But the flag of Israel has a different significance.

There is a Minhag in the name of the Rishonim brought in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 366:4: “If a Jew is found murdered, he is to be buried as he was found [i.e. in his bloody clothes] without any shrouds.” The Shach #11 explains that the reason for this Minhag: to kindle Hashem’s wrath when He sees how this person was buried without shrouds. Hashem’s compassion will thus be aroused to avenge him. And the same applies to the Israeli flag.

Towards the end of the War of Independence, the UN set a specific time by which the Jews and Arabs could seize land. They established that all the territory in the hands of the Jews, as signified by raising the Israeli flag on that spot, would become part of the State of Israel, and all territory in Arab hands, would remain outside the State of Israel. And this is indeed what occurred. During this period, much Jewish blood was spilled in order to raise the Israeli flag over as much territory as possible. Many Jewish fighters were killed, displaying self-sacrifice for the sole purpose of raising the Jewish flag, the flag of Israel. Therefore, Rav Soloveitchik said, the flag of the State of Israel has the status of a murdered Jew’s clothing, a symbol of the spilled blood of the Jews. As a result, when the flag of Israel flies, it arouses Hashem’s compassion for Am Yisrael).

The Rav on the far left, seated next to Rabbi Gourarie, the Rayatz, and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe

 

Parshas Va’eschanan: Love and fear of Hashem

The Rav זי’’ע, Rav Soloveitchik asked a basic question. We are accustomed to speaking about the term אהבת השם, loving God himself. This connoted an affinity, or rapport so to speak with God. Yet, the concept of fearing God, which whilst also described as יראת השם is used in the vernacular using the more common יראת שמים, fear of heaven. We don’t find our vernacular expressing the term אהבת שמים. Purely from a symmetric consideration, we would expect that to also be a term used in our speech and prayer.

Indeed, the Pasuk says explicitly

ואהבת את השם אלוקיך

The Rav explains this difference in terminology in terms of the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva (10:6). There the Rambam explains that the level of love that the Jew can attain with God is proportional to his understanding of God’s essence. With a heightened and more sophisticated and fuller understanding of God, one is able to love him to a greater extent than before that understanding is understood, internalised and appreciated. The way in which one understand, and gains a further understanding of God has its own nuanced approaches by various sub-groups within Judaism.

The Rambam explains that a person needs to seclude themselves so to speak, and think deeply about his connection and the nature of that connection to achieve this love, and thereby closeness to Hashem himself. Love then is an effect that brings one closer to God. The more we delve, the closer and more  loving we become.

יראה fear, however is a feeling of distance. It is an awe-laden recognition of the distance between the power and majesty of God and a mere mortal. The more one cognates over this concept, the further and more fearful one becomes of the veneration and wonderment. It is for this reason that it is natural to use the term יראת שמים fear of heaven. As one develops their Jewish character, in respect of יראה, the human condition is seen to be afraid and fleeing in the same way that the sky is beyond us and hangs over us unpredictably from day-to-day.

One cannot, according to the Rav see as an outgrowth of love, אהבה, anything other than a  journey of closeness and approachability. יראה, as important as it is, is about the fearful distance which we can’t lessen, as שלמה המלך said

אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני

As wise as one may become, there is the dichotomous distance through יראה and closeness through אהבה.

The Rav

A tribute night for the Lubavitcher Rebbe זי’’ע

Today was the יום הילולא of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe (LR). I’m presently ensconced in three books describing him and will offer my thoughts on these when I have finished.

They are certainly impressive pieces of work, each in their own way. In a recent private email exchange I had with Rabbi Yossi Jacobson in reference to this post, I mentioned that one of the things that attracted me to the Rav, Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik ז’ל was the refreshing ease with which he was able to write about his personal feelings on various matters, some of which were the result of his private life and the emotional struggles surrounding these. Rabbi Jacobson, if I’m not misquoting him, was of the opinion that the LR also expressed his personal feelings. I felt that the LR wasn’t expressing his own private issues, but was always focussed on what the movement and it’s Chassidim needed to achieve.

The Rav, however was not, and never saw himself, or his task in life, as that of a Manhig Yisrael. In his own words he was a מלמד. Certainly that was a self-deprecating description of someone, often described by others as the למדן הדור. We should all aspire to be such a “מלמד”! In other words, the Rav dedicated his life to interacting with the challenging American reality and transmitted the Brisker method of Lomdus and Mesora that he had digested from his illustrious  grandfather, R’ Chaim Brisker, father, R’ Moshe, and Uncle R’ Velvel, to a challenged generation for whom such sophisticated analysis of Torah, enmeshed in the vernacular of the day, was intellectually challenging and advanced in its conceptualism and oratory. The Rav ordained more Rabbonim than any other Rav in the history of Judaism (it would seem).

As time goes by, his greatness, like many who pass away, is amplified, and the fact that I “discovered” him relatively late in my life, is a source of sorrow. How I would have loved to have participated in a Shiur, or listened live to his majestic droshas.

Enter his famed University colleague from Berlin the LR. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I (partly) read the books about the LR, but I now have a fuller appreciation of the LR’s role and personality. In many ways, they were both became fully equipped educationally and culturally to interact with the needs of American Youth in a so-called modern society. They had both studied at University level, and were aware of the so-called European/Western Culture and thought. I do not think either of them saw that culture as some sort of enlightening factor, but it enabled them to interact at the highest levels using the modern vernacular and conceptualisation of our times, within the context of acutely high levels of grey matter.

דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם

found a new home among these giants.

Whilst I was not brought up with a deep understanding of the “Torah Im Maddah” approach or YU, I found it easier,unsurprisingly, to speak and digest that language. A more universalistic approach to different paths has always appealed to me.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, was an enigma. Here was this powerful genius with a photographic memory and acute ability to link and understand the seemingly disparate thoughts at his disposal, through the prism of the metaphysics of Chassidus, with brilliant insights and a paucity of notes. Yet, I guess I felt remote from him because there seemed to be no outward human frailty that he ever allowed to be shown, except when he was afflicted by that terrible stroke which ultimately led to his departure from our world and when his beloved wife passed away. Furthermore, while the elder Chassidim stressed the Chabad Chassidic approach, the younger Chassidim seemed more pre-occupied with his personage. To be sure, Chassidim would say “you must have a Yechidus”, “you have to immerse yourself in Chassidus to appreciate him” but that didn’t prick me into action. I never felt that I had anything meaningful to say or ask, and I wasn’t the type of tourist to invade an important Gadol’s time just because it was the done thing.

I have only been to the USA once, and I never went to 770. I simply didn’t know or comprehend what I might get out of it. These days, I’d be most apprehensive to go there given that it is controlled largely by the more radical Meshichist types, whose philosophy I do not consider to be Masoretic, but rather a backwards-pointing justification for an already concluded premise.

People will read what I have written and say, stop saying “I” … it’s not about you. One has to be בטל,  somewhat constricted within their personal ego to appreciate what was being effected in a Yechidus. Perhaps I was too ego-driven or cock-sure of where I stood in life vis-a-vis my Avodas Hashem and perspective on Torah. I may have even been wrong. It is what it was, and remains that way.

After reading most of these books, I have discovered through the über romantic, carefully chosen words of Rav Steinsaltz, and the meticulously researched tome of Rabbi Telushkin (Chaim Miller is next), that I have a better appreciation of this extraordinary leader. I didn’t learn much from earlier books, including those of academics and more. I felt that they started their books with a (negative) premise, and then sought to prove this premise, and not undertake a clean, academic unadulterated look at the facts.

Now, a leader can only try and do his best to make sure that his Chassidim conduct themselves in the way which he approves and/or legislates. The LR was no different. At times his exasperation was palpable.

One can certainly find a bevy of Shluchim who are seemingly pre-programmed automatons lacking the very gift that the LR had—the ability to connect individually with the person talking to them. There isn’t and wasn’t a magic formula. It was an action/reaction experience. Some have this gift; many, I dare say, do not.

Even last Shabbos, when I spoke to stranger who was wearing a Yechi Yarmulke, and asked why he wore that outward advertisement, he accused me of hating him simply for asking. I suggested that concluding that I hated someone because I asked a question was shallow, and when I referred to the classical work of R’ Yechezkel Sofer on the topic (which he described as “garbage”) this represented a problem with his own eyes, and not mine.

After reading the books I felt real sadness for the LR. He was clearly a very reluctant leader initially, almost a recluse whose favourite times were with his wife, father in law, parents or his seforim. His personal life was zealously guarded from the masses or even to the few in constant contact. He was a truly selfless man who pushed himself to extraordinary limits. He did not compromise on an iota, and mission, as summarised by Rabbi Sacks, was to ignite the soul of every person who the Nazis had attempted to extinguish and towards whom society was threatening with their often depraved value systems. He was as singularly minded in his pursuit of re-igniting souls to hasten the redemption as anyone we have seen.

As such, I find myself asking the question: what would he have said about a “tribute night” in his memory. Based on what I’ve read, I posit that he would be embarrassed by the word “tribute” to describe such a night. He would not want anyone to focus on him per se. He appeared to vehemently dislike cultish worship. Rather, the essential task was all about the missions and initiatives that he worked tirelessly to introduce and strengthen, all with the aim of bringing the redemption quicker.

It’s a paradox. On the one hand he was reaching out, and yet at the same time, he was enigmatically private.

So, why do his Chassidim engage in tribute nights? Certainly there is the practice that one should remember and talk about the deceased on the day of their Yohr Tzeit. One fasts, and learns Mishnayos. I don’t know how many Chassidim today do that today. But, it is more than that. In the absence of a leader to actively direct a movement in 2014, I feel he would only approve of such a gathering if it was about people taking strength and renewal and redoubling their efforts to carry out (genuinely) the tasks and processes that he had inaugurated.

In that vein, I will agree that a tribute evening potentially can invigorate. At the same time, it can also fail to do so—if people concentrate on the person and not the task to be achieved.

Powerful speech by Rabbi Riskin on kiruv

This is well worth WATCHING

[hat tip DM]