Choosing the Road Less Traveled- A Vort for Lech Lecha dedicated to our Brothers and Sisters in Israel

Princeton university professor Walter Kaufmann described a condition where people are afraid of making decisions.  He called it Decidaphobia.  One would think that a regular person might have this disorder but not Avraham Avinu.  However chazal tell us (Tanchuma Vayeira) that Jewish history was changed forever by a decision Avraham was unsure about.  Following Avraham’s sojourn in Mamre, the Torah describes the covenant that Hashem makes with him.  At the conclusion Avraham gives himself and all his family and followers a bris milah, a circumcision.  However, chazal tell us that Avraham was unsure whether to go through with it.  As a result, he went to speak to Mamre, the ancient Canaanite ruler of where he was living.  It is was Mamre that encouraged Avraham to go through with the command he was given and give himself a bris milah.

One is astonished.  Why would Avrham avinu not be sure whether to follow G-d’s command?  We don’t usually find Avraham doubting Hashem!  Why by this command to give himself a milah would he be unsure what to do?  Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Midbar Shur – Drush 21) explained  that the answer to this question lies in another midrash.  The meidrash (Bereishis Raba 47-48)  tells us that Avraham was afraid to do the milah for one reason.  Not that it would hurt him or his family, but because it would make him different.  It would separate him from the rest of society.  When one creates a physical covenant that is foreign to others it tends to make you somewhat unapproachable.  Indeed, the midrash recounts that Avraham told G-d that he was worried that people would not easily follow him after the bris.  Beforehand, Avraham was known as the av hamon goyim, the father of all nations – he was a universal leader.  After the bris, he would no longer be the universal leader to all mankind he once was but be the leader of the Hebrews alone.  Said Rav Kook, it was this change that scared Avraham – losing universal approval and becoming a sectarian Jew.  The equivalent of most moving away from being a leader of a pluralistic social justice movement to being solely the father of the Jewish people.  That is why he went to Mamre.  He asked him whether he should give up on his place as moral leader of the nations to follow G-d down a sectarian path.    Said Rav Kook, Mamre told Avraham that he must not look to his universal stature as important any longer.  Rather, the time had come to become primarily the father of his son Yitzchak and founder of the Jewish nation.  To make Jewish continuity his utmost mission and give up on universal acceptance.  This decision changed Jewish history.  By following Mamre’s advice at that moment, Avraham, although it was hard for him, ensured there would be a unique nation separate from the rest of the world.  A nation that, at times, would have to do things that flew in the face of society.

In these last few weeks, the Jewish people have been faced with the same choice as Avraham Avinu.  Like Avraham our hearts are pained when we see the world so turn on us.  There is no care for Jews murdered in cold blood, no even-handedness in media coverage of Israel.  Open anti-Semitism is expressed by leaders and accepted by those silently listening.  Like Avraham, at times we want to stop acting in our interests and the interests of Jewish people in order to seek that acceptance we so want.  But Mamre’s advice is as true today as it was then.  A Jew is not defined by the approval or endorsement of society.  A Jew is defined by their bris, their internal covenant with G-d and the Torah.  At times we must abandon the natural Jewish desire for love of our fellow man in order to ensure Jewish survival.  There is no way that the world will magically wake up and feel bad for us.  All the explanations and rationality in the world will not put an end to age-old antisemitism.  Like Avraham before us, as scared and unsure of the future as we might be, we must renew our bris with Hashem.  To proudly express our joy at being sectarian Jews that follow their tradition and to confidently state our divinely given right to possess and protect our homeland.  Avraham’s decision resulted in exactly what he was afraid of.  It made him different.  Even unapproachable to some.  But our history has shown that it was the right decision.  Following G-d instead of following what people say is always the right decision.  Although our current struggle as a people is difficult, painful, and even traumatic, the brave decision of our forefather, Avraham, in Mamre is our only solution.

Two Empty Seats in the Sukkah – A Tribute to Rav Eitam and Naama Henkin HY”D

It is with tremendous grief that Sukkos, zman simchaseinu, must be used to eulogize a young Talmid Chacham and his wife.  Rav Eitam Henkin was an incredible Torah Scholar and Yarei Shamayim.  Although I never knew him personally, I have benefitted from his various essays on halacha, history, and Jewish thought for many years.  He was truly a renaissance man, whose knowledge and genius was apparent in everything he wrote.  What made him and wife even more special was that they accomplished so much in their short time in this world while spending every day redeeming the Land of Israel for future generations.  They performed the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, settling the Land of Israel, in its most pristine form.  In the end, they gave their life doing so.

Chazal tell us that the words of the righteous are their most fitting memorial.  Rav Henkin wrote an essay about the holiday of Tu B’av in 2009 that was published in Alonei Mamrei, the Torah Journal of Yeshivat Nir, the main yeshiva based in Kiryat Arba.  The same yeshiva that Rav Henkin learned in for ten years.  At the conclusion of the essay he presents a very fundamental question that gives us a new perspective on Sukkos.

The Mishnah (Taanis 4:8) tells us that the greatest Holidays the Jewish people had were Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur because it was customary on those days for unmarried women to go out in borrowed white garments and look for a husband.  The Mishnah seems to imply that these were the happiest days of the year.  Yet, the Mishnah in Sukkah (51a) tells us that “one that did not witness the joy of the Simchas Beis Hashoeva celebration in the Beis Hamikdash never witnessed joy in their lifetime”.  How is one to understand these two contradictory mishnayos?

The Ritva (Bava Basra 129b) comments that thre was a fundamental difference between the two events.  At the Simchas Beis Hashoeva only the very important members of Jewish society actually participated in the dancing, yet on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur everyone participated.  True joy for everyone only came on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.  That’s why those Yamim Tovim are considered the greatest in the Jewish calendar.

Rav Henkin explains that this point describes to us what the cause of real joy is for the Jewish nation.  Only when everyone is united and celebrating together can we really experience the true essence of a Yom Tov.  Rav Henkin suggests that this is the reason that all of the unmarried women wore borrowed garments these Yamim Tovim.  Chazal explain that any woman that did not have her own garment was not embarrassed to ask her friend for one specifically because everyone wore borrowed clothing.  Rav Henkin explains that this underscored the nature of true Jewish simcha being only when the Jewish community is all on the same playing field.  In Rav Henkin’s words, “There is no greater joy than the unity of the Jewish nation”.

There will be two empty chairs this shabbos in the national Sukkah of the Jewish people.  The unity that Rav Henkin and his wife so cherished is ever more lacking now that they are gone.  May his tremendous Torah learning and scholarship serve as a merit for the children he leaves behind.  And may his vision of unity and joy serve as the pillars of our national sukkah – a sukkah where every Jew will have a seat waiting for them.

Hashem Yikom Damam!

The Tale of the Esrog and the Wooden Coffin – A Vort for Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos

One of my students once commented to me, “Don’t we look weird shaking this lemon look-alike and sharp green thing like our life depends on it?”  I myself always wondered what my neighbors think of me when I go in to my tent in my backyard to eat.  In any event, the mitzvos of sukkos require further analysis.

The two primary mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot are sitting in the Sukkah and taking the four minim.  Yet we find a very fundamental halachic difference between these two laws.  One can fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in a borrowed sukkah (sukkah 27b). In fact, the gemara goes as far as to say that the entire Jewish nation can even dwell in one sukkah and fulfill their obligation.  However, by the mitzvah of esrog we find the opposite to be true.  In order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of the four minim on the first day of sukkos, one must completely own their esrog.  What makes this even more puzzling is that the wording of the commands for these two halachos are very similar.  By the mitzvah of sukkah the Torah says: חג הסוכות תעשה לך – “You shall make the holiday of sukkos for yourself” (Devarim 16:13)  By the mitzvah of etrog the Torah says: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון – “And you shall take for yourself on the first day etc.”  Two halachot that both underscore the fact that the mitzvah should be done for yourself – yet the gemara learns out from different pesukim that one must be your own and one not.

What is it about the mitzvah of the four minim that requires one to own their set of minim?  On the other hand, what is the nature of the mitzvah of sukkah that allows it to be fulfilled when it is only borrowed or not belonging to you at all?

A fascinating explanation is suggested by Rav Chaim Kalman Gutman, a very well respected posek in the Chasidic world whose sukkah I had the honor of visiting this week.  In his work, Chaim L’Chag (pg.570), Rav Gutman advances the following theory:  The very nature of the mitzvah of sukkah is that one derives physical and material benefit from the mitzvah.  You can only fulfill the mitzvah by dwelling in the sukkah like you would in your house.  It is a mitzvah to eat, sleep, relax, and learn in the comfort of one’s sukkah.  In fact the entire reason that an individual who is ill, cold, hot, or bothered by the weather is permitted to leave the sukkah is because they are not enjoying themselves there.  On the other hand, the four minim are totally different.  One derives no physical benefit from the mitzvah at all.  There is no mitzvah to eat, smell, or even look at the four minim.  The only mitzvah is to use them in the way prescribed by the halacha.  Any benefit we derive from this mitzvah is spiritual in nature.  It is solely the joy of knowing we are performing an act that G-d commanded us, no matter how strange it might seem, that makes us feel good after shaking our minim

Rav Gutman explains that this crucial difference is the reason for the variance in the halacha of ownership.  Physical benefit and pleasure are all borrowed in this world.  They do not belong to us.  We don’t take them with us from one place to another and we certainly do not take them with us when we leave the world.  In truth, material pleasure does not belong to us at all.  Therefore, the mitzvah of  sukkah may be fulfilled in a sukkah that does not belong to you – to underscore the fact that no material benefit belongs to you.  Yet the four minim, which are completely spiritual in nature are different.  Our spiritual accomplishments and spiritual rewards belong to us completely.  We take them from place to place and they are the only thing that comes with us when we leave the world. An individual’s mitzvot – whether it be the meaning they bring one’s life or the legacy they leave – are the only absolute possession of a Jew.  Therefore, the mitzvah of esrog is fulfilled only when you completely own it – to underscore that the spiritual benefit you derive from life is yours and yours alone.

In fact, this could also be the reason why we read the book of Koheles on Shabbos Chol Hamoed Sukkos.  More than any other book in Tanach, Kohelet underscored this message for the Jew: Only love and awe of G-d and his Torah will lead anywhere in the end.

In our material-driven world we tend to forget just how fleeting wealth and possessions are.  Jewish communities throughout history tried to create customs that would remind them of this all important point.  The Rabbeinu Bechaye relates (Commentary to Parshat Terumah) that there was a custom of Chasidei Tzorfat, the pious Jews of France, to make their coffins out of the wood in their dining room tables.  This was done in oder to show that no matter the possesions one collects in the world, it is only the mitzvot they performed at their table (hachnasat orchim, seudat shabbat, divrei torah) that will come with them to the next world.

Perhaps this is the deep and profound message of sukkos.  As we begin our year anew after the Yomim Noraim, we are reminded of this key theme of Judaism.  There is more to life then a nice car, a nice house, and even a nice sukkah.  The halacha of lachem, present only by esrog, informs us of the incredible power of not just the mitzvah of the four minim but all mitzvot and observance in general.  The meaning cultivated in our lives by our loyalty to the Torah is our sole possession.