These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly portion: #1138 – Who’s Better For A Shliach Tzibur – A FFB or BT? Good Shabbos!
In this week’s parsha, Hashem promises Yitzchak, “I will increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and will give to your offspring all these lands; and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring. Because Avraham obeyed My voice and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.” (Bereshis 26:4-5). Rishonim marshal this last pasuk as a proof that Avraham kept the entire Torah even before it was given, and in fact claim that this was the practice of the other forefathers as well. The Ramban raises apparent counter-examples to this principle that the Avos kept the entire Torah prior to its being given. One of the points he mentions is that Yaakov Avinu simultaneously married two sisters, which is one of the Torah’s arayos (forbidden marital relationships).
In a famous answer, the Ramban says that the Avos only fully kept the future laws of the Torah in Eretz Yisrael, “for the Torah is the rule of the G-d of the Land” and Yaakov’s simultaneous marriage to two sisters ended before Yaakov returned from Charan to Eretz Yisrael. This is how everyone reads this famous Ramban: He is trying to answer the question ‘How can it be that the Avos kept the entire Torah before it was given, and yet Yaakov married two sisters?’ The Ramban answers: His marriage to them was only in chutz l’Aretz!
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky takes issue with this understanding and argues that this is not the correct interpretation of this Ramban. Rav Yaakov says the question ‘How could Yaakov marry two sisters?’ never begins! The reason Yaakov married two sisters is because he made a commitment! He promised Rochel “I am going to marry you.” Once he gave his word to Rochel, he had to marry her. A person is not allowed to go back on his word. The fact that he and the other Avos kept the laws of the Torah that would be given in the future was only a ‘chumrah‘ (an act of optional piety on their part). However, if a personal chumrah contradicts my word to someone else, my word must take precedence!
“There is no justification for allowing Rochel to suffer because of my chumrahs!” This must be seen as a general rule with broad applications: When a person’s personal stringencies impinge upon someone else, he needs to forego his stringency. Once Yaakov gave his word to Rochel, it was a ‘no brainer’ that he would need to marry her. Lavan pulled a fast one on him and he wound up marrying Leah, but that would in no way stop him from keeping his word to Rochel.
So, according to Rav Yaakov’s explanation, what does the Ramban mean when he says that the Avos did not keep the entire Torah in chutz l’Aretz? Rav Yaakov explains that the Ramban is coming to answer a different question with that statement. We know that there is a rule: The Holy One Blessed Be He will not bring a takalah (‘misfortune’) through the actions of the righteous. For instance, if a Tzadik went into a restaurant and he had a steak and then it came out that this restaurant was selling neveilah (non-kosher meat) the piece of meat that the Tzadik ate could in no way be treife (non-kosher). Heaven would have seen to it that some other customer was given the non-kosher meat. It could not have entered the mouth of the Tzadik, because of the hard and fast rule that the Almighty would not allow a Tzadik to stumble.
Therefore, the Ramban is asking, according to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, how did the Almighty let this happen to Yaakov? How did he let Lavan pull this fast one on Yaakov, if the Almighty will never allow a Tzadik to spiritually stumble? How could it be that Yaakov was put in a situation where he ‘had to sin’ by keeping his word to marry Rochel (who was now his sister-in-law). The Ramban answers by saying that it was in fact not an aveira (sin) at all, because they were living in chutz l’Aretz and only in Eretz Yisrael would it be considered an aveira for the Avos to marry two sisters.
The takeaway lesson from this interpretation of the Ramban’s question and answer is that this is Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky l’shitaso (consistent with his life’s major ethical behavior). Rav Yaakov’s practice in life was that a person’s word is sacred. If someone has given his word—that’s it! There are very few things that trump a person’s word, and certainly personal chumras do not trump a person’s word.
I will cite two incidents from Rav Yaakov (the name of whose sefer is Emes L’Yaakov) to demonstrate how he personified and exemplified this attribute of truth and personal integrity throughout his life.
Rav Yaakov lived into his nineties. Towards the end of his life, he started putting on Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin (which have the parshiyos placed in a different order within the Tefillin compartments) in addition to the standard Rashi Tefillin. Rav Yaakov was a quintessential Litvak (Lithuanian Jew). He was born in Lita, he was raised in Lita, and he studied in the Slabodka Yeshiva. He was a full-bred Litvak and Misnagid. Misdagdim and Litvaks do not put on Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin (a practice more prevalent among Chassidic Jewry). So why at the end of his days was he putting on Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin?
Many years earlier—fifty or sixty years earlier—someone asked him, “Why don’t you wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin?” He answered, “I don’t wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin because I am a Litvak. I am a Misnagid. We don’t wear Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin.” The fellow said to him, “But, the Chofetz Chaim, toward the end of his life, also started wearing Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin (even though he too was a Litvak and Misnagid). Rav Yaakov said something to the effect of: “When I get to be the Chofetz Chaim’s age, I too will wear Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin.”
When someone is 25 or 30 years old, he can easily say “Yes, when I’m 85 I will put on Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin.” In those days, people’s life expectancies were certainly not into their eighties or nineties. But because a young Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky said, “When I get to be the Chofetz Chaim’s age, I will put on Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin,” he kept his word. That is why he wore Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin. A person’s word is his word.
The second incident is similar. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky did not eat ‘Gebrokts’ on Pesach. Now, this too is atypical of Litvaks and Misnagdim, who are not particular about eating matzah products that have come into contact with liquid on Pesach. It is a Chassidishe minhag. Litvaks generally eat kneidlach, matza-brei, matzah with butter and jelly, and all such good things.
Rav Yaakov did not eat ‘Gebrockts’. He let his family eat Gebrokts, but he did not eat it on Pesach. How did that happen? Rav Yaakov learned in Slabodka. In those days, there was no such thing as a Yeshiva dining room. So how did Yeshiva bochrim eat? There was an institution known as ‘teg.’ Every day or every two days, various Yeshiva bochrim would be assigned to a different host in the community, and they would be guests by that household.
In those days, it was not like today when everyone goes home for Pesach. Those were the good old days where men were men, and if you were in Yeshiva, you were in Yeshiva for years at a time without a break. Who had the money to travel back and forth from Yeshiva to home for Yomim Tovim (the holidays) and Bein HaZmanim (Yeshiva breaks)? So the Yeshiva assigned different bochrim to eat in different houses during Pesach as well.
Rav Yaakov was assigned to eat in a certain person’s house. Rav Yaakov, for whatever reason, was not satisfied with the level of kashrus in that house. But what was he going to tell them? It would be insulting to say “I don’t trust your Kashrus.” What did he say? He said, “I would love to come but I don’t eat Gebrokts!” After all, this was Slabodka, where virtually everyone ate Gebrokts. The hosts bought his excuse. They were not insulted and he did not need to eat by them over Pesach.
But once Rav Yaakov said, “I don’t eat ‘Gebrokts’ on Pesach” he did not eat Gebrokts on Pesach for the rest of his life. He kept his word. When you say something, you need to keep it.
That is Rav Yaakov’s perspective in this vort on the Parsha. It is easy to ‘talk the talk’ but Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky also ‘walked the walk.’ He was a yafeh doresh (someone who expounded nicely) v’yafeh m’kayem (and who also put his nice words into practice).
And Yitzchak Gave the Wells the Same Names as His Father Had Given Them
The pasuk says, “All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Avraham his father, the Plishtim stopped up, and filled them with earth.” (Bereshis 26:15). The Chumash continues: “And Yitzchak dug anew the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Avraham his father and the Plishtim had stopped them up after Avraham’s death; and he called them by the same names that his father had called them.” (Bereshis 26:18)
Avraham dug wells and the Plishtim stopped them up. Yitzchak came along and re-dug those same wells. Not only did he re-dig the same wells, he renamed them with the very same names that Avraham had originally called them.
One might ask—although this is a somewhat irreverent way to state it—Who cares? Lech-Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sarah relate the life story of Avraham. Vayetzei, Vayishlach, Vayeshev and then Miketz, Vayigash, and Vayechi relate the life stories of Yaakov and Yosef. Yitzchak only gets a single parsha, Parshas Toldos. Is this event so significant? Do we really need the story of the wells in the one short parsha devoted to Yitzchak? Obviously, this must be significant if the Torah, which includes precious few words about Yitzchak, goes through the effort of including all these details. What is the deeper message here?
The sefer HaKesav v’HaKabalah explains that Avraham’s digging of the wells was a tremendous public service. Society back then was not like it is today. Someone could not go to the faucet in his home, turn on the tap and get water. Having a well was a big deal. When people travelled, there were no rest stops where they could stop to get a Coke or lemonade. There was no indoor plumbing. There were none of these things.
What did Avraham do? He called each of the wells he dug by a specific name. The HaKesav v’HaKabalah writes that the names Avraham gave his wells all had to do with the Name of Hashem. He called Yerushalayim “Hashem Yir-eh” (G-d sees) and he called another city “Beis El” (the House of G-d). Avraham Avinu wanted to put the Name of Hashem into the mouths of people. He was a revolutionary, an iconoclast. His introduction of monotheism into a world of polytheism was a spiritual revolution. The Rambam writes that he was successful in bringing tens of thousands of people under the Wings of Divine Presence. He weaned the masses from idolatry and put the Name of G-d into their vocabulary. He did that through feeding people and being m’karev people. But he also did it by digging wells and giving each of them names that had to do with Hashem.
When a person would ask another traveler, “Where did you get your water?” he would answer, “Oh, I got it at the Well of Hashem, the Be’er Elokim, the Be’er Shakai. That had a tremendous impact on people because they had to think: G-d’s Well! People associated water and public service with the Ribono shel Olam.
When the Plishtim stuffed up the wells, it was not just an act of vandalism. They had to have a motivation for doing this—as obviously they needed the water as well. They stuffed up the wells because they saw what effect those wells had on society. People were now abandoning the pagan gods and believing in the Ribono shel Olam. They stuffed up Avraham’s wells to eradicate the Name of Hashem from the lips of the masses. Their goal was to reduce the mention of the Ribono shel Olam in the mouths of people.
The HaKesav v’HaKabalah writes that Yitzchak wanted to re-implement the original plan of his father. He re-dug those same wells AND—what is more important—he called them the same names that his father called them, to reintroduce the concept of “the Be’er of Hashem,” “the Be’er Shakai,” the “Be’er Tzivakos,” or whatever he called them. These were not just water holes. This was a religious war, a cultural battle to wean people from avodah zarah.
Therefore, this is far from an insignificant act in the life of Yitzchak. It is a very significant and characteristic act on the part of Yitzchak Avinu.
Yitzchak Trembled Twice in His Life
The following is part of a Teshuva Drasha that Rav Yaakov Breish (1895-1976) said in Switzerland on the Yom Kippur following World War II.
Eisav came into Yitzchak and said, “…I am your first-born son Eisav.” The very next pasuk says “Yitzchak trembled a great trembling…” (Bereshis 27:32-33) The Medrash Tanchuma notes that Yitzchak trembled twice in his life. The first time was when his father placed him on the Mizbayach at the time of Akeidas Yitzchak. The second time was when Eisav entered after Yaakov had taken the brachos (blessings).
Which was the greater of the two frights? From the fact that the pasuk says by the second trembling “Gedolah ad me’od” (exceedingly great), we understand that Yitzchak trembling when Eisav entered after Yaakov took the brachos was the greater of the two frights.
Rav Yaakov Breish said an incredible thing in that Yom Kippur drasha, given the historical context:
Over the centuries, Klal Yisrael has lost millions of people. They have lost millions of people in two ways.
(1) They lost millions of people because people “were moser nefesh al gabay hamizbayach” – i.e., people were willing to give up their lives for Yiddishkeit. They did this throughout the millennia.
(2) Unfortunately, there was also another way how Jews have been lost and that is through assimilation. This is the expression we hear all too often today: We are witnessing our own holocaust. It is not a holocaust of people being killed; it is a holocaust of shrinkage through assimilation. The number of Jews in America has remained steady at approximately five million for the last fifty years. Simple demographics dictate that if there were five million Jews forty or fifty years ago, then there should be a significant geometric progression by now. It should not remain constant at five million.
Why are there still only five million? The answer is that people are intermarrying and we are losing people. It is not because our enemies are killing us, it is because they are embracing us. The major trembling that Yitzchak experienced here was that Eisav was bringing him delicacies. He was trying to win our favor. He was trying to be open to us.
Which is a greater fear—losing Jews who are martyred or losing Jews to the fact that Eisav is bringing delicacies and trying to win us over to his camp? That is the question the Medrash poses. And the Medrash answers that the latter fear is the greater of the two. Charada Gedola ad Me’od. This is a far greater tragedy about which one must tremble exceedingly.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem Davi[email protected]
Edited by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Toldos is provided below:
- # 031 – Marriage Between Relatives
- # 073 – Non-Kosher Medicines and the Birchas Hareiach (Scents)
- # 122 – G’neivas Da’as: Deception and Your Fellow Man
- # 169 – The Blind Person in Halacha
- # 215 – V’sain Tal U’matar
- # 259 – “Sorfin Al Hachzakos”: The Concept of Chazaka in Halacha
- # 305 – The Bracha of “Baruch Sheptarani”
- # 349 – Must Mincha Have a “Chazoras Hashatz”?
- # 393 – Neitz Hachama vs. Tefilah B’tzibur
- # 437 – Accepting Tzedaka from Women
- # 481 – Lying to Keep What’s Yours
- # 525 – Maris Ayin
- # 569 – Yichud With Relatives
- # 613 – Shiva and the Wayward Son
- # 657 – Fascinating Insights into the Tefilah of Mincha
- # 701 – Fasting on The Wedding Day
- # 745 – The Cost of Stealing a Mizvah
- # 789 – The Power of Your Own Words
- # 833 – Six or Ten People for Chazoras Hashatz?
- # 877 – Bar Mitzvah Sh’ailos
- # 921 – Accepting Someone Else’s Curse
- # 964 – The Non-Observant at Your Yom Tov Meal: Good idea or Problem?
- #1008 – “I Don’t Want You To Marry That Man” Must A Daughter Listen?
- #1052 – Seudas Hav’ra’ah and Sending Food During Shiva
- #1095 – Fascinating Bar Mitzvah Sh’ailos
- #1138 – Who’s Better For A Shliach Tzibur – A FFB or BT?
- #1181 – Maaser Money On Chasunah Gifts – Must You?
- #1225 – The Bar Mitzvah Bochur Who Leined His Haftorah by Heart
- #1269 – The B.T. Dilemma: Can He Trust His Non-Observant Parents That All Will Be Kosher?
- #1313 – An Orthodox Minyan in a Conservative Shul: Is there A Problem with Ma’aris Ayin?
- #1357 – Blood and DNA Test in Determining Paternity
- #1401 – Keeping Your Website Open For Business On Shabbos – Is there a Problem?
- #1445 – The December Office Party at Ruth Chris Steak House – Can You Attend?
- #1489 – Why Don’t Many Yeshivos Do Chazoras HaShatz for Mincha?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.