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    Dear David: An Encouraging Word

    Note

    The following article was originally sent as a letter to a friend of mine, “David” (name changed). David was deeply bothered by what he viewed as injustices in our community, which he felt were perpetrated in the name of false protocols and narratives. He took up the cause of advocating for parental rights, personal (bodily) autonomy, and, above all, of disseminating information and awareness within the Orthodox Jewish community regarding important health topics.

    At one point, David became disheartened; he felt that he was up against a formidable wall of falsehood, ignorance, intolerance, and—worst of all—a stubborn callousness, and unwillingness to hear out another point of view. David sought counsel with an eminent Rabbi, well-known for his wisdom and sensitivity.

    In the conversation, the Rabbi told David that the Chafetz Chaim also felt some level of despair when he saw that he could not change the world (see further). David told me about the conversation and asked me, “Was the Rabbi telling me to quit? Should I just focus on my own development and growth, and not bother with the world?”

    This was my answer.

    11 Cheshvan 5781/Oct. 29, 2020
    Erev Shabbos Kodesh, Parshas Vayeira, 5779


    Dear David,


    While talking with you the other day, I was pained by your pain, and saddened by your sadness. But I was not disheartened. I decided to put some thought into the matter, and look up a few Torah sources for some chizuk that I could offer not only to you, but to myself as well.
    I must admit that I was, at first, agitated by¬ the Rabbi’s response to your personal dilemma. It was the Chofetz Chaim himself who made that comment—


    When I was younger, I wanted to fix the world; as I got older I decided that I could only fix my community. But finally, I realized that I could only concentrate on fixing myself.


    It sounded like a call to throw in the towel. But, if we think about the history, the Chofetz Chaim had a profound impact on his own generation, as well as on all subsequent generations. Upon reflection I realized the depth of what the Rabbi was telling you…

    * * *

    The life of our patriarch, Avraham Avinu, is chronicled in the Chumash in the early chapters of Bereishis, and fleshed out to some degree by Rashi’s commentary. But a clear picture of his life can only be had when reviewing the Midrashic literature.


    For example, many people think that Avraham Avinu broke his father’s idols as a child, and was then thrown into the fiery furnace at Ur Kasdim. But in reality, this incident occurred when Avraham was 50 years old!
    It happened this way:


    (Traditional sources have different versions of the chronology of Avraham Avinu’s life. The following chronology is from Seder HaDoros (The Order of the Generations) who, in turn, bases much of his material on the Sefer Hayashar).


    Right after Avraham’s birth, King Nimrod saw in the constellations that Avraham posed a threat to his Empire of Evil, and he demanded that Terach (Avraham’s father) hand over the infant. Terach substituted Avraham for another baby, and then spirited Avraham off to a cave where he lived for eleven years with his mother and nursemaid.


    It was during his time in the cave, when Avraham was a young three year old child, without anyone to teach him, a famous incident occurred, as we know from our tradition:


    And Hashem gave unto Avram a listening heart and understanding, and he saw the sun and he said, “This is G-d!” and he served the sun, and prayed to it—but then, at night…the sun set…and Avram said to himself, “Alas, then, this is not G-d…”.

    Sefer Hayashar


    The Seder HaDoros (§Year 1558) continues the story:


    Afterwards, Avram left the cave with his mother and nurse, for Nimrod had forgotten him, and he went to Noach and Shem to study the ways of Hashem. Nobody recognized him as Avram (i.e., the fugitive infant).

    Avram served Noach and Shem for a long time, and he was in their house for 39 years.

    Now, Avram knew of Hashem from when he was three years old. And he went in the path of Hashem, as he was instructed by Noach and Shem.

    And all of the world’s inhabitants sinned greatly against Hashem, and they served other gods. The king [Nimrod] and Terach, and their households, were the initiators of all those who serve wood and stone idols. Terach had twelve gods of wood and stone for the twelve months, and every month he would sacrifice offerings and pour libations to them…

    And there were none who knew of Hashem save for Noach and his household…


    The Seder Hadoros records an apparent contradiction in Midrashic sources. Some sources write that Avraham recognized Hashem when he was three years old, but in others sources this is recorded as occurring when Avraham was 48. Many commentators offer the following resolution: at age three, in the cave, Avraham realized the simple truth of Hashem’s sovereignty. At age 48, his recognition of Hashem was concretized.


    According to the above passage, at age 48 Avraham was a mature scholar in the house of Noach and Shem. He turned 48 in the year 1596—the year of the Great Dispersion. It was Nimrod who built the Tower, to “do battle” with Hashem. Hashem Himself humbled Nimrod, halted his Tower, and dispersed his generation. Avraham took this great event to heart, and it brought him to a complete appreciation of Hashem’s presence in the world.


    Unfortunately, it did not have the same effect on Nimrod. The narrative continues (§Year 1598):


    When Avram was 50 years old, he left Noach’s house and went back to his father’s house, and saw his father’s gods—his twelve idols—and became enraged. What he told his father, and how he smashed the idols is recorded in the Midrash on Parshas Noach. [This is the famous conversation where Avraham placed the hammer in the largest idol’s hand, and told his father that the big idol smashed the smaller idols.] When Terach saw what his son had done, he went and told Nimrod…


    So Nimrod finally got his hands on the heretofore forgotten infant who posed an ideological threat to Nimrod’s world. Nimrod cast Avram into the fiery furnace, but Avram emerged unscathed. Nimrod was bewildered.


    And Avram emerged and stood before the king, who asked him, “How is it that you were not burned alive?” To which Avram answered, “The God of heaven and earth, in Whom I trust, and Who is almighty, saved me.”

    And the king and his servants and all the people of the land saw that Avram was saved from the fire, and they came and bowed down to him. Avram told them, “Do not bow down to me, bow to G-d Who created you, and serve Him, and go in His ways, and He will save all who trust in Him!”

    The king gave Avram great gifts, among them his two servants—the greatest in the royal household—one was named Uni, and one was named Eliezer…and Avram was sent on his way in peace. Some of the king’s servants followed Avram; some three hundred people joined him, including Terach’s entire house.


    This is an amazing passage! Avram’s emergence from the fiery furnace caused a global awakening. Avram now enjoyed Nimrod’s benevolence, and he settled in Ur Kasdim, in Nimrod’s domain.


    But, unfortunately, Nimrod was not entirely brought over to Avram’s truths. Two years later Nimrod regained his “composure.” After a terrifying dream, he once again took up the position that Avram was a global threat—not a global savior—and Nimrod sought to kill Avram.


    Eliezer was at Nimrod’s court when Nimrod announced his intentions. Eliezer ran to warn Avram, who quickly fled to Noach’s house, where he stayed for a month. Although King Nimrod could not find him, Terach knew where his son was, and secretly paid him a visit.


    Said Avram to Terach:


    You know that the king wants to kill me. Come, let us go together to the Land of Canaan, lest you be swept away also in the end, for Nimrod has not given you great wealth and honor out of love, but only out of selfish self interest. And even if he would bestow upon you even more and greater goodness, it is all the vanities of this world! Wealth and acquisitions will not help a person in the end. Therefore, let us go to the Land of Canaan to serve Hashem Who has created you!

    And Terach did so.


    All of this breathtaking narrative is “between the lines” of one simple pasuk in the Chumash, at the end of Parshas Noach (Bereishis 11:31):


    And Terach took his son Avram, and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Avram, and they went with them from Ur Kasdim, to journey to the Land of Canaan. And they came to Charan and settled there.


    Seder Hadoros (§Year 2000) elaborates:


    They left Ur Kasdim, in Bavel, and came to Charan and stopped there because the land was good and expansive. And people from the Land of Charan came and joined Avraham’s group, and he taught them the way of Hashem, and Avraham lived in Charan for three years.

    * * *


    Although their original destination was Canaan, they did not make it there. They stopped in Charan, which was between Bavel and Canaan. Charan was a beautiful and peaceful place, and its inhabitants were very receptive to Avraham’s message as he continued his mission to spread the knowledge of Hashem in the world.


    Avraham is now 55 years old. The Seder Hadoros goes on to fill in more information “between the lines” about Avraham Avinu’s life:


    The pasuk in Lech Lecha states that Avraham was commanded to “go for yourself…” to the Land of Canaan, and he did so, leaving Charan and journeying to Canaan at age 75.


    But according to the Seder Hadoros (based on the Sefer Hayashar; see also Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 9a who comments similarly), the command to journey to Canaan was issued twice.


    In the Seder Hadoros’ narrative, the command was first issued in the year 2003, when Avraham was 55, although this is not mentioned in the Torah specifically. The command was reiterated twenty years later, when Avraham was 75, and it is the second command that is recorded in parshas Lech Lecha.


    So at age 55, Avraham duly left Charan—leaving Terach, Lot and Nachor—and went to Canaan. While in Canaan the following events occurred:


    2008—In the fifth year of his sojourn in Canaan, the people of Sodom rebelled against Kedarleomer, King of Eilam.
    2013—In the tenth year of Avraham’s sojourn, Nimrod arrived with a great army to aid the rebellion and to vanquish Kedarleomer. Kedarleomer, however, mightily defeats Nimrod, who flees back to his land in humiliation.
    2018—In the fifteenth year, when Avraham is 70 years old, the Bris Bein Habesarim, the Covenant Between the Parts (Bereishis 15:7-21) takes place.


    Now, Tosafos (ibid.) writes that after the Bris Bein Habesarim, Avraham left the Land of Canaan and returned to Charan, to Terach’s settlement, where he stayed for five years. Tosafos in Berachos (7b) makes the point that the Torah does not necessarily record historical events in chronological order. Specifically, the War of the Four Kings Against the Five is recorded in Bereishis chapter 14, and the Bris Bein Habesarim appears later, in chapter 15. Historically, however, the order was reversed. Tosafos adds one more piece to our chronology:


    2021—in this year, when Avraham is 73, the civilized world erupts in the War of the Four Kings Against the Five.


    This Very First World War seems to have been a recasting of the initial conflict between the Sodomites and Kedarle’omer. The five kings were the kings of the five cities of Sodom; two of the four kings were Kedarleomer and Nimrod (Amrafel) who now joined forces.


    According to our chronology, Avraham was back in Charan when he was told about the war, and the capture of Lot. This affords us a pshat, a simple meaning, of the name that Avraham was given at this time—Avraham HaIvri. Rashi (Bereishis 14:13) cites the Medrash that he was so called because he came “from the other side of the river.” The reference is to the Jordan River, between Canaan and Charan. Avraham ran back to Eretz Canaan, defeated the Four Kings, and returned to Charan.


    In 2023, when Avraham is 75, Hashem appears to him in Charan and reiterates the command, lech lecha—go for yourself! Leave Charan and go back to the Land of Canaan.

    * * *


    Now here is what I wanted to tell you:


    This is a Medrash, that explains the first pasuk in Lech Lecha based on pesukim in Tehillim (45:11-12):


    שִׁמְעִי בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵךְ וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ: וְיִתְאָו הַמֶּלֶךְ יָפְיֵךְ כִּי הוּא אֲדֹנַיִךְ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִי לוֹ:
    Listen, daughter, and see, and turn your ear. Forget your nation, and the house of your father… And the King desired your beauty—to make you beautiful in the world—bow unto Him!


    The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) records the following event in Avraham Avinu’s life:


    And Hashem said to Avraham, “Lech lecha—go for yourself from your land…”

    Rabbi Yitzchak opened [his discussion of this verse with another verse (Tehillim 45:11):] Listen, daughter, and see, and turn your ear. Forget your nation, and the house of your father…

    Said Rabbi Yitzchak, this is analogous to a man who was traveling from place to place, and he saw a great castle in flames. He said, “Shall we then say that this castle has no owner?” Whereupon the owner of the castle peeked out at him, and said. “I am the owner of the castle.”

    So too, since Avraham Avinu wondered, “Shall we then say that the world has no Leader?” Hashem peeked out at him and said to him, “I am the Master of the World.”

    And the King desired your beauty—to make you beautiful in the world—bow unto Him! (Tehillim 45:12)

    Thus, [the verse states,] And Hashem said to Avraham [“Lech lecha—go for yourself…”]

    It is a perplexing Medrash:


    • The two pesukim in Tehillim are, essentially, the Psalmist’s recasting of the command given to the daughter (Avraham) to leave the house of her father, and to find her personal fulfillment in the world. Rabbi Yitzchak would cite the pasuk in Tehillim when explaining the pasuk of lech lecha. What is added by these pesukim?

    • Why are the two pesukim separated? Why is the second verse cited after the parable?

    • Why does the parable begin with a man who was “traveling from place to place”? That seems superfluous—the point of the parable is that the man sees a burning castle.


    But the primary difficulty is this:


    The commentators on this Medrash explain that the parable is an exchange between Hashem and Avraham, that led to Hashem’s command, lech lecha. (This was either an actual conversation, or simply a recording of Avraham’s feelings prior to Hashem’s command.)


    Avraham was troubled when he saw the “world in flames”—the depravity and evil of the Generation of the Flood, and the Generation of the Dispersion. He is upset, he wonders, “Is there no Guiding Hand to the world?” Hashem reveals Himself, and says, “I guide the world. As for you, lech lecha!”


    Now, this exchange happened when Avraham was 75. If so, what is the meaning of this curious parable?


    What is the man/Avraham asking? Avraham—at 75—not only believed in Hashem, he was a wise scholar who had studied under Noach and Shem, and an older man who had already witnessed Hashem’s open miracles, and received Hashem’s direct communications through prophecy! He certainly could not have been doubting Hashem’s existence, or Hashem’s constant supervision and intervention in the world. He had heard—from Noach himself—how Hashem had destroyed the Generation of the Flood, and he had seen—with his own eyes—the Dispersal of the Generation of the Tower.


    How could Avraham have been doubtful? What was he asking? And why does this lead to Hashem’s command of lech lecha?

    * * *


    Here is what I think. (I am basing some of this on the commentaries of the Maharzu and Eitz Yosef):


    Avraham Avinu was not doubting Hashem. He was doubting his own purpose.


    Avraham knows that Hashem created the world, and he knows that Hashem runs the world. He also knows that Hashem’s plan is to allow mankind to choose its own destiny—and that Hashem will not stand in the way of Man’s choices.


    It seemed to Avraham that his mission, when he first took it on at age 55, was to save the world, to move the world towards righteousness and goodness, towards the service of Hashem. But he saw that he was ineffective. Mankind was clinging firmly to the path of evil.


    Avraham saw overwhelming evil in his world. Nimrod, in his prime, was a terrifying autocrat who had swayed the global population towards evil, and who wanted to “do battle” with Hashem Himself, by building his mighty Tower. The lesson of the Flood was lost on him…


    Nimrod was humbled as his generation is dispersed. But, the lesson of the Dispersion is lost on him as well when he casts Avraham into the fiery furnace in his arrogance and rage. Avraham emerges, and things look bright for a brief time. But all too soon, Nimrod forgets his enlightened moment, and Avraham once again is forced to flee to Charan.


    Then, during Avraham’s first sojourn in Canaan, he sees nothing but rebellions and warfare.


    Why did Avraham return to Charan? Possibly, after the Bris Bein Habesarim, Avraham realized that in addition to saving the world, he was going to father his own unique nation. Perhaps he sought now to go to Charan and concentrate on that task—away from the turbulence of the Canaanites and Babylonians. Avraham was perhaps planning on creating a holy settlement in Charan, and then returning to Canaan to continue his world mission.


    But at age 73, during his second set of years in Charan, the cataclysmic World War challenged Avraham’s outlook…


    In that war, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. When the Four Kings advanced towards the five great cities of Sodom, they laid waste to the entire surrounding countryside. Avraham ran to the scene after the Four Kings had already won the war—after they had decimated Sodom’s forces, and killed many of Sodom’s inhabitants.


    So in reality the war was a major calamity on all fronts, for after the Five Kings were vanquished, Avraham came and annihilated the Four Kings as well.


    This was not Avraham’s aspiration. Avraham wanted to rehabilitate the world, not have a hand in destroying it. He was the catalyst for Nimrod’s near-rehabilitation at Ur Kasdim. But Nimrod reverted to evil, and led his nation to annihilation, as did all of the other mighty kings of the time.


    And although the Mighty Four Kings were now vanquished, Avraham was probably able to discern that the core group of Sodomites, whom he had saved, were on their way to perpetuating Nimrod’s evil legacy—as we know happened.


    Evil runs rampant, unremitting and unrepentant; resisting reformation at all costs. Its followers are eventually destroyed, generation after generation, only to have others take their place.


    Avraham is the man who has “traveled from place to place”—from Ur Kasdim to Charan, then to Canaan, then back to Charan…and Avraham is greatly disheartened.


    He asks, Is there any point in my fighting this battle!? I have tried for 20 years without success! Hashem, if you will not lead your people, they will go down in flames, taking the world with them! Why are You silent, Hashem? Will you allow evil to perpetually destroy Your world? Why do you not lead the world Yourself towards rectification and redemption? What can I do?


    Avraham was confused as to what course of avodah was demanded from him. In all probability, he began to think that he should remain in Charan, and focus on building his own community of Truth, and righteousness.


    Hashem responds: Listen, daughter, and see, and turn your ear…


    Rabbi Yitzchok wonders, what is the Psalmist’s addition here? What does the daughter need to see and hear, before receiving her command to go?


    Hashem “peeked” at Avraham. Sources say that this was not a prophetic revelation; it was not a direct communication. Hashem sent Avraham a mental boost, an emotional fortification.


    “You must look deeper into the matter. You are making a mistake. Know this:


    “I am the Master of the World.


    “I am not letting the castle burn to the ground. I will take care of it. Your mission is not to fix the world, that is My concern.”


    The fact that Hashem peeked out from within the castle carries another layer of meaning—the Master of the House is not only present and supervising, He is inside the castle itself; He is actually running the very burning castle that has provoked Avraham’s outburst. But He has hidden Himself away from sight.


    “You cannot know this, Avraham. My final Master Plan is concealed. But what is the call that you must heed?


    “Lech lecha—go! Lead a largely unlistening world towards Truth and Goodness.”


    Hashem was fortifying Avraham to do battle. “I am the Master of the World. But you Avraham, for your part, take heart and take heed. And take action. Go back to Canaan and continue your work!


    Do not withdraw into yourself, and create your own community. Reach out, fight evil and injustice, and spread truth and knowledge among those who do not have it.


    The second pasuk in Tehillim is cited after this initial exchange. After Avraham glimpses that the Master of the house is within the castle, there is a vital second idea that he needed to know.


    Avraham will not “win.” After Nimrod many others will appear on the scene—the Sodomites, Avimelech, Paraoh…the list will go on and on…


    Avraham found himself against a backdrop of global evil, and because of this he was compelled to combat it by creating a global movement towards Truth. His movement was to be an outward-oriented movement. Certainly, many people were won over to the side of truth. But the point of the movement was not to convince the leadership of the world, or even, necessarily, a critical mass of the population.


    The point was to fight the flames that only Hashem Himself can eventually extinguish.


    Through this, Avraham will attain greatness. Through this he will become the Patriarch of the Jewish nation.


    And the King desired your beauty—to make you beautiful in the world.


    The futile fight is never futile. It hones Avraham’s arguments; it sharpens his focus; it broadens and clarifies the truth. Instead of preaching to his choir in Charan, he is told to do battle with the heathens in Canaan. Not because he will fix everything. Indeed, Avraham will not fix the world. And his great following notwithstanding, he will not even fix everyone around him—including some of his own children and grandchildren. But by striving to do so within the surrounding evil Avraham will find that he had fixed himself.

    * * *


    David, this is the depth of the Rabbi’s message to you.


    You have seen much success in your endeavors. Every individual that you encourage, every family that you help, is an accomplishment in its own right. But you ask a painful question, “Do these minimal individual accomplishments justify the massive efforts that need to be invested?” The answer is, surprisingly, maybe not. But they do not have to. Primarily, the point of our struggle is to become better people—more focused, more committed, and more truthful.


    We will have some success; the truth will take hold in some measure. But we will not necessarily turn the tide, nor is that necessarily our mission. Hashem desires the core of Truth and Goodness that we nurture, as we beautify ourselves in our attempts at turning the tide.


    Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once commented that in his youth he was unsure of himself. “If someone would have come over to me then, and put his arm around me and told me, Achi chazak! Echoz be’atzmecha!—My brother, take heart! Hold onto yourself! …if that would have happened, my life would have been transformed!”


    Rebbe Nachman led a full and accomplished life as a leader and Rebbe, yet even he felt that he could have reached higher, and achieved more, had he received a timely application of this simple formula, and had he had the benefit of the heartfelt chizuk of a fellow Jew when he needed it.


    Achi chazak! Echoz be’atzmecha!


    Have a great Shabbos.

    Zev

    Note

    Speaking out to decry injustice and to spread truth is an unpopular endeavor. Historically, it is almost always a matter of individuals speaking out against a majority, or an establishment. At best, it is a thankless effort, one that is hampered by fear and discouragement.

    But it is a moral obligation, a Jewish imperative handed down from Avraham Avinu.

    Achi (ve’achosi) chazak! Those who can speak, and write, and publish, and post—and are doing so—yeyasher kochachem!

    Rabbi Zev Epstein
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