The midrash records how a young Avram (later Avraham) concluded
on his own that G-d exists. Just as a palace cannot exist
without a builder, it is not possible for a world such as ours to
exist unless it had a creator, Avraham reasoned.
When the students of the Mir Yeshiva took refuge in Shanghai,
China during World War II, they found a vast, empty synagogue
available for the yeshiva's use. There was no rational reason
for a synagogue of that size to exist in a city that had never
had more than a tiny Jewish presence. Perhaps concerning this
event, R' Yechezkel Levenstein z"l (mashgiach of the yeshiva)
observed in a 1941 address: "Although we have never seen the
builder or the caretaker of this shul, we understand without a
doubt that there was a builder and there is a caretaker."
He continued: But how does a person like Avraham, who lives in
a world devoid of knowledge of G-d, come to recognize G-d? The
answer is that if a person is troubled enough by a problem, he
finds a solution. Even if the solution is beyond one's normal
abilities, one finds a way to attain it when he feels that he has
no other choice.
The gemara teaches that although prophecy has been taken away
from the prophets, it has been given to the wise. Indeed, said
R' Levenstein, it is nothing less than prophetic when a person
struggles over a problem and then sees light. Avraham, too,
could not rest because he was so troubled by not knowing who had
"built the palace," and thus he found an answer. (Mi'mizrach
"If so much as from a thread to a shoelace; or if I shall
take from anything of yours! So you shall not say, 'It was
I who made Avram rich'." (14:23)
The Midrash Tanchuma states: Hashem said to Avraham, "Because
you said, 'If so much as from a thread to a shoelace,' I will
purify your descendants on an altar surrounded by a thread. Also,
because you said, 'If so much as from a thread,' I will give your
descendants the mitzvah of the tzitzit threads.
"Because you said, 'to a shoelace,' I will give your
descendants the mitzvah of removing their shoes. Because you
said, 'shoe,' I will give your descendants the mitzvah of Korban
Pesach, about which it says (Shmot 12:11), 'Thus shall you eat it
. . . your shoes on your feet'."
R' Yaakov Ettlinger z"l (see page 4) explains this midrash as
follows: There are four risks to being rich. First, wealth may
make a person haughty. Second, wealth may cause a person to
abandon G-d. Third, wealth gives a person the ability to pursue
all of his desires, which may lead a person to sin. Finally,
wealth brings increased worries.
As a reward for Avraham's statement in the above verse, Hashem
promised Avraham that He would protect Avraham's descendants from
these four risks. First, the thread surrounding the altar refers
to the line that separated the top half of the altar, where the
blood of the chatat was sprinkled, from the bottom half, where
the blood of the olah was sprinkled. Chazal teach that an olah
sacrifice atones for haughtiness because the sinner sees that the
blood is sprinkled low down on the altar. Similarly, recalling
the line (or thread) on the altar protects a person from
Second, wearing tzitzit protects a person from forgetting
Hashem and abandoning Him because tzitzit are a constant reminder
of all of the mitzvot (see Bemidbar 15:39).
Third, removing one's shoe reminds one to distance himself from
material desires. Thus, for example, one removes his shoes in a
holy place (see, for example, Shmot 3:5). Also, one who refuses
to perform the mitzvah of yibum (marrying the widow of his
childless brother) is commanded to remove his shoes. (Such a
person effectively says that he refuses to allow the Torah to
choose a wife for him and would rather marry based on personal
Finally, the mitzvah of Korban Pesach is intended to counteract
excessive worries, in particular, fear of death. Bnei Yisrael
were commanded to eat the Korban Pesach with their shoes on in
order to be prepared for the Exodus on a moment's notice.
Similarly, Hashem may call a person to Him at any moment and he
should be ready to go joyfully.
"Fear not Avram, I am your shield, your compensation is
exceedingly great." (15:1)
R' Samson Raphael Hirsch z"l (19th century) explains G-d's
words as follows: I remain your shield, and the happiness which
blossoms from your devotion and self-sacrifice has no bounds.
R' Hirsch observes further: In Tanach, there is very little
said about reward. The good that G-d wants us to practice is
itself the truest reward. Compensation is only demanded by one
who believes he has sacrificed something, but to a true Jew,
fulfilling a duty, doing a mitzvah, is no sacrifice but is itself
a gain. "The compensation for a mitzvah is a mitzvah" [we are
taught in Pirkei Avot].
(Commentary on the Torah, p.268-269)
In his commentary to the quoted mishnah in Pirkei Avot, R'
Hirsch writes: "The good that you do will lead to more good, and
every act of duty bears its own reward. The knowledge that you
have done the will of your Father in Heaven will bring you closer
to Him; it will enrich your spirit with the happy awareness of
having done the right thing.
(The Hirsch Siddur p.474)
R' Natan Zvi Brisk z"l (Cseke, Hungary; 20th century) explains
the above mishnah as follows: Hashem wants to reward man for his
good deeds. Therefore, it is a mitzvah to enable Hashem to
compensate you for an earlier mitzvah. One performs this mitzvah
by performing other mitzvot.
Similarly, the mishnah states: "The compensation for a sin is a
sin." When one causes Hashem to punish him, he saddens Hashem.
This is itself a sin.
"She called the Name of Hashem Who spoke to her, 'You are
the G-d of Vision,' for she said, 'Even here I saw after
having seen'." (16:13)
R' Chaim of Volozhin z"l (early 19th century) explains: The
gemara (Mo'ed Kattan 25a) says that a certain sage was worthy of
being a prophet, but one cannot become a prophet outside of Eretz
Yisrael. If so, the gemara asks, how did the prophet Yechezkel
receive prophecy outside of Eretz Yisrael? The gemara explains
that if someone previously experienced prophecy in the Holy Land,
his prophecy can continue outside of the Land.
Similarly, says R' Chaim, Hagar was now outside of Eretz
Yisrael (see Targum Onkelos and the beginning of Tractate
Gittin). In our verse, she recognized that she saw an angel now
only because she was used to seeing angels in Avraham's house.
(Quoted in Be'urei Rabbenu Chaim Mi'Volozhin)
R' Asher Wallerstein z"l
R' Asher was born in 1754, in the old age of his father, the
Sha'agat Aryeh (one of the greatest Torah scholars of the 18th
century). R' Asher was a student of his father and of R' Meir
Zayeh of Metz, and later served as rabbi of Karlsruhe.
R' Gedaliah Rothenburg of Bodingheim, a student of the Sha'agat
Aryeh and of R' Asher, writes of the latter (in his approbation
to the former's Talmud commentary, Gevurat Ari):
The son is a limb of his father . . . and is a famous rabbi
known throughout the diaspora. . . As a youngster, seven or
eight years old, he already had a sharp and well-honed mind.
At that age, if he was shown a difficult passage by Rambam
and was told in what part of the gemara the answer lay, he
could work out the answer in a short time. When he became
bar mitzvah, his father said to him, "Because I know that
you have a clear mind and that you are a vessel which is fit
to receive the Torah of Hashem, therefore be strong and
become a person who is great in Torah - "A wise son pleases
his father" [in the words of Mishlei 10:1] - then I will be
honored because of you in the world of Truth." When he was
15 years old, he studied with his father an entire tractate
every day . . . When he was 17 or 18, the rabbinical court
and the Torah scholars of Metz and all the travelers who
passed through Metz were amazed by his sharpness and vast
knowledge, and his father publicly declared that his son was
sharper than he.
The best known student of R' Asher was R' Yaakov Ettlinger,
author of the popular Talmud commentary, Aruch La'Ner, and
teacher of R' Samson Raphael Hirsch. R' Ettlinger attributed to
R' Asher the most powerful influence on his way of learning.
Some of R' Asher's Talmudic interpretations are printed in
She'eilot U'teshuvot Sha'agat Aryeh Ha'chaddashot and in R'
Ettlinger's Binyan Zion. R' Asher died in 1837. (Sources:
Gedolei Hadorot 532-533; Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch [Artscroll],
Sponsored by The Edeson family in honor of the 54th anniversary of Jacob Edeson's bar mitzvah.