Thursday, November 19, 2020

PARSHAS TOLDOS 5781

 

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS TOLDOS 5781[1]

"PURE SPEECH"

 

          Peleh Yoetz relates a frightening story about a Jewish comedian who spent his life on stage telling inappropriate, vulgar, and crude jokes.

          When he was in his final illness, he lay in a coma with the Chevra Kadisha[2] awaiting the inevitable. Suddenly, the dying comedian sat up and began screaming wildly, “Get away from me!” He then turned to his family and continued screaming, “Can’t you see them coming to drag me away? They are going to tear me to pieces! Their running and waving pockets of fire at me, they want to destroy me for all the terrible things I’ve said!” The Chevra Kadisha tried to calm him but he was completely out of control. Finally, after a few minutes, he sank back into his comatose state, immobile as before.

          During the next three days, as people came to visit him, he would suddeny sit up and scream at them, “Don’t think you are going to get away from it! They’ll punish you too; you should have stopped me from saying all those jokes.” To others he screamed, “You paid to come hear me say all those sinful jokes, they’ll get you too.” On the third day, he finally died, and was buried.[3]

 

          Rivkah dressed Yaakov in Eisav’s special skins and sent him to Yitzchak with a specially prepared meal. Yaakov approached Yitzchak and with tremendous respect and reverence said that he had come to receive the blessings. Yitzchak heard the respectful tone and was confused. He drew Yaakov close and felt the roughness of his hands and declared, “The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Eisav.”[4]

          Why did Yaakov not speak in the manner of Eisav?

          Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l explains that Yaakov could not bring himself to speak with the gruffness of Eisav, even for a few moments. Even with the threat of receiving a curse instead of a blessing, Yaakov felt he could not sully his mouth to speak in the disparaging and harsh way in which Eisav spoke.

    
          The statement of Yitzchak was more than a comment of confusion. Yitzchak was also relating the secret to the descendants of Yaakov to defeat the descendants of Eisav in all future generations. The word "Hakol" is written without the letter ‘vov’ so that it can also be read as "Hakal-it is light". The pasuk can be read, "If the voice of Yaakov is light/weak, then the hands of Eisav will be strong".

          As long as Klal Yisroel turn to Hashem to seeks His assistance in all facets of life, we are protected. But when we become lax in prayer, Hashem grants the hands of Eisav power to oppress us, to remind us that we have forgotten our role and purpose.

 

          At times we wonder why our prayers are not as potent as we might hope.[5] Years ago, in Camp Dora Golding, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman[6] related the following parable to the campers: 

          A woman was preparing for a Kiddush she was hosting in her home that Shabbos following davening. Among the other delicacies she was preparing, she wanted to make a truffle. The only problem was that making a truffle requires a certain type of round bowl, and she could not find one. She frantically called her neighbors and friends, but no one had the bowl she needed.

          That Shabbos at the Kiddush, her neighbor was pleasantly surprised to see a delicious truffle cake in the middle of the cake table. While eating a piece, she walked over to the hostess and asked how she was able to procure the necessary bowl. The hostess laughed and explained, "At first, I was really dejected that I wasn’t going to be able to make the truffle. But while moping around my house, I spotted my three-year-old’s “training seat” on the bathroom floor. I realized it was the perfect size and shape in which to prepare a truffle cake. I washed it out, and with some effort, presto! I had my truffle." The neighbor’s smile faded quickly. She spit out what was in her mouth and ran out of the house in horror.

          It isn’t enough for us to daven with emotion and concentration. We also have to make sure that the tool we are using to utter our prayers – our mouths – are pure and free of forbidden and vulgar speech. We don’t want to present a beautiful ‘truffle of prayer’ to Hashem, while using sullied mouths.

              
          When Klal Yisroel were finally leaving Egypt during the exodus, the pasuk states, "Ul’chol B’nei Yisroel lo yecheratz kelev l’shono- And to all of the B’nai Yisroel a dog did not bark with its tongue."[7]

          The Kotzker Rebbe explained the pasuk homiletically by reading the word "kelev" as "kileiv-like the heart". In other words, the tongue barks what the heart is feeling. The topics one speaks about and the words he uses reflect his inner world.

          A Jew must be wary that his mouth is his key to the greatest spiritual treasures. Our ultimate weapon is the power of our mouths, for good and for better. Like a soldier heading out to war, we have to sharpen our weapon so that it is potent and suited for combat.

 

          “To all of the B’nai Yisroel – like the heart is the tongue.”

          “The voice is the voice of Yaakov; the hands are the hands of Eisav”

         

Rabbi Dani Staum

stamtorah@gmail.com

www.stamtorah.info

 



[1] This essay was originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website http://www.angelfire.com/super2/eshworld/stamtorah/.

[2] The holy group of individuals that tend to the needs of the dead

[3] I heard this story from Rabbi Finkelman. I am not sure where in the Peleh Yoetz it is quoted.

[4] Bereishis 27:22

[5] Though no prayer goes unanswered, certain prayers have greater potency than others depending.

[6] Rabbi Finkelman, a personal rebbe, is the Mashgiach on Ohr HaChaim in Queens, NY. For a number of years he was manhig ruchani (spiritual director) in Camp Dora Golding, where I had the opportunity and privilege to develop a close relationship with him.

[7] Shemos 11:7

Thursday, November 12, 2020

PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH 5781

 

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS CHAYEI SARAH 5781[1]

"IN SEARCH OF TRUE BEAUTY"

 

Stam Torah is lovingly dedicated in honor of the bar mitzvah of our dear son, Avi, this Shabbos. May he continue to grow in the path of Torah and Avodas Hashem.

Stam Torah is also lovingly dedicated in memory of my beloved Zaydei, R’ Yaakov Meir ben R’ Yosef Yitzchok z”l, whose yahrtzeit is this Shabbos, 27 MarCheshvan.

 

          Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman[2] lives in Boro Park in a two-family house. He related that, for many years, there was an Italian family that lived on the other side of the wall with whom the Finkelmans had a cordial relationship.

          One Friday night, the Italian neighbor’s sister knocked on the Finkelman’s door and asked if she could leave a package for her sister who was not home at that time. The Finkelmans readily accepted and she left a note for her sister, informing her that the package was next door.  

          While the Finkelman family was enjoying their Friday night seudah, the neighbor came home, saw the note, and knocked on their door. They welcomed her in and explained to her that because it was Shabbos, they couldn’t help her with the package, but she was welcome to take it herself from the kitchen.

          As she walked through the dining room, she suddenly stopped, and her eyes widened. She slowly looked around at the Shabbos table. She looked at the silver candelabra with the burning Shabbos candles, the delicious food, the settings of china and silver cutlery, and at the children sitting around the table in their Shabbos finery. She asked, "Do you do this every week?" Rabbi Finkelman explained that this was indeed their weekly Shabbos ritual. Tears welled up in her eyes and she replied, “If we are lucky, we have a family get-together like this twice a year. I cannot believe you enjoy this every single week."

 

          Avrohom and Sarah enjoyed a beautiful marriage. The greatness they respectively achieved was largely abetted by the other.

          After surpassing the greatest of his tests, the akeidah, Avrohom returned home to find that Sarah had died seemingly as a direct result of the akeidah. Avrohom was crushed, yet he controlled his emotions so as not to show any signs of regret over his fulfilling G-d’s command.

          Avrohom related a beautiful eulogy for Sarah that was recorded for posterity centuries later by Shlomo Hamelech in chapter 31 of Mishlei: "Eishes chayil mi yimtza- A woman of valor who can find?"[3]

          Yalkut Shimoni explains how each sentence relates the greatness of Sarah as the ultimate woman of valor. On Friday night, we sing this chapter as an ode to the woman of the house who worked so hard to prepare and usher in the sanctity of Shabbos. In Kaballah[4] it states that we sing Eishes Chayil on Friday night in honor of the Shabbos queen. The “woman of valor” is also an analogy for Torah[5].

          Bearing this in mind, I was always struck by the second to the last verse in the chapter. "Sheker hachain v’hevel hayofi isha yiras Hashem hi tis’halal- Grace is false and beauty is vain, a G-d-fearing woman – she should be praised." If the Torah is the guidebook to perfection and Shabbos is the crescendo of the week and a glimpse into the utopia of the future, what grace and beauty do they possess, that is deemed false or vain?

         

          When I was learning in Eretz Yisroel several decades ago, one of the Rabbeim from the yeshiva invited a friend and myself to join him at his home for Shabbos. The Rebbe lived in Telz-Stone, about a half-hour bus ride from Yerushalayim. On Friday night we crammed into his small Telz-Stone apartment with his many young children. To say the apartment was modest is an understatement. One of his children was screaming and carrying on, yet my Rebbe and his wife spoke to him softly and lovingly. The atmosphere was regal and peaceful.

          Maybe it was being far away from home for the first time and missing my parents Shabbos table. But for whatever reason that Shabbos meal made a deep impression upon me. My Rebbe’s face seemed to radiate with joy as he sang zemiros, related divrei Torah, and interacted with his children and made sure to make us feel part of it all.

          While sitting at that Shabbos table, the words of Eishes Chayil took on new meaning. There is tremendous beauty and grace in observing Shabbos. Living a Torah life too grants meaning, direction, and holiness. It is a beautiful life.  

          Still, a Jew must recognize that the reason he observes Shabbos and adheres to the laws of the Torah is not because of its beauty and grace. Rather, we observe them because the Torah commands us to do so. Our aim and motive in life is to fulfill the Will of Hashem, whatever it may be.

          This is perhaps the message the pasuk is conveying: "Sheker hachain v’hevel hayofee" the aspect of beauty and grace of Shabbos/Torah is false and vain. The only reason we observe them is, "Isha Yiras Hashem hi tishalal" because we must be G-d fearing Jews who follow G-d’s command.

          However, even with this newfound understanding, is it a coincidence that there is beauty and grace in keeping Shabbos and observing a life of Torah? Doesn’t G-d want us to enjoy them? Perhaps beauty and grace aren’t a priority, but it seems a bit harsh to call it "false and vain"?

          In addition, how can it be said that the beauty of a woman is false and vain if the Torah relates that the Matriarchs were beautiful?  Why would the Torah point this out if beauty is meaningless?

          The Vilna Gaon explains that grace and beauty are false and vain only when they are not accompanied by Fear of G-d. If beauty is only external it is at best superficial and vapid.  However, if a beautiful and charming woman possesses Fear of G-d, she is worthy of praise. True beauty radiates from within. Jewish tradition recognizes beauty as a factor in the total personality. But a woman who lacks values is not considered beautiful, but vulgar. But if she possesses inner beauty, than outer beauty is a crowning feature.

          The same idea may be said regarding Shabbos and Torah. One who only observes Shabbos because of its radiance, and only observes the Torah because it him feel elevated, is on a path of vanity and falsehood. However, one who remains steadfast to Torah and to Shabbos observance out of a sense of mission and duty to his Creator, will merit the beauty and inner joy that is to be gleaned from its observance. Such a person can enjoy the beauty and the grace of Shabbos and Torah as well.

          If one only observes Shabbos and Torah because of their beauty and grace, when faced with challenges that make Shabbos and Torah observance difficult, he will likely not maintain their observance.

          A Jew serves Hashem because he is instructed to do so. He hopes and awaits the feeling of spiritual bliss and internal meaning which observance brings with it. But the foundation and starting point must be a sense of duty and mission to his creator.

          Avrohom and Sarah lived their lives with that sense of mission. We, their descendants, are the beneficiaries of their unyielding efforts. It is because of their example that we remain committed to Shabbos and Torah observance.

          What a beautiful and meaningful life it is!

          As Avi sets out on the path of maturity and being a gadol on his bar mitzvah, we daven that he always have this sense of mission and duty to Hashem and that Hashem in turn help Him enjoy the blissful sweetness of living a Torah life.

 

          “Grace is false and beauty is vain”

          “A woman of valor who can find”

         

 

Rabbi Dani Staum

stamtorah@gmail.com

www.stamtorah.info

 



[1] This essay was originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website http://www.angelfire.com/super2/eshworld/stamtorah/.

[2] Rabbi Finkelman is the Mashgiach in Ohr Hachaim in Queens, NY, and an inspiration to his numerous talmidim. He has many shiurim posted on Torahanytime.com. I have the zechus to call myself a talmid of Rabbi Finkleman from the summers we spent together at Camp Dora Golding. I learned a tremendous amount from Rabbi Finkleman, not only about chinuch, but invaluable life lessons. He has been, and b”H continues to be, a tremendous inspiration for myself and my family.

[3] Medrash Tanchuma, Chayei Sarah 4

[4] Shaar ha-Kavanos, cited in Shaar ha-Kollel 18:2.

[5] Etz Yosef in Otzar Hatefillos. He writes that the word chayil (חיל) has the numeric value of 48 (8+10+30=48), corresponding to the 48 ways through which Torah is acquired (see Avos perek 6).