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Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom Parashat Vayera
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
The Heights of Hesed
The Divine Chariot
“And Hashem finished speaking to him, and He ascended from upon Avraham” (Bereshit 17:22). Throughout the Book of Bereshit, we find several allusions to the concept of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) resting on the Forefathers. One example is the verse, “And Hashem finished speaking to him, and He ascended from upon Avraham” (Bereshit 17:22). Our Sages learn from this verse that “The Forefathers are themselves the Divine Chariot” (Bereshit Rabbah 47:6). Rabbi Yitzhak D’min Acco, a disciple of the Ramban, discusses this profound teaching in Me’irat Enayim, his work on the Kabbalistic references in the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah (Parashat Lech Lecha). Our Sages teach that “the righteous become Hashem’s Chariot” (Maarechet HaElokut, Chapter 11, citing the Sages). This esoteric concept means that righteous individuals so thoroughly purify and sanctify their bodies and souls that they reach the lofty level where the Divine Presence dwells within them, so to speak. We find this idea in the verse, “And You, Hashem, are in our midst, and Your Name is called upon us” (Yirmiyahu 14:9; see Devarim 28:11 et al). However, we see that when speaking of the Forefathers, the wording is somewhat different: “The Fathers are themselves the Divine Chariot.” Obviously, there is a considerable difference between these two levels. While the Divine Presence rests upon the righteous, the Forefathers are literally part of Hashem’s Heavenly Chariot. How did the Forefathers become Hashem’s Chariot? Rabbi Yitzhak D’min Acco explains.
Hesed, Gevurah, and Emet
Our Sages teach that “At the time when Hashem created the world, He desired to have a dwelling place in the lower world as He has in the Higher World” (Tanhuma Naso 16; see Nefesh HaHayyim, Shaar Alef, Chapter 13). This principle is mentioned frequently in the Torah, in such verses as, “And they will make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shmot 25:8); “The foundation of Your dwelling place You have made, Hashem” (Shmot 15:17); and “For Hashem chose Zion, He desired it as His dwelling place” (Tehillim 132:13). Hashem dwells on earth through the good deeds of tzaddikim who fulfill His Will, as we learn from the verse, “For so said He Who is exalted and high, Who dwells forever, and His Name is holy. I dwell in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the downcast and humble spirited, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the downcast” (Yeshayahu 57:15). This verse alludes to Hashem resting His Divine Presence in the Bet HaMikdash and upon the righteous, who know how to be truly humble. Thus, even while still alive in this world, they become a Chariot for the Divine Presence. However, the Forefathers reached an even higher level of closeness to the Almighty. Each of them excelled in a specific trait which corresponded to one of Hashem’s Divine Attributes. These traits became deeply embedded in their very essence, and an inseparable element of their bodies and souls. In an esoteric sense, they were akin to a microcosm of the specific Divine Attribute they embodied. Avraham reached great heights in the Attribute of Hesed, Lovingkindness. The Torah describes one instance of his extraordinary hospitality. On the third day after Avraham’s circumcision, when he was weak and in pain, he had a revelation of the Divine Presence; Hashem had come to visit him, as it were, while he was indisposed. Then Avraham noticed some potential guests approaching, apparently a trio of Arab travelers. He immediately turned away from the Shechinah and ran to invite them to his home, where he attended on them and showered them with lavish refreshments (Bereshit 18:1-8, Rashi 18:4). Avraham’s hesed extended as well to teaching his fellow men belief in one G-d (see Rambam, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). This was hesed in its highest form. Avraham could easily have been satisfied with his own spiritual accomplishments, but he did not think only of himself and his own spirituality. He did everything in his power to bring the rest of mankind under the wings of the Shechinah. Yitzhak served Hashem with the trait of Gevurah (Might), also called Din (Judgment). This is the Attribute of uncompromising strength which conquers the evil inclination and empowers us to fight Hashem’s battles. Hesed is loving, unconditional bestowal. Gevurah-Din, in contrast, is strict justice, which gives each
individual purely what he deserves. Din limits, minimizes, and confines. This was Yitzhak, to us a hidden personality. As we see, the Torah actually tells us very little about this Forefather. Yitzhak’s service of Hashem differed greatly from that of Avraham. Avraham was very much involved with people bringing them into his home, providing for them, teaching them, and introducing them to the concept of one G-d. His outreach extended to all sectors of society, from the kings of the land to unknown common wayfarers. In contrast, Yitzhak’s service of Hashem was largely focused inward, centered on cleaving to the Al-mighty in prayer and refining his character traits. Through his efforts he merited becoming an olah temimah, a perfect, unblemished sacrifice offered on the Altar, willingly giving up his life for the Al-mighty. It was because of this unique level of holiness that Yitzhak was not permitted to leave Eretz Yisrael during a time of famine, as Avraham had (see Rashi on Bereshit 25:26, citing Bereshit Rabbah 64:3). Yaakov’s primary trait is Emet (Truth), (also called Tiferet, Glory), as in the verses “Grant truth to Yaakov” (Michah 7:20), and “Yaakov was a perfect man who dwelled in tents” (Bereshit 25:27). These were the “tents of Shem and Ever” (Rashi), where he studied the Torah of truth. Yaakov’s greatest trials, his encounters with Esav and Lavan, revolved around the very fine line between truth and falsehood. This message is inherent in the name Yaakov, as we find in the verse, “For every brother acts perversely (akov yaakov)” (Yirmiyahu 9:3), and in Esav’s lament, “He has deceived me (vayaakveni) these two times” (Bereshit 27:36). His task was to bring out the truth in situations which on the surface, appeared to be the opposite of truth. By sanctifying themselves with Torah and mitzvot, our Forefathers made themselves worthy of being Hashem’s Chariot. They were so closely bound to the Almighty that His Presence was with them constantly. They were like a direct extension of the specific Divine Attribute expressed in the outstanding trait which each one used to serve Hashem. Through their intensive efforts in Lovingkindness, Might, and Truth, they became the conduits which transmitted these Attributes of the Al-mighty to the world.
The Turning Point
Let us try to understand how our Forefathers merited this exalted role. It is Hashem’s Will in Creation to relate to His created beings in keeping with their deeds, so that they know Him through the way He rules them. For this purpose, He created ten spiritual forces through which He would rule the world. Each reveals a
different aspect of the way He wills to relate to Creation. The Sefer Yetzirah calls them ten Sefirot (Sefer Yetzirah 1:2). The three highest Sefirot are Keter (the Crown) Hochmah (Wisdom) and Binah (Profound Understanding) These three Sefirot represent the aspect of Hashem’s master plan for the ruling of the world which is concealed from mankind. The lofty Sefirot of Keter, Hochmah, and Binah are only connected to this physical world in a very hidden way, through the seven lower Sefirot. While the influx from the highest three remains concealed from the world, the lower seven were more apparent in Hashem’s running of His world. They were eventually revealed to an even greater extent through the seven tzaddikim who embodied these very attributes, and upon whom Hashem chose to rest His Shechinah.1 Through them, these Divine Attributes would be more openly revealed in the world, and mankind would recognize Hashem as its King and Ruler. This concept is expressed in Birkat Avot, the first blessing in Shemoneh Esre. We say, “the G-d of Avraham, the G-d of Yitzhak, and the G-d of Yaakov,” followed by the words, “the G-d Who is Gadol (Great), Gibbor, (Mighty), and Nora (Awesome).” This means that through Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, the Attributes of Hesed (Gadol), Gevurah (Gibbor), and Tiferet (Nora) were revealed on earth. Becoming a part of the Divine Chariot is no minor accomplishment; it clearly demanded enormous spiritual effort on the part of the Forefathers to reach these heights. However, it seems that within the overall framework of their intensive service of G-d, there was one central key point in their lives which earned each one their position in the Divine Chariot. This is apparent in the life of King David, who longed to be the fourth leg of the Divine Throne (see Moshia Hosim, II Shmuel 16, p. 319 and 321, citing the Sages; also mentioned in Hafetz Hayyim, Shaar HaTevunah, Chapter 8, citing the Sages. See also Zohar, vol. I, p.154b, and vol. II, p.107b). He only achieved this lofty level when he rose above his own innate nature and withstood an extremely difficult trial. King David’s son Avshalom sought to overthrow his father and have himself crowned king, forcing David and his loyal entourage to flee (II Shmuel 15). The misery of their flight was further aggravated by the behavior of Shimi ben Gera, a relative of the former King Shaul. Rather than offering support at this terrible time, Shimi hurried out to meet the fugitive king with curses and a hail of stones. Avishai ben Tzeruyah, David’s loyal servant, wanted to kill Shimi on the spot, but David
Avraham’s middah was Hesed (Lovingkindness); Yitzhak’s was Gevurah (Might); Yaakov’s, Tiferet (Glory); Moshe and Aharon were Netzach and Hod (Infinity and Splendor); Yosef’s middah was Yesod (Foundation); and David’s, Malchut (Kingship).
would not allow it. He said, “Let him curse, for so Hashem told him” (II Shmuel 16:5-13). As David saw it, Shimi was only alive and cursing because it was Hashem’s Will that he do so, and David accepted it as atonement for his sins (see Sefer HaHinuch 241). What would be the point of attacking Shimi, or even of hating him? How would anyone else have reacted to Shimi ben Gera’s unspeakable behavior? Surely with justified anger and a desire to retaliate, showing Shimi, and in fact, the entire nation, that King David was not one to trifle with. What is more, in Avishai’s opinion, Shimi’s behavior fell under the category of rebellion against a sovereign, and according to halachah, he was deserving of the death penalty (see Binah L’Ittim, Helek Alef, Derush L’Yom Sheni Shel Pesah). And yet, David overcame his own natural tendencies, and ordered Avishai not to harm Shimi. This enormous moral victory was the merit which earned David the privilege of becoming the fourth leg of the Heavenly Throne. David was now on par with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, the first three “legs” of the Throne.
Avraham and Sodom
What great moment earned Avraham his place as part of the Divine Chariot? Avraham’s very life was hesed, but there was one particular incident in which he reached exceptional heights: his prayers for Sodom (Bereshit 18:17-33). As we shall see, his appeal for this wicked society was the very peak of Avraham’s unparalleled hesed. We know that Avraham successfully underwent ten trials, each one of them a great test of his faith and commitment to the Al-mighty (Avot 5:3). It would seem that Akedat Yitzhak, Hashem’s command to Avraham to sacrifice his long-awaited and dearly beloved only son (Bereshit 22), was a greater act of devotion than offering up a prayer for Sodom. However, there was a critical difference between Akedat Yitzhak and Sodom. At the Akedah, Avraham was called upon to negate his fundamental trait. to subjugate his own overwhelming love and compassion to the Will of mighty, totally contradicting his own middah of hesed. Avraham’s plea for was related not to overcoming his natural hesed, but to raising that hesed to almost beyond comprehension. Who and what were Sodom and Amorah? These two cities were the embodiment of moral corruption, unequalled in any society before or since. As a matter of principle, they refused to give so much as a scrap of bread or sip of water to the poor and unfortunate – let alone a single penny in hard cash. They had not a shred of mercy for anyone at all. This was not the ugly behavior of a few deviants; it was their declared and unabashed social and legal code. The more we study of our Sages’ description of their utter degeneracy and
He had the AlSodom heights
cruelty toward their fellow men, we can only wonder how they sunk so frighteningly low (see Sanhedrin 109b; Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 25; Bereshit Rabbah 49:6). One answer is in keeping with a basic principle concerning the forces of good and evil. King Shlomo tells us that “G-d has created the one corresponding to the other” (Kohelet 7:14), meaning that there will always be two opposing forces which parallel one another. This is why “the greater the individual, the more powerful his evil inclination” (Sukkah 52a). As the Forces of Holiness grow stronger, the corresponding Forces of Impurity (kelipah) grow along with them. Moshe and Bilam are a classic example of the battle between the Forces of Sanctity and their impure counterforce. Our Sages tell us, “‘And there never arose another prophet in Israel like Moshe’ (Devarim 34:10). In Israel there did not arise, but among the nations of the world there did arise... And which prophet did they have like Moshe? This was Bilam the son of Be’or” (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20). Moshe Rabbenu reached the greatest heights of prophecy possible for a living human being. His prophetic knowledge of G-d derived from sanctity. On the opposite side of the fence, so to speak, stood an equally great prophetic power. However, this one derived his prophecy from the Forces of Impurity: “This was Bilam,” who was utterly wicked and immoral. Our Forefather Avraham was the “pillar of hesed,” bringing this magnificent trait to a degree of perfection unmatched ever before or since. Just as Moshe was faced with Bilam, in Avraham’s time too, there arose an opposing force of comparable magnitude – the civilization of Sodom and Amorah. Avraham was hesed personified; Sodom was its antithesis. “Light is only appreciated in contrast to darkness” (Zohar, vol. II, p. 184a). The darkness of their utter evil was the backdrop for Avraham’s great light.
Created for Hesed
Our Sages open a small window of insight into the source of Sodom’s warped philosophy: “Mine is mine and yours is yours, that is the way of Sodom” (Avot 5:10). In other words, the wickedness of the people of Sodom was the outgrowth of a sophisticated, although utterly perverted, philosophy. As they saw it, the Al-mighty had created the world with a certain immutable order; who would dare tamper with G-d’s plans? More specifically, they maintained, it was His Will that certain individuals should be rich and others should be poor. To this end, He gave wealth to some and withheld it from others. This is the way He wants it, and this was the way it has to be. That being the case, they said, giving charity contradicts G-d’s Will! Outrageous as this sounds, they actually believed it, and established an entire legal system based on this warped foundation.
This dreadful worldview is the total opposite of the Torah’s outlook, which teaches us that “the world was created for lovingkindness” (Tehillim 89:3). Hesed is not a perversion of G-d’s Will, as the people of Sodom believed – it is the very purpose of Creation. The Mekubalim teach that “it is the nature of one who is good to bestow good” (Derech Hashem Part 1, Chapter 2, and Daat Tevunot 1:42-43; see Etz Hayyim, beginning of Shaar HaKelalim).2 Hashem, Who is good in essence, created the world in order to bestow good on His created beings. It is His Will that they cleave to Him by emulating His ways and doing hesed with one another. Hashem created the entire world and all it contains. His vast universe can surely provide enough for every one of His creatures in abundance; He “sustains all beings, from the horns of the Re’em to the eggs of the lice” (Shabbat 107b). If it is His Will to bestow good, and He has no shortage of what to give, how can it be that so many people lack their basic needs? The lack is not an oversight – it serves a very distinct purpose. It is Hashem’s Will that His created beings sustain, support, and perfect one another through the hesed of providing each other’s needs. He could have given everyone exactly what they require, making every individual fully self-sufficient. Instead, He created the rich and the poor, each with a role to play in the other’s continued existence and spiritual refinement (see Maharal, Netivot Olam Alef, Netiv HaTzedakah, Chapter 6). We find this concept in our Sages’ account of an exchange between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor Tinneius Rufus: “The wicked Tinneius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva a question. ‘If your G-d loves the poor, why doesn’t He support them?’ [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, ‘So that through [the merit of helping] them, we will be saved from the punishment of Hell’” (Baba Batra 10a). This is why Hashem created the world lacking, so to speak. People need one another and complete one another. The wise teach the ignorant, the strong protect the weak, the rich support the poor. For the same reason, man and woman were each created with their own weaknesses and strengths: they are the ideal complement, with one providing what the other lacks. The recipient gains his needs, and the giver gains spiritual perfection by emulating Hashem through giving. With this in mind, we can understand the verse, “Do not withhold good from its owners, when you have the power in hand to do” (Mishle 3:27). If Hashem has given us wealth, we should not withhold it from its rightful owner. The commentaries tell us just who this “owner” is: it is not us – it is those who are in need, and the “good,” the abundance granted by Hashem, really belongs to them (see commentaries of Metzudat David and Ibn Ezra).
See Parashah Insights on Bereshit for a fuller discussion of this topic. 7
We should not imagine that we are doing a noble act of kindness when we give a poor person something of ours. The excess we have is actually his, and we are merely holding the funds on his behalf. It was placed “in our hand” on deposit, so to speak, in order for us to pass it on to him, so that if we “withhold good from its owners,” we literally rob them of what is in fact their portion. The proof is that we have “the power in hand to do.” Hashem has given us more than enough for ourselves, precisely so that we should pass it on to its rightful owner as charity; otherwise, He would not have given us a surplus. This concept is explained in the Ohr HaHayyim’s commentary on the verse, “If you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not be like a creditor to him, and do not put interest on him”(Shmot 22:24). When we lend money, the Torah forbids us to pressure our debtor for repayment, and forbids us to charge him interest on the loan. The Ohr HaHayyim cites the Mechilta’s teaching that in the Torah, the term im (literally “if”) is used in relation to actions which are optional rather than obligatory. There is one exception: this verse. We are in fact obligated to lend money to those who need our help. Why, then, does the Torah use wording which implies choice, rather than an explicit commandment? He writes that with the word “if,” the Torah answers a question. At times, we see that an extremely wealthy person has been blessed with more than he could ever possibly need or use for himself. Why was he granted such plenty? Hashem could easily have given him only as much as he needs, rather than fabulous wealth. For our Forefather Yaakov, “bread to eat and a garment to wear” (Bereshit 28:20) were enough. Why does he have more? On the other hand, the opposite is also true – we see that there are those who lack even the basics. Why is the distribution so very uneven? The Ohr HaHayyim explains that poverty is a form of punishment which atones for sin, while the abundance of wealth has its own purpose. Overall, Hashem created more than enough to amply supply the needs of everyone on earth. However, the plenty was not equally divided up into each individual’s basket, so to speak. It is concentrated in a few central “baskets,” owned by the affluent. It became their obligation to distribute it properly. There are those who, for reasons known to the Almighty alone, are not holding one of the big baskets. They will not be privileged to receive their share with dignity and ease as do the wealthy; they will get what is theirs through others, in a manner which is humbling and humiliating. This arrangement serves a dual function. For the poor recipient, the suffering and humiliation involved are an effective atonement for his sins. For the wealthy donor, it is a way to earn merit by giving to others. This is why the Torah says “if you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you.” If we see that we have more than we need, so much that we can
afford to lend to others, we should realize that the excess is not ours; it is the portion of our poor brethren in need. What we give them is their share, waiting for them under our name. The verse continues “do not be like a creditor (nosheh) to him.” The word nosheh is an allusion to nesiut, lording it over others. If we are lucky enough to be the one with money to lend, rather than the poor fellow begging for a loan, we should not feel that we are superior. We are only giving him what is truly his.
Praying for Sodom
As we explained, Avraham was chosen to be the world’s pillar of hesed, who would lift this trait to heights never equaled anywhere on earth. Therefore, there also had to be an impure force opposing him with all its might, with a vicious ferocity that was also unmatched. This is how there could arise not only an individual, but an entire nation dedicated to a cruel philosophy of “anti-hesed.” They despised kindness, compassion, and altruism, and instituted a system of legislation and law enforcement to fight against hesed in a manner unthinkable at any other time in history. Even the most selfish of nations will express at least grudging admiration for those who are generous and kind. In Sodom, it was law, backed by the courts, that anyone who dared perform an act of kindness was brutally executed! And yet, this was part of Hashem’s plan. Avraham raised the banner of hesed. In response, an entire civilization sprung up dedicated to the battle against hesed in all its forms, in order to present Avraham with a tremendous struggle in establishing the ways of hesed on earth. The evil culture of Sodom existed solely in opposition to Avraham, providing him with a most formidable trial. When Hashem intended to overturn Sodom, He said, “Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do?” (Bereshit 18:17). The Hatam Sofer asks an interesting question. Nowhere does the Torah suggest that Hashem ever had doubts about revealing a prophecy to any of the other prophets. Why do we find that He hesitated before informing Avraham about the imminent destruction of Sodom (Introduction to Responsa on Yoreh Deah)? We can answer the Hatam’s Sofer question in light of the relationship between Avraham and Sodom. Morally, Sodom was already down to the dregs and entirely deserving of destruction for their wickedness. However, Hashem wanted to give Avraham the opportunity to be the cause of their destruction. How? By praying for them – by doing hesed even with these most unworthy degenerates, the antithesis of his hesed.
Sodom had hit bottom; they were as cruel as cruelty could ever be. And yet, Avraham repeatedly begged Hashem to spare them in the merit of the few righteous individuals who lived among them. His prayers for Sodom, the nation whose very existence was diametrically opposed to everything he lived for, were the epitome of hesed. By beseeching Hashem to spare them nonetheless, he brought hesed to its ultimate peak. He only gave up when he could no longer muster a reasonable plea of merit on their behalf. Sodom deserved destruction, and Avraham deserved to be the one who destroyed them. His incomparable hesed in praying for his own impure counterforce proved absolutely that Sodom had no justification for existence. It was his very prayer on their behalf that destroyed the power of their anti-hesed, obliterating them forever. For Avraham, this was the turning point. He had overcome his inherent nature and elevated the trait of hesed to its loftiest heights. In this great merit, Avraham, the ish ha’hesed, became “an extension of the Divine Chariot,” the conduit which brings Divine hesed down to our world for all time.
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