Concise Code: Lighting Shabbat Candles

Excerpted from “The Concise Code of Jewish Law – Vol. 2: A Guide to the Observance of Shabbat by Rabbi Gersion Appel, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

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2. It is a mitzvah to light many candles in the home in honor of Shabbat. Some are accustomed to light ten candles, others seven candles. One of the most common customs is to light one candle for every member of the family. In any case, you should light no less than two candles*, symbolizing shamor and zachor, the words that the Torah uses to introduce the commandment of Shabbat in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments, respectively. (In Sefer Shemot, the verse says, “Remember—zachor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8) and in Sefer Devarim, the verse says, “Observe—shamor—the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Devarim 5:12)**. If necessary, though, one candle suffices. The candles should be of sufficient size so that they will burn at least until after the meal. You should try to obtain fine candles that will give a good light.

Rav Huna said, “One who regularly lights Shabbat candles will merit children who are learned in Torah” (Shabbat 23b). This is hinted to in the verse, “For the commandment (mitzvah) is a candle, and Torah is light” (Mishlei 6:23), that is to say, through the mitzvah of lighting the Shabbat candles will come the light of Torah (Rashi to Shabbat 23b, s.v. banim).

You should give some charity before lighting the candles.***

  • * A Woman Who Forgot to Light Shabbat Candles: The custom is that if a woman forgets to light the Shabbat candles, she lights an extra candle every week from then on. If she didn’t light, however, because she was prevented from doing so for some compelling reason, she does not need to light an additional candle. If a woman could not light the candles, but someone else lit candles for her, she likewise does not need to light an additional candle. Our traditional minhagim are to be taken seriously and cherished, as they are passed down from generation to generation. A person should never think that a minhag can be treated lightly, as minhagim form the bedrock of our experience as Jews. This minhag is no exception. Since, however, the purpose of Shabbat candles is to introduce tranquility and shalom bayit into the home, it would be both ironic and wrong to impose the penalty of having to light an extra candle on a woman, as in many cases forgetting to light Shabbat candles is part of a more complex dynamic in the home. In the event that the Shabbat candles were not lit, a family would be best advised to seek the counsel of a rabbi who will sensitively direct them towards the proper conduct in the future.
  • ** Number of Shabbat Candles: Seven candles are taken to correspond to the seven days of the week and the seven lights of the Menorah in the Sanctuary, while ten candles would correspond to the Ten Commandments. The prevalent custom is to light two candles and an additional candle for each child in the family. However, the extra candles over and above the two that are traditional in every home do not have to be on the table where the meal is eaten. If you are away from home, the custom is to light only the minimum two candles, regardless of your practice at home.
  • *** Prayers at Candle Lighting: Candle lighting is traditionally a time of prayer as well. Many women have the custom to pray for their children and families at this holy time (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 75:2)


6. The duty to light Shabbat candles applies to men as well as to women,* except that women take precedence with respect to this mitzvah, and when a woman is home, she is accorded the privilege of lighting the Shabbat candles.** The husband may assist in performing the mitzvah by preparing the candles, and by lighting the wicks and then snuffing them out, as this will make them easier to kindle. In the case of a woman who has given birth, although the husband lights the candles at home if the wife is still in the hospital, she may light in her room, where she eats, and make the berachah as well. ***

  • * Who is Obligated to Light Candles?: There is often a bit of confusion regarding who is obligated to light Shabbat candles. Casual observation might lead a person to conclude that only married women are obligated to light. This is not so. In order to understand who has to light and when, it might be helpful to organize the halachah into the following levels of obligation: The first level is the formal obligation to light candles with a berachah every week. This level is generally kept by married women only (see following note). Married women light candles with a berachah no matter where they are, and even if many other women are lighting. The second level of obligation is for each individual to ensure that he or she is in a place with light, as everyone is obligated to have lights for the Shabbat meal. The difference between this level and the previous one is that not everyone is actually obligated to light the candles and say the berachah. For example, a student who is away from home is obligated in the mitzvah of Shabbat candles, but he or she fulfills that obligation if someone else is lighting. A yeshiva student thus does not have to light candles in the dining room because, generally, one of the faculty or his wife will light there. If no one else lights, one of the students must light for all. Similarly, if a young woman who lives in her own apartment is a guest for Shabbat, she does not need to light candles, as her hosts will provide the lights on her behalf. However, if she is hosting the meal, she would need to light her own candles, as no one else is going to do so. The third level is to avoid being completely in the dark even if it is not during the meal. This would impact someone who would not ordinarily need to light for any of the reasons found above, yet finds himself or herself sleeping in a room that is pitch black. In that case, there is an obligation to light candles with a berachah. However, if there is a light from the outside which helps the person to see in his or her room, no additional light is needed. In truth, this third level is much less common in our day and age
    with street, hall, and house lights as ubiquitous as they are.
  • ** The Custom for Girls to Light Shabbat Candles: It is customary in most communities that a woman begins lighting Shabbat candles on the Shabbat following her wedding. A girl who lives at home is not obliged to light Shabbat candles. However, if she wishes, she may light candles without reciting the berachah, but listen to her mother’s blessing and then say Amen. An unmarried woman, as well as a man, who lives independently or away from home, should light candles. Some, such as the Hasidim of Lubavitch, have adopted the custom that girls from three years of age light candles for Shabbat. This is intended to acquaint them with the mitzvah and to inspire them for its observance. Others, however, particularly Sefardim, do not follow this practice.
  • *** Lighting Candles After Childbirth: In the view of some poskim, women should not light the candles on the first Shabbat following childbirth. However, the general custom is for women to light them if they are able.

Parshat Toldot: A Blessing on Your Head?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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As Yitzchak ages and develops blindness, he arranges to bless his older and favored son, Esav. Rivka, upon overhearing her husband’s plans, instructs her favorite, Yaakov, to masquerade as his older brother in order to receive his father’s blessing.

Yaakov complies with his mother’s instructions and is successful in deceiving his father and obtaining the blessing.

When Esav returns and discovers his brother’s actions, he threatens Yaakov’s life. In response, Rivka instructs Yaakov to return to her homeland, both for his own protection and to find a wife. Yaakov leaves for Padan Aram with his father’s agreement and further blessings.


A number of difficult and fundamental questions can be raised as we take a new look at this familiar, yet strange, biblical narrative. These questions strike to the very core of the tale and to the basic issues that it raises.

First, and foremost, how do we understand the concept of interpersonal berachot (blessings bestowed by man) within Jewish tradition? What, exactly, is the nature of man’s power to bless? What strength do the blessings that we recite on behalf of others, such as prayers for those who are ill, really have?

Are interpersonal blessings so magical that if they are recited in error they are, nonetheless, effective? Specifically, if Yitzchak bestows a blessing upon Yaakov believing that he is really blessing Esav, does Yaakov nonetheless receive the blessing because he is standing there?

How does God fit into the picture? What is Rivka so terribly frightened of? If Esav had been blessed by his father couldn’t God have countermanded that blessing? Doesn’t God ultimately bless the individual who is most deserving?

Why is the entire struggle for the blessing necessary? Couldn’t Yitzchak have blessed each of his children? Esav’s objection upon discovering Yaakov’s deceit, “Have you only one blessing, my father?” seems to make a great deal of sense.

How could Yitzchak have been so unaware as to believe that Esav, and not Yaakov, should be the heir to the spiritual legacy of the family? [Note: One approach to this question has already been offered (see Toldot 1, Approaches f).]

How are we to approach the issue of means and ends as it applies to Yaakov and Rivka in this narrative? What moral lessons are we meant to learn? How could Rivka instruct her son to deceive his father and how could Yaakov agree? Is there any value to a blessing received through deceit? Does the end justify the means? (These questions will be addressed separately in the next study.)


A wide variety of answers are suggested by the rabbis in response to the questions raised above. Listed below are some, although far from all, of their approaches. As will soon become clear, the pieces of the puzzle can be mixed and matched as the rabbinic comments are combined to create a cohesive picture.


The power of interpersonal blessing is a God-given gift so fundamental that it is included in the very first instructions given to the first Hebrew. As God commands Avraham to leave his homeland and embark upon his career, God states: “And you will be a blessing.”

The rabbis, in the Midrash, interpret this phrase as follows: “Blessings are given to your hand. Until now, they were in My [God’s] hand. I blessed Adam and Noach. From this time on you will bless whom you wish.”

By granting man the power to bless, God withdraws and deliberately limits his own power. As part of the divine partnership agreement with humanity, God will respect the words spoken by man and reckon with them when he makes his decisions. Man, thus, acquires the power of blessing and prayer.

God grants effectiveness to our prayers, both on behalf of ourselves and for the welfare of others.

In addition to the power of interpersonal blessing and prayer, there is strength in every spoken word. Words make a difference, affecting the
people and the world around us for better and for worse. This strength can be seen when we speak kindly towards others and, conversely, when we attack others with our words, even indirectly. Jewish law, therefore, pays great attention to issues concerning appropriate and inappropriate speech. Speech is the domain in which our humanity is most keenly expressed; God created the world with His word, and we were created in His image, with the power to build or destroy with our words.

If God takes into account the words spoken by every individual, he pays particular attention to the words spoken by the righteous. A blessing granted by Yitzchak to Esav, therefore, would have had some effect; God would have been “forced” to reckon with the words of the righteous patriarch. Similarly, a blessing bestowed by Yitzchak, even unintentionally, upon Yaakov has significance.


While Yitzchak could well have blessed each of his children with individual blessings, some authorities suggest that the struggle between Yaakov and Esav takes place over a specific blessing.

The Ramban, for example, maintains that at issue was the blessing concerning the inheritance of the land of Israel and the continuing covenant with God. The Abravanel agrees but adds that the bracha included the mission of imbuing mankind with the belief in one Deity.

The sibling struggle is, therefore, understandable, for this blessing would determine the spiritual heir to the patriarchal legacy.

Another explanation as to why Yitzchak seems to have only one blessing may be rooted in the prophetic vision granted to Rivka during her pregnancy.

“Two nations are in your womb…and the might shall be passed from one to the other…”

The rabbis understand this prophecy to mean that Yaakov and Esav and their descendents can never be equal in strength. When one is ascendant the other will be weak.

Although Yitzchak could have blessed each of his children, the one who received the primary blessing would, by definition, have ruled the other. This knowledge gives rise to the struggle between Yaakov and Esav.


An alternative approach to the entire narrative is suggested, with minor differences, by a number of scholars. This approach is based upon evidence within the text that, all along, Yitzchak intended to bestow two separate and very different blessings upon his children: one upon Esav, and one upon Yaakov.

The key to this approach lies at the core of the story, in the blessing that serves as the source of contention. The blessing, ultimately bestowed upon Yaakov disguised as Esav, reads as follows:

Behold the scent of my son is as the scent of a field which God has blessed – And may God give to you of the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land, and abundant grain and wine. Nations will serve you and régimes will bow down to you; those who curse you will be cursed and those who bless you will be blessed.

One can’t help but be disappointed upon reading this text. Is this what the fuss is all about? Strikingly absent in this passage is any spiritual component. The blessing is totally physical in nature. Where is the spiritual heritage that is meant to lie at the center of the patriarchal legacy?

You could easily miss it, but a second blessing is found at the end of the narrative. This blessing is bestowed by Yitzchak upon Yaakov as the latter prepares to leave for Padan Aram. This time, however, Yitzchak knows to
whom he is speaking:

May Keyl Shakkai (the Lord) bless you, make you fruitful and numerous, and may you be a congregation of nations. May He grant you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your children with you, to inherit the land upon which you have dwelt, which God gave to Avraham.

Here, then, is the missing content – the reference to the spiritual legacy of Avraham. This legacy appears only in the blessing given deliberately by Yitzchak to Yaakov and not in the bracha originally intended for Esav.

The critical differences between the two blessings lead some scholars to maintain that the text clearly reflects Yitzchak’s original intention to bless each of his children differently. Contrary to popular assumption, the patriarch never intended to choose one child at the expense of the other. Instead, he planned to maximize the strengths of each. Esav, whose power lay in the physical world, would be blessed with material bounty, while Yaakov, the mild-mannered student, would be encouraged towards success in the spiritual realm. Some commentaries even suggest that Yitzchak intended that there be an unequal partnership between his two sons.

Esav would rule over Yaakov and provide for his physical needs. In this way, Yaakov would be free to pursue his study of Torah.

At face value, it would seem that Yitzchak, far from showing favoritism, is actually applying proper parenting skills. He recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of each of his children and encourages each child to pursue the lifestyle most appropriate for him.

Rivka, however, knows better. She recognizes the painful truth that Yaakov can neither live in partnership with nor be dependent on the likes of his brother, Esav. She also realizes something much deeper. Yaakov and his descendents will survive and thrive only if her younger son receives both blessings. Yaakov must learn to succeed not only in the tent of study but on the battlefield of life. Rivka, therefore, does the one thing she can do. She pushes Yaakov out of the tent and into the arena of struggle for the physical blessing.

Rivka knows that the third patriarch cannot afford to be an innocent student who avoids the challenges of life. She also recognizes in her younger son hidden abilities of which even he is unaware. Her intuition is proven correct as, from this point on, Yaakov faces challenge after challenge, in the house of Lavan and beyond. When the patriarch successfully rises to meet those challenges, he demonstrates life skills essential not only to his own survival but to the perpetuation of his legacy across the ages.

Once again, the actions of a matriarch, in difficult circumstances at the dawn of our history, lay the groundwork for our nation’s survival and success.

Points to Ponder

1. Our final interpretation of the narrative of Yitzchak’s blessings serves as a challenge to current trends within the Orthodox Jewish community. The proliferation of young men who dedicate their lives solely to the study of Torah, while laudable on one level, is placing a tremendous burden upon family after family, and upon the Jewish community in Israel and throughout the world.

The concept of kollel (an institution of all-day high-level Torah study for the married man) has had a long, proud tradition within Jewish history. Kollel, however, was never meant for the masses. This institution was classically reserved for the select few who could dedicate their lives to such study and who would then give back to the community by serving as rabbis, educators and dayanim (judges).

Judaism places great stress upon an individual’s responsibility to be self-sufficient and not dependent upon parental or communal funds. The rabbis of the Talmud were almost all self-supporting, as were Rashi, the Rambam, the Ramban and countless sages across the pages of our history.

In question, as well, is our place on the world stage. The contributions that we, as a people, have made to countless human endeavors have historically benefited world civilization in immeasurable ways. Who knows how many young men, unsuited to full-day Torah study, pushed into that world by peer and communal pressure, could actually sanctify God’s name in greater fashion through accomplishments in other spheres of human activity? All this could, of course, be done while still setting time aside for regular Torah study.

A reassessment of our priorities, without a dilution of our dedication to Torah study and observance, is in order as we look towards the future. Can this system be self-perpetuating? What will be the fate of the next generation, children of “learners” who will not have wealthy parents to support them?

The time has come to re-examine Rivka’s premise: To survive as a people we must be the beneficiaries of both the physical and the spiritual blessings. We must succeed both in the tent of study and on the battlefield of life.

2. An additional layer to the concept of bracha may be hinted at in our tradition’s only formal blessing recited over a mitzva (commandment) of interpersonal blessings. As the Kohanim (priests) ascend the platform in the synagogue to bless the community they recite the following preliminary bracha: “Blessed art Thou, Lord, our God, Who has sanctified us in the sanctity of Aharon (the brother of Moshe and the first High Priest) and commanded us to bless your people of Israel, with love.”

The last two words of this preliminary blessing are unique. No other blessing over a mitzva concludes with the words “with love.” We do not say “to light the Sabbath candles, with love,” nor “to sound the shofar, with

This phenomenon can be understood if we view man not only as the conveyor of blessing but as the creator of blessing. The true role of the Kohanim is then reflected in both the Priestly Blessing and the preliminary blessing before it.

The Priestly Blessing culminates with the summoning of the greatest gift God can bestow upon man: shalom, “peace.” Peace may be a divine gift, but it is created in this world, as part of the God-man partnership, through our mortal efforts.

When the Kohanim bless the congregation “with love,” therefore, they are not only bestowing God’s blessing but creating it. The harmony inherent in their actions concretizes God’s gift of peace and roots it in our reality. So, too, every time we recite an interpersonal blessing, underscoring the love and connection between ourselves and those around us, we play a role in bringing the blessing of God’s blessings to this world.

Parshat Chayei Sara: Why Go Back?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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As Avraham’s life draws near its end, he turns to his trusted servant (identified by the rabbis as Eliezer) an d instructs him to return to his homeland, Aram Naharaim, in order to find a wife for Yitzchak. He specifies that he does not want Yitzchak to marry a woman from the Canaanite nations that surround him. (Aram Naharaim is generally identified as the area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Padan Aram, mentioned in the text as the birthplace of Rivka and
the home of her extended family, refers to a specific region within Aram Naharaim.)


Avraham’s decision seems completely counterintuitive. Why does he send Eliezer back to Aram Naharaim to find a match for Yitzchak? After all, isn’t this the very land that Avraham himself was commanded to leave at the dawn of his career? The patriarch’s own journey was launched when God commanded him to separate himself from his homeland, his birthplace and the home of his father. What possible reason could there now be to return to that land?

Complicating matters is the fact that there would seem to be absolutely no moral difference between the inhabitants of Canaan and the inhabitants of Aram Naharaim. Both locations are populated by idol worshipers.It cannot be said that Avraham does not want his son to intermarry; there are no Hebrews in either location.



Some classical commentaries suggest that Avraham specifically wanted a wife to be chosen for Yitzchak from his own family.The Midrash Hagadol suggests two reasons for this preference. Firstly, Avraham reasoned to himself, “The people I should first convert to Judaism are the members of my own family.” Secondly, Avraham believed that the members of his family were “nearer to repentance.”

One possible problem with this interpretation lies in the fact that Avraham does not directly refer to his family in his instructions to Eliezer. He simply tells his servant to return to his land and his birthplace.

Eliezer, on the other hand, during his negotiations with Lavan and Bethuel (Rivka’s brother and father), does mention that Avraham wanted him to choose a wife from the patriarch’s own family. The commentaries note that this is one of a number of variations between Avraham’s instructions and Eliezer’s repetition of those instructions. These variations demonstrate Eliezer’s diplomatic skill as he endears himself to Rivka’s family (see Chayei Sara 3, Approaches c).


A number of commentaries, among them Rabbeinu Nissim Ben Reuven (the Ran) do suggest a fundamental moral contrast between the inhabitants of Canaan and those of Aram Naharaim. While both cultures were idolatrous, Canaanite society was particularly marked by its evil practices.

Over and over again, the Torah speaks of the abominations perpetrated by the nations of Canaan. Rashi states, “The nations [of Canaan] conquered by the Israelites were more corrupt than any other.”

Forced to choose between two idolatrous societies as the source of a potential mate for his son, Avraham avoids the society marked by immoral behavior.

Given the evil nature of Canaanite society, one might ask why God commanded Avraham to relocate specifically to Canaan. Two answers might be proposed:

  1. The land itself embodied a special sanctity in spite of the evil nature of its inhabitants.
  2. Avraham was safer in a society that was more clearly evil than in his homeland, where the danger was more subtle and the culture potentially more attractive.


Perhaps, however, a totally different explanation for Avraham’s decision to send Eliezer back to Aram Naharaim might be proposed. This approach depends upon seeing Parshat Chayei Sara as a cohesive unit with one over-arching theme that marks the culmination of Avraham’s career.

Parshat Chayei Sara can be neatly divided into two major sections: the purchase of the Cave of Machpeila as a burial site for Sara and the selection of Rivka as Yitzchak’s wife. As we have noted, however (see Chayei Sara 1, Approaches e), beneath the surface of the first section lies an even more important narrative: Avraham’s dramatic negotiation for self-definition as a ger v’toshav, a stranger and a citizen.

We have also discussed how Avraham, through this two-word phrase, not only describes himself but also delineates the place his descendents will take in society throughout the ages. To survive and to succeed the Jew must be both a stranger and a citizen in in any country where he lives, participating in the culture that surrounds him while maintaining his own unique identity.

Having arrived at his own self-definition, perhaps Avraham now looks towards the future and begins to fear: “I have been able to strike the balance necessary for my survival because I began in this land as a stranger. I came from a foreign land, and have always been able to maintain my distance from those within Canaan. Yitzchak, however, is different. My son was born here. He is too close to those around him. He is familiar only with this culture, with this population and with this land. How do I know that he will learn to discern the dangers that surround him? How do I know that he will be able to distance himself from elements of this society counterproductive to his spiritual development? How do I know that he will maintain the appropriate balance and truly be a ger v’toshav?”

Avraham then sets about guaranteeing the continuation of his legacy. He determines that at least one member of the next generation must make the same journey that he made, from Aram Naharaim to Canaan. More important than the physical journey, however, will be the philosophical journey. Yitzchak’s wife will, it is to be hoped, be able to see herself as a ger v’toshav. She will begin with a natural distance from the Canaanites surrounding her. Given her foreign background, she will have a head start in maintaining the perspective needed to discern and confront the dangers around them.

In short, Avraham does have a deep ulterior motive for sending Eliezer back to his birthplace to find a wife for Yitzchak. The patriarch hopes that his son’s wife will ensure the survival of the Jewish people by maintaining the delicate balance of self-definition that he himself has achieved.


It comes as no surprise, therefore, that as the story of the second patriarchal generation unfolds, Rivka emerges as the more perceptive parent. She alone sees their two children, Yaakov and Esav, for who they really are, and she alone acts with strength to perpetuate Avraham’s legacy through Yaakov.


The next parsha, Toldot, opens the story of Yaakov and Esav by reintroducng their mother, Rivka, to us as “the daughter of Bethuel the Aramite from Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramite…” This description stands in stark contrast to that of her husband, Yitzchak, about whom the Torah says, “The son of Avraham; Avraham gave birth to Yitzchak.”

Why repeat information that we already know?

The Torah is telling us that Rivka’s background, in contrast to Yitzchak’s, specifically enables her to play the instrumental role within her family, to ensure the survival of our tradition.

Avraham’s genius in orchestrating the selection of Rivka as a wife for Yitzchak guarantees the perpetuation of the patriarch’s legacy to the next generation and beyond.

Parshat Chayei Sara: Frankness as Vice and as Virtue

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

Derashot Ledorot front coverMost people have mixed feelings with regard to that uncommon quality called frankness or candor – and that is as it should be. It is something no doubt to be admired, and all too rare in human relations. And yet it can, in the wrong hands, be misused for the wrong purposes and prove dangerous and disruptive. On the one hand, frankness is based on emet, truth, and our tradition teaches that the very seal and insignia of God is truth (Exodus Rabba 4:3). Frankness is a pre-
requisite for clear and uncomplicated human and social relationships. Candor, while it may momentarily be annoying, ultimately proves to be the best guarantee of honorable living. It engenders a greater degree of truthfulness on the part of others as well. “Frankness,” said Emerson, “invites more frankness.” And, on the other hand, it can be a tool of the smug, self-certain, and even the malicious who tyrannize friend and foe alike by their disarming bluntness which goes by the name of frankness.

Perhaps, then, in order to view the quality of frankness from a greater perspective, we ought to recall the ethics of Judaism as taught by Maimonides, in which he gives us a philosophy of character. In general, Maimonides teaches that we should avoid the extremes of character and keep to the “derekh Hashem,” “the way of God,” which he also calls the “shevil hazahav,” “the golden path” (Hilkhot De’ot 1:7). In other words, one should generally follow the path of moderation, although in certain specific instances one may veer more toward one extreme than the other. So it is with the quality of truth-telling or frankness. The two extremes are, one, absolute candor even at the expense of another person’s hap-
piness, sensitivity, and peace of mind, and two, so much kindness and deference to the feelings of people that the truth is never spoken in its fullness, and untruth begins to prevail. Following “the way of God” as explained by Maimonides, we would say that in general one ought to be moderate in his frankness, tempering his manner of expressing the truth with gentleness and sensitive concern for the feelings of others, but that in certain very special cases one must veer toward one of the extremes – in the case of truthfulness to the extreme of greater veracity, more direct frankness, and forthrightness.

One of those special cases where frankness must prevail even at the expense of temporary unhappiness is hinted at in Parashat Ĥayyei Sara, according to the brilliant interpretation of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the revered teacher at the Yeshiva of Volozhin, widely known by his initials, Netziv.A great tragedy marred the lives of Isaac and Rebecca. The next parasha tells of the painful confusion with regard to the blessings Isaac offered to his twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Apparently, Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. In order to reserve Isaac’s blessing for Jacob and prevent its being wasted on Esau, Rebecca schemes with her son Jacob, persuading him to do something which runs against the whole grain of his character: to deceive his aged, blind father. The scheme is successful, but the end result is one of unrelieved anguish for all principals. Esau is left embittered, and more vagrant than ever. Jacob has soiled his soul and must flee from his brother into a long and bitter exile. Rebecca, the doting mother, is to die before she ever again sees her beloved Jacob. Isaac is confused and bewildered in the deep darkness that surrounds him in his blindness.

And yet, when we study and analyze the sidra carefully, we find that the tragedy is compounded by the fact that it was totally unnecessary. Isaac did not really favor Esau over Jacob. He merely wanted to prevent his total moral collapse. He wanted to salvage whatever shred of decency Esau still retained. He knew full well the difference in the characters of his two children. He, no less than his wife Rebecca, appreciated the saintliness of Jacob and suffered because of the wildness and sensuousness of Esau. He had never intended to give the blessing of Abraham to anyone but Jacob.

Why then the cross-purposes at which Isaac and Rebecca worked? If they were indeed in total agreement, why this deep and cutting tragedy that destroyed the happiness of the second Jewish family in all history? Because, the Netziv answers in his Emek haDavar, Rebecca never learned how to be frank with her own husband. She was possessed of an inner inhibition which, despite her love for him, prevented free and easy communication with him. It was a congenital defect in her character. If only Rebecca had been frank with Isaac, if only she could have overcome her inhibitions and shyness and taken him into her confidence, they would have discovered that they do, after all, agree on fundamentals – and how much heartache would have been avoided!

And the Netziv sees this quality of restraint and suspiciousness in the very first act the Torah records of Rebecca when she first meets her prospective husband. When she is told by Eliezer that Isaac is coming toward them, what does she do? She slips off her camel, and she takes her veil and covers herself. This was not, says the Netziv, so much an act of modesty and shyness as much as a symbol of a lack of frankness, an uncommunicativeness that was to hamper her happiness the rest of her life. In all her dealings with her husband, she was metaphorically to veil her personality. That veiling presaged the lack of frankness, the restraint between the two. The veil became, in the course of years, a wall which grew ever larger and kept them apart and prevented them from sharing their deepest secrets, fears, loves, and aspirations.

Indeed, that is why the Torah tells us of certain domestic and seemingly purely private quarrels between Sara and Abraham, and Jacob and Rachel. One might ask, why reveal for all eternity the domestic spats between couples? Sara laughs when she is told that she would have a child despite her advanced age and she denies it to Abraham. He turns to her in anger and says, “You did so laugh” (Genesis 18:15). Rachel wants children, and keeps urging Jacob for help. Jacob turns to her and seems quite irritated: “Why do you annoy me? Do you think I am God that I can give you children?” (ibid., 30:2).

We can now understand why these incidents are recorded: they are there for contrast. They show us how the other patriarchs and matriarchs exercised complete candor in their private lives. If there must be a slight argument, let there be one, but let husband and wife be perfectly honest with each other. Let there be no distance between them, no dissembling – no outer politeness which bespeaks an inner remoteness. How different was Rebecca from Sara and Rachel. There was so little frankness in Rebecca’s relations with Isaac, so little straightforwardness – and therefore, so much agony, so much unnecessary pain and frustration.

Indeed, it would seem as if Eliezer, Abraham’s servant whom he had sent to fetch a wife for his son Isaac, recognized this at the very outset. Charged with this grave and significant mission of looking for a wife for Isaac, a worthy mother of the Jewish people, Eliezer feels himself diffident and concerned. He prays for divine assistance, and twice he singles out one element above all others: ĥesed – love, kindness. “May God show my master Abraham ĥesed, may He grant that his son be blessed with a wife whose greatest virtue would be kindness, love, sensitive understanding, self-sacrifice” (see Genesis 24).

If I can find that kind of wife, Eliezer thinks to himself, who will bring ĥesed to her new home, then I will consider my mission successfully accomplished. And yet, after he has met young Rebecca, after he has satisfied himself that this is the right woman for his master’s son, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving in which he surprisingly adds another quality: “Blessed is the Lord God of my master Abraham who has not forsaken ĥasdo, His ĥesed (mercy), and amito, His emet (truth), from my master.” If we read between the lines we discover that Eliezer is quite satisfied that this young woman will bring ĥesed to her home. She will be a kind, devoted, loving wife. But what suddenly begins to disturb his innermost thoughts, perhaps only unconsciously, is that while there will be enough ĥesed, there will be a lack of emet or truthfulness in the sense of candor. There may not be enough frankness because she would be too kind, too fearful, too gentle to speak openly and lucidly with her own husband. How wise was that old and loyal slave of Abraham! Thank you, God, for the ĥesed; now help us with a little more emet.

Domestic life, then, is one of those areas where we ought to leave the exact path of moderation and incline toward one of the extremes, that of greater openness – greater frankness and honesty even at the expense of comfort and unperturbed peace of mind. Even to this day, before the ĥuppa we perform the badeken, or veiling of the bride, recalling the veiling of Rebecca. Yet, as if to emphasize that we intend thereby only the idea of modesty and not that of inhibition, we read the ketuba, in which we include the promise of the husband that he will act toward his wife in the manner of Jewish husbands, who work for, love, and support their wives, and then the key word: bekushta, in truth. Kushta or emet – truth – should be the dominant mood that prevails in the home. Without it, without full and free frankness, husband and wife cannot act in concert with regard to the great issues in life, especially with regard to the greatest gift entrusted to them: their children.

And yet, while frankness is so very important in domestic relations, and while it is a wonderful and indispensable personal quality in all human relations, there is no question but that frankness can be overdone. Truth has the greatest claims on us; but its claims are not absolute. That is why the Talmud specifically permits the talmid ĥakham or scholar to modify the truth in three instances, where complete candor would result in needless embarrassment. Not to tell a lie is a great virtue, but compulsively to tell all, to reveal all your innermost feelings without regard for others, is itself an unethical quality. When Abraham walked with Isaac to perform the Akeida, Isaac asked his father, “I see the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Imagine if Abraham had exercised absolute frankness, unrestrained candor. He would have said: “Sorry son, but it is you I shall have to slaughter upon the altar.” It would have been inhumanly cruel. That is why Abraham preferred to dodge the question with the reply, “God will take care of that.” Or imagine if a physician who had just discovered that his patient is suffering from a terrible and incurable disease were to turn to him
and, without any attempt to cushion the news, inform him bluntly of his imminent death. This kind of frankness is subhuman. It is living on the extreme edge of character, against which Maimonides counseled. That is why the halakha says 3 that if a person does not know his relative has died, and you do know it, and he will not learn of it during the next thirty days if you keep silent, then you must keep the information within and spare him the bad news.

Excessive frankness is, thus, a fault; a vice and not a virtue. When a friend begins a conversation with the words, “I want to be brutally frank with you,” you may be sure that he intends brutality more than frankness. A whimsical poet once wrote, “of all plagues, good Heaven, Thy wrath can send, save, save, O save me from the Candid Friend.”

Emet, then, is a virtue, if tempered with graciousness. Emet is important enough to be the connecting link between the Shema and the Amida. Yet we must remember that this emet is not mentioned alone. Along with it we enumerate a whole list of qualities which tend to make truth more palatable, which moderate frankness and make it human. Emet must also be yatziv venakhon vekayam veyashar, proper and straight; it must be ne’eman ve’ahuv veĥaviv veneĥmad vena’im, loyally and pleasantly and attractively presented; even if it is nora va’adir, an awesome and powerful truth, still it must be metukan umekubal, prepared for and acceptable to human sensitivity, and above all, vetov veyafeh, expressed in a manner that is good and beautiful. Frankness, yes; but mentschlich-keit as well. Emet – but up to and including tov veyafeh.

Only then can we be sure that hadavar hazeh aleinu le’olam va’ed, that this truth will remain with us forever.

That is why the halakha maintained that the law of reproaching the sinner (Leviticus 19:17) must be executed with a great deal of delicacy and attention to individual feelings. There is, in Judaism, an ethic of criticism. A frank reproof may be in itself unavoidably painful, but one should minimize the anguish and the guilt and the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness that may needlessly result from it.

Too much frankness – candor with cruelty – is one of the causes of the lapse from religious faith as well. Sa’adia Gaon, in the introduction to his major work, Emunot veDe’ot, lists eight causes of heresy, of skepticism. One of them is: ha’emet hamara, the bitter truth. Truth is often difficult to face, bitter to taste, and people may prefer to flee the unpleasant truth and satiate themselves with sweet vagaries of falsehood. I believe that in our day an even more frequent cause of the disdain some people feel for Judaism is that the truth, Torah, is presented as something bitter and terrible. When, instead of teaching Torah as an ennobling and uplifting doctrine, we force it down the throats of children as something dreadfully boring and meaninglessly restrictive; if it is advocated to adults as something dogmatic and irrelevant, if it is supported not by explanation but coercion, not by an appeal to conscience but by boycotts and smear-literature and stonings, then the emet becomes so bitter as to alienate large sections of our people from Torah. Torah is “sweeter than honey”; it is a crime to present it as dipped in gall. Frankness should not be confused with foolishness, and candor should not be confounded with crude, cruel coarseness.

Frankness, then, is a great virtue. In all of life, but especially in domestic life, is it an absolutely indispensable ingredient of happiness. Because she lacked it, because her personality and innermost heart was veiled, Rebecca’s life was filled with misery. Yet, frankness must be attended by the grace of consideration, delicacy, and sensitivity.

Every morning, we begin the day with the following statement which sums up what we have been saying: “Le’olam yehei adam yerei shamayim beseter uvegalui,” one should always be God fearing, both publicly and privately; “umodeh al ha’emet,” let him always recognize and acknowledge the truth. But once he has acknowledged the truth, once he has learned it, it is always important not to blurt it out unthinkingly. For, insofar as speaking out the whole truth, let him be vedover emet bilvavo, telling all the truth only in his heart. When it comes to telling all that one considers to be the truth, exactly as one sees it and believes it – in all candor and frankness – one must also be judicious, and consider the secret fears and vanities of his fellows, their sensitivities and idiosyncracies. Complete and uninhibited frankness – only bilvavo, in one’s own heart. Otherwise, candor must be wedded to considerateness, ĥasdo and amito, as Eliezer prayed, or emet and yatziv through tov veyafeh, as is our own devoted prayer every day all year long.

For this indeed is, as Maimonides called it, the derekh Hashem, the way of the Lord. And it is this way which has been bequeathed to us by our patriarch Abraham and which we were commanded to teach our children (Genesis 18:19): “For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep derekh Hashem, the way of the Lord” – for in this way will righteousness and justice be achieved.

  1. November 24, 1962.

Parshat Chayei Sara: On Remaining Unperturbed

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

Derashot Ledorot front cover


Of all the names that have been given to the period of history through which we are currently living, the most appropriate and descriptive is the “age of anxiety.” Indeed, it is anxiety that most accurately describes the inner life of man in our era, his unceasing tension, and the whole range of psychosomatic ills which symbolize that tense inner life. Anxiety has even been incorporated into philosophy by some thinkers of the French Existentialist school. It is the mood which dominates all of modern man and is his most characteristic emotion.

What, if anything, does Judaism have to say about this phenomenon? It is true, of course, that Judaism should not be understood as an elaborate prescription for “peace of mind.” We, of course, do not conceive of religion as a “need” to be fulfilled. And yet, I do not doubt for a moment that Judaism has a definite judgment upon this, our problem. First, because Judaism is good for people, even though that is not the reason we ought to accept it. And second, it can be shown that ultimately a good part of the emotional life of man is based upon his ethics, his spiritual character, and his religious conception.

The teaching of Judaism that is most relevant to the problem of modern man’s anxiety is expressed in two words, hishtavut hanefesh – equanimity, stability, keeping on an even psychological and spiritual keel. This attitude of hishtavut hanefesh, of the constancy of personality, is eventually based upon a religious conception – that of faith. If a man has faith, he will not be upset either by very good news or by very bad news, he will yield neither to the temptations of affluence nor to the threat of adversity – for the same God is the source of both opposites. If he is a success in his endeavors and receives compliments, he will remain largely unimpressed with his own triumph. And if he is criticized until
it hurts, he will remain largely unperturbed and unshaken in his faith.

This Jewish teaching was brilliantly expounded in the comments on our sidra by the Reszher Rav, Rabbi Aaron Levine of blessed memory, who was a great scholar, a great preacher, and a senator in the Polish parliament. The Torah tells us at the very beginning of our portion (Genesis 23:1) that Sara lived 127 years, and then repeats, in the same verse, “These are the years of the life of Sara.” Our rabbis wondered at this repetition and Rashi, quoting our sages, remarked: “All these years were equally for the good.” What Rashi meant is explained by the Reszher Rav as hishtavut hanefesh – the lesson of stability both of mind and of soul. Sara’s life had its ups and its downs, she reached very high points and very low points, there were sharp changes of fortune. In her early youth she found herself uprooted from her home, wandering from town to town and city to city following her husband. When she came to Egypt she was separated from her beloved husband, abducted by an immoral Egyptian potentate. Later, she rejoiced as she and her husband attained great wealth, and finally, at the climax of her good fortune, when God awarded her with a son in her old age, fully realizing the ambition of a lifetime. And yet, despite these vicissitudes, “All these years were equally for the good” – her basic character of goodness remained unchanged throughout. Her character was unaffected. She became neither arrogant as a result of her success and triumph, nor despairing and crushed by her failure. She knew and practiced the Jewish quality of hishtavut hanefesh.

Is this not a message that we moderns ought to seek out and observe in our own lives? Far too many people in our day and age have lost this capacity for psycho-spiritual stability. In conditions of adversity they have become demoralized, confused, and perplexed. They lose faith and blame their defeat upon God. And in times of prosperity, they turn arrogant, lose perspective, regard themselves as “self-made,” and decide that they no longer need faith. Perhaps that is why religion suffers most during times of great stress, when circumstances are either very good or very bad. Both war and famine, and conversely, economic prosperity and well-being, cause attrition in the ranks of religious people. How right, then, was Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, who wrote in his Sefer haYashar that true character comes to the fore only in times of crisis and violent change, whether the change is to the good or to the bad. For crisis is the litmus paper of character, and change in fortune the barometer of a man’s soul.

The rabbis of the Talmud saw this quality of hishtavut hanefesh as based upon and as a symbol of the final and greatest of the three requirements of man by God as enumerated in the famous verse by the prophet Micah: “It has been told to you, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you – but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And commenting upon that last requirement, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) tells us that “to walk humbly” refers to the two opposite occasions of accompanying the bride to the bridal canopy and accompanying the deceased on his last trip – at the funeral. What our sages meant to tell us is that if you want to know if a man is indeed devout, if he is indeed a religious personality, if he “walks humbly with his God” – then test his reaction, his attitude, and his strength of character at these crucial times of either great happiness or great grief, of great joy or great tragedy. To walk humbly with God means to achieve, on the basis of a religious outlook and profound faith, the quality of hishtavut hanefesh. This refers to the inner stability that is retained even when life moves us back and forth across the spectrum of experience from the deep blue of misery and depression to the bright red of cheery optimism, joy, and happiness. That is why at the occasion of a death, our tradition teaches us that we must mourn and weep, for otherwise, in the words of Maimonides (Hilkhot Avel 13:12), we are merciless and hardened. But at the same time, tradition teaches us that we must not overdo our mourning, we must not prolong it more than is necessary, for otherwise, again in the words of Maimonides, it is a sign of spiritual foolishness, a symbol and symptom of the lack of faith in God and a lack of hope in the future. That is why, too, at the occasion of a wedding, we break the glass in memory of the destruction of the Temple. At sad occasions we introduce a note of optimism, and at happy occasions a sobering note reminiscent of life’s harshness. In this manner we attempt to attain hishtavut hanefesh – of not being over-impressed by triumph and not being perturbed by defeat. And therefore, for the same reason, on Passover, the great holiday of liberation, we eat the maror – the symbol of bitterness, while on Tisha beAv, the day of great tragedy, we do not recite the Taĥanun prayer, for the halakha regards even this great day of tragedy as a mo’ed – a sort of holiday.

No wonder a great Hasidic teacher taught that every man must have two pockets; in one he must carry a note upon which are written the words of Abraham, “Behold I am only dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), and in the other must be the statement of the rabbis in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5), “For my sake was the world created.”

So if there is anyone who has had fortune smile upon him, who has achieved a degree of satisfaction and success – let him not forget that ultimately man is only dust and ashes; let him remember to walk humbly with his God. And conversely, if there is anyone who somehow suffers silently, whose heart is wounded with grief, and whose soul bears some painful sores, who perhaps has received criticism that hurts, let him not yield to self-pity or despair, let him not lose faith and submit to moodiness and especially not to the feeling of his own worthlessness. Let him remember that although he may walk “humbly,” nevertheless every man and woman still walks “with his God” – and what greater
consolation is there for any human being than to know that he has the dignity of having been created in the image of God, and the hope that there is a God above who listens to the heartbeat of every human being as a father listens to the pleading voice of a child.

And as this is true of us generally as individuals, certainly ought this to be true of us as Jews. How beautifully our rabbis (Genesis Rabba 58:3) describe an incident which, in its inner meaning, refers to this quality of hishtavut hanefesh. Rabbi Akiba was preaching and found himself beset by an audience which was falling asleep – an occurrence not unknown in the life of a speaker, and an occupational risk generally anticipated by any preacher. And so he tried to awaken them by telling them: How comes it that Queen Esther ruled over 127 countries? The answer is that she was the great-granddaughter of Sara, who lived 127 years.

I believe our rabbis had a special message in this relation and in this narrative. Rabbi Akiba lived at a time when his people were in danger of “falling asleep.” This was the era of Hadrianic persecutions, when the Roman Empire forbade the study of Torah and the practice of Jewish observances. The people had only recently suffered the national catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of independence. And so, our ancestors at that time were about to fall asleep, to yield to despair and to hopelessness and to a feeling of their own worthlessness. At a time of this sort, the great Rabbi Akiba tried to wake them up, he tried to stir them into activity, he tried to get them out of the sullen mood in which they found themselves. It was he, Rabbi Akiba, who was the patron and the organizer of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the might of imperial Rome. So he tried to urge them into a happier frame of mind and a more activist approach by reminding them that they were the descendants of Esther, and that it was Esther who herself went through a great number of vicissitudes in her life. When she was young, very young, she was already an orphan – reared by an uncle much older in years, lacking the warmth of maternal love and paternal concern. Then suddenly she found herself with the crown of Persia upon her head, the absolute monarch of 127 lands. Shortly thereafter she was faced with the catastrophic possibility of her own and her people’s destruction by Haman, only to be saved at the last moment by an opposite edict by the king and the great triumph of Israel which resulted in the celebration of Purim. And yet, during all these extreme changes of fortune, our rabbis told us, “‘Hee Ester,’ ‘She is Esther’ (Esther 2:7); she remained the same Esther both when she was queen and when she wasn’t” – the same sweet, gentle, modest young woman who was only an orphan in her uncle’s home, retained her good character when she was the queen of Persia, of 127 lands. She did not change. She had acquired the quality of hishtavut hanefesh, of psychological, spiritual, and emotional stability. And where did she get this quality from? From Sara, of course, who was the model of such behavior.

Would that we, descendants of those strong personalities, would learn this marvelous faith. Like Sara, like Esther, like Rabbi Akiba – we must learn to take life in stride without at any time upsetting the apple-cart of character. We must never be insensitive, but we must be strong and powerful of faith. We must neither yield to wild abandon or relaxation of effort when we behold the victory and triumph of the State of Israel, nor submit to defeatism and pessimism as we ponder the bitter fate of Russian Jewry. We must not turn giddy with delight when some gentile scholar or politician praises us, nor ever submit to chagrin and turn apologetic when some gentile criticizes either our people or our faith.

Ashreinu ma tov ĥelkeinu, uma na’im goraleinu, uma yafa yerushateinu.” Happy are we not only that our lot is tov – good, ethical, true; but that in addition, our destiny is na’im, pleasant – it is satisfying and makes for a healthy mind and a healthy soul; and above all – happy are we that yerushateinu, our heritage, the great Jewish tradition, is so beautiful.

  1. November 27, 1959

Parshat Chayei Sara: Words – Scarce and Sacred

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

Derashot Ledorot front cover

What is the value of a word? This is a most appropriate question on the first Sabbath after our national elections took place. Elections to the presidency are a wondrous thing to behold and a glory and tribute to a free people. Yet when the elections were done our countrymen across the land heaved a blessed sigh of relief, for many of us believed that the campaigns for the election did not do much to enhance the glory. Many of us suspected that they were largely an exercise in futility. The real issues, such as they were, could have been discussed much more quickly and conclusively. Most of the words that followed were not meant for clarification as much as for tools in the projection of “images.” There has been talk recently of the possible devaluation of the dollar. Much more thought should have been given to a more serious danger: the devaluation of the word. I believe the nation could have survived the election of either candidate. But we may properly doubt whether the nation could have survived another month of the endless, repetitive, meaningless torrents of words without seriously compromising its sanity.

What then is the Jewish attitude to words? First let us understand that Israel’s greatness can benefit the world only through words. We have never been a numerous people. We have never, except in the most restricted sense, been militarily significant. We have usually been diplomatically weak. Therefore, our message to the world has been transmitted only through the power of the word. Ever since our father Isaac said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22), our tradition has maintained that “Yaakov koĥo bafeh” – that the strength and the might of Israel lies in its mouth, in its words. The message of Torah is referred to as “the words of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28). What the Western world calls the Ten Commandments our tradition refers to as “aseret hadibrot” – the “ten words.” And when Jews speak of a spiritual gem, they say in Hebrew, a “devar Torah,” “a word of Torah,” or, in Yiddish, “a gut vort” – “a good word.” The word is the medium of spiritual enlightenment, the medium for Israel’s message.

But words, in our conception, have an even more universal function. Words are the mortar that binds man with his fellow-men. Without the extensive use of words, human beings would never group themselves in a society. Without words there can be no communication, no study or schools, no society or social life, no civilization or business or commerce. Neither can there be any family life. When husband and wife are “not on speaking terms,” that is a real danger sign for domestic health.

Onkelos, the great Aramaic translator of the Bible, had that in mind when he offered an unusual translation of a familiar verse. When the Bible relates that God breathed the breath of life into Adam, it says, “Vayehi ha’adam lenefesh ĥaya,” which we usually translate as, “And the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Onkelos, however, translates it, “And it (the breath of God) became in man a speaking spirit.” The living soul of man is his speaking spirit. The uniqueness of man, his intellect, would be muted and silent were it not for his ability to use words and thus articulate his rational ideas and the feelings of his heart. A word has a life and biography and character and soul of its own. And the word can give life to or take life from the human being. A word can restore and a word can kill. One word can give a man the reputation for wisdom, one word can mark him in the eyes of his peers as a fool. The speaking spirit has a profound effect upon the living soul.

Because of this, Judaism regards words as more than mere verbal units, as more than just another form of communication. In Judaism words are – or should be – holy! When the Torah commands a man that he not break his word, it says, “Lo yaĥel devaro” (Numbers 30:3). Our rabbis noted (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 2:1) that yaĥel is an unusual word and so they explained it as “Lo ya’aseh devarav ĥullin” – he shall not profane his word, not desecrate it. Only that which is holy can be made unholy. Only that which is sacred can be desecrated. Man’s words therefore must be holy.

If our word is to be holy, we must keep it, honor it, and revere it. Indeed, the sanctity of a man’s word is a measure of the confidence he deserves, whether in business or within the family. If he keeps his word holy, people will confide in him and trust him. If he desecrates his word, if he makes it ĥullin, then he does not deserve the confidence of his wife, his partners, and his fellow-men. Many, many years after Ĥazal, Oliver Wendell Holmes was to put it this way: “Life and language are alike sacred…homicide and verbicide are alike forbidden.”

It follows therefrom that we must be careful and discriminating, not casual, in whatever we say. When the Israelites conquered the pagan Midianites and destroyed them, the Torah bade the Israelites not to use the Midianites’ vessels until they had been purified and cleansed, so that even the atmosphere or memory of paganism and idolatry would be banished from Israel’s midst. The Torah puts it this way: “Kol davar – any vessel – that is normally used over an open flame must be purified by passing it through fire” (Numbers 31:23). Our rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 58b) asked this interesting question: What of a metal megaphone, an instrument devised for magnifying the voice? Can that contract impurities, and if so how can it be purified? Yes, answer our rabbis, it can become impure, and must also be purified by passing through fire. They played cleverly on the phrase “kol davar.” Not only, they said, “kol davar,” but “kol dibbur” – not only every “object,” but every “word” must be passed through fire. Therefore, a megaphone, used to magnify words, is included in the laws of the impurities of Midianite vessels.

Our rabbis meant, I believe, to refer more than just to a megaphone. They meant “kol dibbur” – every word spoken by human lips must be passed through the fire of the soul before it is spoken to the world at large. Every word must be passed through the flame of integrity, of sincerity, of consideration for others, and for the effect that the word may have on them. A word untempered in the furnace of integrity and wisdom is like a table unplaned and unfiled: its splinters and rough edges can injure far more than the table can serve. A word not passed through the fire of consciousness is the master and not the servant of him who speaks it.

Furthermore, we must be not only discriminating in our words, but sparse as well. Our words must be few and scarce. In all of Judaism, the principle of kedusha is protected from the danger of over-familiarity. When man has too much free access to an object or a place, he gradually loses his respect and awe for it. That is why the Torah reader uses a silver pointer. It is not used for decorative purposes. It is employed because of the halakha that “Sacred texts make the hands impure” (Yadayim 3:2) – that we are forbidden to touch the inner part of the Torah scroll. The reason for this is a profound insight of the Torah into human nature: if we are permitted to touch it freely and often, we will lose our reverence for it. The less we are permitted to contact it, the greater our respect for it. Similarly, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was preserved in its sanctity by our tradition when it forbade any man other than the high priest to enter its sacred precincts; and even he might not do so except for one time during the year – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

And so it is with words. The more we use them, the less they mean. When our rabbis investigated the first portion of Genesis, they discovered that the world was created by God “with ten ‘words’” (Avot 5:1). Only ten words to create an entire universe! And yet our rabbis were not satisfied. And so they asked, “Could not the world have been created with only one word?” Why waste nine precious words? Indeed, for with regard to words, quantity is in inverse relationship to quality. If there are so many words that you cannot count them, then no individual word counts for very much.

In our sidra we read, “And Abraham came to mourn for Sara and livkota, to weep for her (Genesis 23:2). If you read the portion carefully, you will notice something strange about the word livkota. The letter kaf is smaller than normal. It is a kaf ketana, a miniature kaf. Why is that?

The commentator known as the Ba’al haTurim explains that Abraham did not weep or speak too much. Of course Abraham said something. There had to be some weeping and mourning and eulogizing. He had to give some articulate expression to the grief that welled up in his breast. For a man who cannot speak out his grief is like a man who cannot sweat – the poison remains within. It can be psychologically dangerous not to mourn. But it must not be overdone. Abraham realized that too many words are an escape from the confrontation with reality. He realized that by using too many words he would dissipate the real feelings he contained within himself. He wanted something to remain, something deliciously private, painfully mysterious, some residue of memory and love and affection for his beloved Sara that he did not want to share with the rest of the world. And so the kaf ketana – indicating that he knew how to limit the outpouring of his words.

Oh how we moderns need this lesson of making our words sacred by making them scarce! How we need that lesson of the kaf ketana. How we must learn to pass our words through the flame of wisdom. Modern life seems centered so much about words. We are dominated by a communications industry. We veer constantly between meetings and discussions, symposia and forums, lectures and sermons, public relations and propaganda. We are hounded continually by radio and television, telephone and telegraph. We are the “talkingest” civilization in all of history. How desperately we need that kaf ketana!

It’s about time that all of us, and especially Jewish agencies, learned that we ought not to be dominated by the public relations machines. It’s about time that we learned to respect the kaf ketana. Moses himself was a stammerer and a stutterer, and so he spoke few words – but whatever he did speak was engraved in letters of fire upon the consciousness of the people. David told us, “Commune with your hearts upon your beds and be silent” (Psalms 4:5). Shammai reminded us, “Speak little, but do much” (Avot 1:15). Other rabbis told us that “The way to wisdom is through silence” (Avot 1:17). The Besht, the great Ba’al Shem Tov, meant the same thing in a comment upon God’s command to Noah, “You shall make a light for the ark.” The Besht pointed out that the Hebrew word for ark – teiva – means not only “ark” but also “word.” Make each word brilliant, alive, shining, sparkling, and illuminating. Use it to enlighten, not to confuse. All of these individuals knew the secret of Abraham, that of the kaf ketana.

Words are important and powerful; therefore they are sacred. Because they are sacred, they must be issued with great, extreme caution. They must be tempered in the fire of one’s character. And because they are holy and purified in fire, they must be few, choice, and scarce.When we will have learned this, we will have learned a great deal indeed. So that ultimately, we will be able to say to God, with David (Psalms 65:2), “Almighty God, our very silence is praise unto You.”


1. November 12, 1960

Parshat Vayeira: Understanding A Test

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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Our confrontation with Akeidat Yitzchak, the classical example of nissayon (a trial administered by God to test man) in biblical literature, provides us with a perfect opportunity to explore the concept of nissayon within Jewish thought as a whole.

The rabbis delineate ten separate tests administered by God to Avraham over the course of the patriarch’s lifetime. Some are found in the biblical text, while others are only recorded in Midrashic literature. The most dramatic of these tests is Akeidat Yitzchak (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak). The very concept of God testing man, however, is very difficult to comprehend. A test is usually administered for the purpose of gathering information. God, however, is all-knowing. He knows in advance whether Avraham will or will not “pass” a specific test. Why, then, are these tests necessary at all?

Two distinct approaches are suggested by the classical commentaries:

  1. God tests man to enable man to become aware of his own capabilities and actualize his own potential.
    None of us knows before a moment of crisis exactly how we will respond. If a fire breaks out in a crowded theater, some of us will save our own lives without thought for anyone else, while others will be heroic. The quality of our actions, however, cannot be predicted in advance. Through the course of the tests that he experiences, man learns the full extent of his own capabilities.

    Even further, after that moment of crisis, we are no longer the people we were before. The very experience, and our corresponding reaction, changes us. Our potential for good or for bad is actualized and concretely shapes our further actions.

    An individual changes with each passing test.

  2. God tests an individual to proclaim that individual’s capabilities to others. As Avraham undergoes each test his greatness is recorded as an example for the world. That is why the word nissayon (test) is derived from the word nes (banner).
    A person’s true nature is revealed in the quality of his responses to the tests that confront him.

    In every generation, God will test man, say the rabbis, for each and both of these reasons.

    While these explanations help us understand the biblical concept of nissayon in general, a specific question emerges when we consider the text describing the Akeida. The answer to this question creates yet another layer in our understanding of this powerful test…


Avraham’s most dramatic test, the Akeida, is introduced in the Torah by four seemingly superfluous words, which appear from time to time in the biblical text: Va’yehi achar hadevarim ha’eileh, ”And it was after these things.”

These words seem unnecessary because, as a rule, the Torah follows chronological order. Unless we are told otherwise, by the text itself or by rabbinic interpretation, events occurred in their recorded sequence. [Note: Periodically, the rabbis will clarify a puzzling sequence of events in the text by explaining that the Torah is not written in chronological order. This leads to the common misconception that the whole Torah narrative is not generally sequential. As a rule, however, temporal order is maintained in the text except in unusual cases where the rabbis specifically note an exception – and, even in those cases, the issue is often subject to debate.]

Why then, if the text is generally sequential, does the Torah periodically find it necessary to introduce an event with the phrase “and it was after these things”?

In order, explain the rabbis, to draw a thematic connection between the event that just occurred and the event that is about to occur.

Therein, however, lies the problem. Immediately before the Akeida, the Torah relates that Avraham contracts a covenant with the king of the Philistines, Avimelech. This covenant is viewed in rabbinic tradition as a negative and dangerous step on Avraham’s part.

What possible connection could there be, however, between the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak, one of the most well known and significant episodes in the Torah, and this ill-fated covenant?



Some scholars, unable to find a connection between the two events, immediately turn to a Midrashic approach.

Rashi, for example, cites a Midrash quoted in the Talmud as his only explanation for the phrase in question. The Talmud interprets the introductory phrase of the Akeida to mean “And it was after these words” rather than “And it was after these things” (the root of the word devarim is considered in this case to be diber, “to speak,” rather than davar, “thing”).

Two possible sets of words, suggests the Talmud, set the Akeida in motion:

  1. The words of Satan, who turns to God and argues, “During the entire party that Avraham made on the occasion of the birth of his son he did not offer you one sacrifice.” To this accusation God responds: “Avraham’s entire
    celebration was in honor of his son. Were I to command him to sacrifice that son, he would not refuse.”
  2. The words of Yishmael who mocks Yitzchak by saying, “I was willing to undergo circumcision at the age of thirteen years; at the time of your circumcision you were but an infant.” Yitzchak responds: “You mock me on the basis of one limb? Were God to ask me to sacrifice myself entirely to him I would not refuse.”


Other scholars, such as the Ohr Hachaim, struggle to remain true to the flow of the text. They suggest that the phrase “and it was after these things” connects the Akeida not to the covenant directly but to the series of events that preceded it. These events included: Avraham and Sara’s long wait for a child, God’s promise that Avraham’s legacy would live on through Yitzchak, and Yitzchak’s birth and growth into manhood. These events, says the Ohr Hachaim, create the setting for the Akeida – a setting rife with deep trauma, conflict and tribulation.


A few other commentaries, however – Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam prominently among them – are bold enough to suggest what to Rashi was apparently unthinkable. The Akeida, they say, was, at least on one level, the direct result of Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech.

The Rashbam, a commentator who always adheres to the pashut pshat of the text, sees the connection between the two events as crystal clear. He points to one specific phrase in the narrative describing the covenant. The Philistine king turns to Avraham and states, “And now, swear to me by God if you will deal falsely with me or my son or my grandson.”

Avimelech is clearly suggesting a covenant in perpetuity. Avraham agrees.

The patriarch, says the Rashbam, endangers his progeny when he contracts an inter-generational covenant with the likes of Avimelech. While Avraham may make a personal agreement with Avimelech himself, he has no right to make a concrete covenant complete with commitments on behalf of his children and grandchildren. God is, therefore, moved to respond: “You were careless with the son I gave you. You contracted a covenant with them and with their children. Now take that son, offer him as a sacrifice and see what good the contracting of your covenant has done.”

The Rashbam’s suggestion is nothing short of mind-boggling. The Akeida, Avraham’s greatest test, emerges, at least in part, as a corrective for Avraham’s own behavior. Through the Akeida, God lets Avraham know that he is failing to pay enough attention to the effects of his actions upon his own son.

Once this door is opened, other tantalizing clues within the text create a pattern that would seem to support this thesis. After the birth of Yitzchak, for example, Sara recognizes the danger posed to her son by Yishmael, Yitzchak’s half-brother. She insists that Yishmael be exiled from the home. The text then testifies that Avraham, faced with this difficult decision, is “terribly troubled concerning his son.”

The Torah does not clearly specify which son; nor does the text tell us what actually troubles Avraham at this critical moment. Is the patriarch frightened by the danger posed to Yitzchak? Is he troubled by the idea of exiling Yishmael?

A surprising possibility is suggested by the Midrash Rabba and quoted by Rashi. What deeply troubled Avraham at this moment, says the Midrash, was that his son Yishmael had gone so far astray.

Where was Avraham until now? Can the Midrash be suggesting that, for years, the patriarch was unaware of the behavior of his son, Yishmael?

Obviously what prompts the Midrash to make this suggestion is the textual evidence that Sara was aware of what was happening within the home while Avraham was not. Avraham’s sights were on distant horizons, as he attempted to preach the word of God to a waiting world. He wanted to “save the world.” It remained for his wife to recognize the dangerous drama unfolding within their own home and to take the initiative to save her son from that danger. It is no accident, therefore, that God responds to Avraham’s hesitation by stating, “All that Sara says to you – heed her voice.”

Even more telling, perhaps, is the contrast in Avraham’s own behavior before and after the Akeida. Prior to the Akeida, Avraham’s activities are directed in the main towards an outside world. While he prays for a son and is clearly concerned about his familial legacy, on an active level his attention is overwhelmingly directed outward. He “creates souls” in Charan, interfaces with Pharaoh and Avimelech, contracts covenants, fights in a war to save Lot, welcomes guests and argues on behalf of Sodom and Amora. The very sentences prior to the Akeida describe Avraham planting a tree in Be’er Sheva and proselytizing “in the name of the Lord, God of the world.”

The Avraham who emerges following the Akeida is very different. His total focus turns inward, as in the next parsha, Chayei Sara, he occupies himself with two primary tasks: burying Sara, and finding a wife for Yitzchak. Past and future within his own family occupy his attention, and there is no mention of further preaching to the world.

Apparently Avraham, traumatized by the Akeida, learns the lesson that, according to the Rashbam, God wanted to convey. Avraham recognizes that his mission to the world remains of extreme significance and importance. His mission to his own family, however, and his responsibility to his nation’s future, become primary.

At the end of the patriarch’s life we do not know the fate of the many souls whom Avraham touched through his preaching to the world. We do know, however, that Avraham’s legacy is narrowed down to the life of one individual: his son Yitzchak. Avraham realizes that success or failure will depend upon Yitzchak and Yitzchak alone. Perhaps it takes the Akeida to teach the patriarch this lesson.

Points to Ponder

The Rashbam’s bold approach to the Akeida broadens the lessons that can be learned from this event.

On the one hand, we are reminded of the potential “covenants” that we make on a continual basis with an outside world. Particularly in our age, when that world invades our homes through television, computer and other venues, we must be ever vigilant concerning the environment that impinges upon our own as well as our children’s lives. Elements of outside culture that are counterproductive to their well-being must be actively rejected while other aspects must be nurtured. Only such proactive parenting can positively shape our children’s worlds and ensure the safety – both physical and spiritual – of generations to come.

Avraham’s personal journey surrounding the Akeida also serves as a clear reminder of our need to focus on what happens within our families. History is replete with the stories of successful individuals who somehow were not successful within the context of their own homes. Our involvements in our communities and in the outside world, as important as they may be, can never become our sole or even primary focus. Time and effort must be spent on what is most important: the education and the development of our children.

Parshat Vayeira: Avraham’s Sudden Silence

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


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Two towering events serve as dramatic bookends within Parshat Vayeira: the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amora and the Akeida (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak).

Avraham reacts to the first of these events true to expected form. Unable to accept an unacceptable reality, he argues, debates and struggles with his Creator. He is determined to change God’s mind.

When confronted with the commandment to sacrifice his son, however, Avraham is silent and obedient.

Why does Avraham react to the challenge of the Akeida with deafening silence? Where is the Avraham that we have come to know – the man who is unwilling to accept the world as it is; the man who, unlike Noach before him, struggles with his Creator at every stage of his life (see Noach 2, Approaches b, c)?



Clearly bothered by Avraham’s apparent silence in the face of the Akeida, scholars across the ages, in the Midrash and beyond, fill in the blanks of the biblical text. They claim that, at least internally, Avraham was not silent at all. These scholars paint a picture of an Avraham terribly torn by the task that lies before him. He is not only a father moved beyond measure by compassion and love for his son, but also a patriarch unable to reconcile God’s previous promises to him – of a nation to be created through Yitzchak – with the current commandment to sacrifice that very son.


The Midrash, for example, presents a detailed narrative in which Satan appears to Avraham in the guise of an old man. Step after step, along the journey to Mount Moriah, this old man argues with the patriarch: “Where are you going? Old man! Have you lost your mind? A child is given to you after a hundred years, and you go to slaughter him? Tomorrow God will accuse you of murder, of shedding the blood of your own son!”

When Satan sees that Avraham is not dissuaded from his path, he creates physical obstacles blocking the patriarch’s journey, to no avail. Avraham is determined to carry through with the sacrifice of Yitzchak in response to God’s command.

Using the beautiful picturesque method so characteristic of Midrashic literature, the rabbis detail the profound internal struggle that must have been taking place within Avraham’s soul. The old man who appears before the patriarch is clearly Avraham’s own alter ego as the patriarch wrestles with his powerful doubts: After waiting so long for a son, am I now to lose him by my own hand? How could a God who promised me yesterday that Yitzchak will be the progenitor of a great nation now command Yitzchak’s death? Will God change his mind again tomorrow?

Neither these doubts nor any physical obstacles, however, sway Avraham from his path. Against all odds, he will carry out the will of God.


Rashi, for his part, sees Avraham’s struggle reflected in the text itself as the Akeida begins. God’s commandment reflects a series of unwritten responses on the part of the patriarch. God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak.”

At each stage of this commandment, claims Rashi, Avraham argued: When God said, “Take your son,” Avraham responded, “I have two sons.”

When God said, “Your only son,” Avraham responded, “Each one of them is the only son born of his mother.”

When God said, “Whom you love,” Avraham responded, “I love them both.”

Only then does God say, “Yitzchak.”

Rashi portrays Avraham fighting against the dawning realization that Yitzchak is to be the subject of God’s command. Step-by-step, the darkness closes in, until, finally, God makes his intentions crystal clear.


While the Midrash, Rashi, and other commentaries portray a complex picture of struggle on Avraham’s part, however, our fundamental problem remains.

Why is it left to the rabbis to paint this picture? As we have noted, the Torah does not shy away from detailing other occasions when Avraham grapples with his destiny and with his world.

Why then, within our own parsha, does the Torah clearly chronicle Avraham’s struggle concerning the evil cities of Sodom and Amora, yet leave him conspicuously silent as he confronts the Akeida?


The answer may lie in recognizing that the two events before us represent two separate realms within God’s relationship to man.

When it comes to Sodom and Amora, God is operating within the realm of din, “judgment.”

God’s commandment concerning the Akeida, on the other hand, takes place squarely in the realm of nissayon, “trial.”

When God relates to man in the realm of din, everything makes sense. There is clear cause and effect. God says, “The inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Amora are evil; therefore they deserve to perish.”

As long as we remain within the sphere of din, we can argue and struggle with our Creator. God is, in fact, inviting us to do so. Perhaps there is a logical argument to be made that can sway God from His intended path; perhaps one more prayer, one more plea will tip the balance of judgment in our favor.

That is why Avraham argues with God in defense of Sodom and Amora.

When God brings us into the world of nissayon, on the other hand, nothing makes sense. God Himself is hidden from view, and there is no perceptible logic to his actions.

Here, argument and struggle are futile. Everything that is happening is beyond our ken. There are certainly reasons for God’s actions, but we cannot begin to understand them.

Our challenge within the realm of nissayon is solely to pass the trial, to respond to God’s will with dignity as we remain constant in our faith and loyalty to Him.

That is why Avraham is silent in the face of the Akeida. He realizes that he has entered the world of nissayon, and that his challenges have changed.


A beautiful possible textual allusion to God’s “hiddeness” at the time of the Akeida can be found in three words embedded within the text of the narrative itself. As Avraham approaches Mount Moriah, the site of the Akeida, the Torah states, Va’ya’ar et hamakom mei’rachok, “And he saw the place from afar.”

The rabbis wonder: How did Avraham know that he had reached his destination? God had never referred to Mount Moriah by name, but had simply said, “…raise him [Yitzchak] as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”

The Midrash responds that Avraham knew that he had reached his destination because he saw “a cloud tied to the mountain.”

The imagery of Mount Moriah enveloped in mist is particularly telling. God’s appearance in a cloud, a phenomenon that occurs on a number of occasions within biblical literature, always reflects the hidden element of God’s being, even at a time of revelation. By suggesting that Avraham is able to identify Mount Moriah by the cloud that surrounds it, the Midrash alludes to the hidden nature of God’s presence at this difficult moment in Avraham’s life.

An even more direct possibility lies in an alternative application of the word makom in this sentence. Makom is one of the titles given to God within our literature. This sentence may therefore read: Va’ya’ar et HaMakom mei’rachok, “And he saw God from afar.” As Avraham approaches the site of the Akeida, God is hidden and distant.In a similar vein, Jewish tradition mandates the formula of consolation recited at the home of a mourner: HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim, “May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

God is, once again, referred to in this sorrowful ritual by the appellation HaMakom. We turn to the mourner and we say, “May God, who seems distant from you at this difficult time of your life, come closer and console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Points to Ponder

Avraham, through prophetic vision, was able to distinguish between the two realms of din and nissayon. He could clearly see the difference between God’s logical decision concerning Sodom and Amora, and the inexplicable commandment of the Akeida. The patriarch was, therefore, able to react to each of these major events in Parshat Vayeira in appropriate fashion.

We, however, are unable to make this distinction. We never know whether a particular challenge facing us in life is a reflection of din, of nissayon, or of a combination of the two. We are, therefore, meant to react to all challenges of life on both levels at once. We struggle, pray, plead and argue for Justice. At the same time, when all the prayers have been recited and all our arguments have been offered, we turn to God, and we accept his will. We then pray again; but this time we pray that God grant us the strength to pass the test.

Parashat Noach: The Generation of the Tower and a Towering Generation

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers.

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In this sidra we read of the generation of Noah and the evil lives they led. Their punishment, as it is recorded in the Torah, was complete destruction – except for Noah and his family – in the great flood. Following that episode, we read of another generation following in the footsteps of the first. This is Dor haHaflaga – the Generation of the Tower. The people of this generation had evidently failed to learn from the tragic lesson that its predecessors had been taught. They were a people marked by arrogance and haughtiness.

The Torah does not describe merely poetic myths. We have substantial corroboration of that episode from the science of archeology. We know that the Mesopotamians of about 3,600–3,800 years ago began to dwell in big cities, and to build tremendous pagan temples in them. These temples were constructed as high towers as a sign of the equality of the builders with the pagan gods they worshiped. In their writings, some of which we still have, they boast of building into the heavens, even as is recorded in the sidra. At the turn of the present century, the very tower of which the Bible speaks was discovered, in ruins, by a German archeological expedition. It was clearly an impressive and imposing structure. These tremendous towers expressed the desire of the Babylonians to imagine themselves a superior race, a “herrenvolk.” Ultimately, the cities and the towers were destroyed, and all further construction was frustrated.

If you will reread the story of the tower, you will observe the terrific sarcasm with which the Torah describes the entire episode. Just one example: the name Bavel (or Babel or Babylon) given to that place by God. This is a sarcastic pun, as the Mesopotamians themselves called their city Babel because in their language the name was derived from the words bab-ili, meaning the Gate of the God – or in the plural, bab-ilani, the Gate of the Gods (hence: Babylon). However, in Hebrew the name bavel is similar to the root b-l-l which means: confusion. So the Torah tells us that what these mortals thought was the gate to their own divinity was nothing more than the confusion of their poor minds.

And yet, despite the sarcasm, bitterness, and ridicule which the Torah heaps upon the generation of the tower, the indictment of this generation is not complete. Just compare these two generations, that of the flood and that of the tower: the generation of the flood was, with the exception of Noah and his family, completely and utterly destroyed; the generation of the tower was not destroyed at all – it was merely punished by internal dissension and great exile and dispersion. Why is it that the generation of the tower was treated with such comparative leniency despite their sins of arrogance?

Our rabbis (Genesis Rabba 38:6) gave us the answer, based upon a clue in the Bible itself. Our Torah mentions that the whole world spoke one language, meaning of course that there was unity, cooperation, friendship. And therefore, “The generation of the flood, since they were steeped in theft, lo nishtayra mehem peleita – none of them remained. But the generation of the tower, since they loved each other, there remained from them a remnant.”

There is something that can be salvaged from the generation of the tower, something of lasting and permanent value, and that is: love, friendship. What our rabbis got from this episode of the generation of the tower was that every generation can become a towering generation if it learns to love; that even if people are arrogant and Godless and criminal, they can escape heavenly wrath if they will learn to love God’s creatures. The only way of nishtayra mehem peleita, of surviving a world of coldness and treachery and mass-production and bold projects which obscure the individual, is through love.

It is told that a Jew once asked his rabbi, “Why do we say “leĥayyim” to our friends before reciting the blessing over wine or schnapps? Isn’t it disrespectful to bless our neighbor before we bless God? The rabbi answered that the practice is valid since the Torah commands us to accept the mitzva of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) before it tells us, “Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

We frequently speak of the mitzva of neighborly love, and yet we usually fail to understand it – and therefore to practice it. The difficulty is a simple one: some people are simply unlovable. You ask me to have real affection for so-and-so? How can I, when I think he is repulsive? Or, how can I when I simply don’t approve of him and what he thinks and what he does? I am critical of so many things about him, and I refuse to surrender the right to be critical of him; it is part of a man’s rational makeup to be critical. And if I don’t approve of him and have no emotional ties to him, how can I possibly observe the commandment to love him?

That is a good question, which you have no doubt thought of, and which we must be able to answer if we will ever succeed in making of ourselves, who have so many of the faults and evil traits of the generation of the tower, a towering generation – if we are to manage to survive as decent human beings and good Jews.

A most profound and adequate answer is the one suggested by that great German Jew, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch makes the observation that regarding the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Torah does not say “Ve’ahavta et reiakha,” but “lereiakha,” which is difficult to translate. But what does that actually mean? “Et reiakha” implies an emotional tie, a complete and uncritical love of your neighbor, which may be very good but is not usually possible. But “lereiakha” carries with it the meaning that you don’t have to approve of him or anything he says or wants, but what is required is empathy, meaning: put yourself in his place, so that you will participate in his feelings, in whatever happens to him – that is lereiakha; share in what happens to him. If great good fortune happens to him – be happy for him, as if it happened to you. Don’t begrudge it and don’t be indifferent. If tragedy occurs to him – share his sorrow and feel it as if it happened to you – “kamokha.” And when you can establish that identification and deeply participate in both his joys and his sorrows, then you will certainly be moved to increase the joys and alleviate the sorrows. You need agree to nothing he says and may even consider his personality faulty – but he is a human being with feelings and sensitivities, and the mitzva of neighborly love requires you to consider those feelings as if they were your own. The Torah asks nothing of us that is beyond our capabilities. It does not ask of us to be uncritical in accepting confidants or friends. It does not ask of us that we gush in sweetness over someone we loathe. It does say that no matter what our opinion of a person, we must have enough love in our souls that we feel not only for him – not only sympathy; but as if we were him – empathy.

This demand of the Torah that we practice neighborly love is not a demand to be an angel. It is a challenge to be human. Few of us find it possible to approve of any one person completely and uncritically. Few of us can form deep emotional attachments with everyone we know. But all of us were created in the image of God. And that means that we can practice neighborly love “lereiakha”; we can learn empathy, we can consider another’s feelings as if they were our very own. For that is the meaning of the Torah’s commandment – it is practicable, manly, and supremely human.

It is that and that alone which can make us the peleita, the survivors in this generation, which like the one mentioned in this sidra, is feverishly busy in building all kinds of structures and weapons and industries, and deriving therefrom the collective arrogance that makes us think we are supermen. The generation of the tower was a wicked one and therefore doomed to failure. But their one redeeming feature, love, is that which is able to make of us and every other generation a towering generation. May that be God’s will.


Parshat Bereishit: And Kayin Said to Hevel, His Brother…

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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The tragic story of mankind’s second generation unfolds as Kayin and Hevel, the sons of Adam and Chava, each bring an offering to God. God accepts Hevel and his offering but rejects Kayin and his efforts.

Unable to accept a divine rejection which he feels is both without reason and unreasonable (see Bereishit 3, Approaches d), a despondent and enraged Kayin lashes out. He murders his brother, forever eliminating his perceived rival.

God decrees, in response to this horrific act of fratricide, that Kayin will spend the remainder of his life in exile.

A glaring textual omission emerges at the climactic moment of the Kayin and Hevel story.

The Torah states, “And Kayin said to Hevel his brother, and it was when they were in the field, and Kayin rose up upon Hevel his brother and killed him.”

What did Kayin say? Why does the Torah introduce a conversation which it then fails to record?

[Note: Had the Torah used the word va’yedaber, “spoke,” as opposed to va’yomer, “said,” to describe Kayin’s communication with his brother, we might have argued that God simply wanted to indicate that a conversation took place. Va’yomer, however, always refers to a specific verbal communication, and is invariably followed in the Torah by the text of that communication.]


The rabbis in the Midrash Rabba suggest three possible conversations which might have led to the fateful physical confrontation between Kayin and Hevel.

  1. The brothers determined to divide the world. One of them took possession of the land while the other claimed all movable items. As soon as the division took effect, one said to the other, “You are standing upon my land!” while the other replied, “You are wearing my clothes!”
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.
  2. Their dispute did not center upon material possessions at all but, instead, upon the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple (which would be built by the Jewish nation millennia later). After they divided both the land and the movables equally, Kayin and Hevel both claimed dominion over the Temple, each arguing that it should be built in his domain.
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.
  3. The battle centered upon neither of the above. Kayin and Hevel actually fought over their mother Chava (or alternatively, one of their sisters).
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.


The Midrash seems to raise more questions than answers.

Can the rabbis suggest that they know the content of a conversation concerning which the biblical text is completely silent? Are we to assume that the Midrash reflects prophetic vision or that the rabbis were somehow personally present at the scene of Hevel’s murder?

Further, each of the rabbinic suggestions seems more bizarre than the next. How can we seriously consider, for example, that Kayin and Hevel actually argued about the Temple? The very concept of the Beit Hamikdash would not be introduced into human experience until centuries after their death. Similarly, no clue is found in the biblical text to support the contention that Kayin and Hevel argued either about material wealth or about a woman.

Simply put, how are we to understand the Midrashic approach to the struggle between Kayin and Hevel?

This seemingly strange rabbinic passage actually provides us with a perfect entrée into the world of Midrash.

There is a vast difference between pashut pshat (straightforward explanation of biblical text) and Midrash (rabbinical exegesis).

When we operate within the world of pashut pshat, we search for the direct meaning of the text before us. In this realm, everything is literal and concrete.

When we enter the world of Midrash, however, the rules change completely. Midrashim are vehicles through which the rabbis, using the Torah text as a point of departure, transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be taken literally; nor are they are to be seen as attempts to explain the factual meaning of a specific Torah passage.

By using the vehicle of Midrash to convey eternal lessons and values, the rabbis connect these values to the Torah text itself. They also ensure that the lessons will not be lost and will always be perceived as flowing directly from the Torah.

Our task, therefore, when we enter the world of Midrash, is to determine the global lessons that the rabbis intend to convey.


In the Midrash before us the rabbis are not simply explaining the Kayin and Hevel story. They are, instead, viewing this first violent event in human history as the prototype of physical confrontation across the ages. True to Midrashic style, they express significant global observations in concrete, story-like terms.

Fundamentally, the rabbis make the following statement in this Midrash: We were not present when Kayin killed Hevel. Nor can we glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning the source of their dispute. Were you to ask us, however, what these brothers were struggling about, we would be forced to suggest one of three options. Over the course of human history, man has killed his brother for material gain, over religion, and because of lust. All bloodshed and warfare can be traced to these three basic primary sources. We are, therefore, certain that one of these issues served as the basis of the confrontation between Kayin and Hevel at the dawn of human history.

This rabbinic commentary serves as a sobering reminder that mankind has not moved one inch off the killing field of Hevel’s murder. In spite of perceived social progress, nothing has fundamentally changed. The causes of human conflict have remained remarkably constant across the face of time.

The Midrash remains sadly relevant, centuries after its authorship.

If the twentieth century gave lie to any assumption at all, it was to the assumption that scientific and technological progress would automatically be accompanied by moral advancement as well.

The century that gave us the Holocaust serves to remind us that in many ways we have simply gotten better at killing each other.

So far, as we confront the pandemic of Muslim fundamentalism, the twenty-first century isn’t looking much better.


As perceptive and as fascinating as the Midrash may be, however, it fails to answer the original textual question that we raised. Once again, why doesn’t the Torah tell us what Kayin said to Hevel? Why introduce a conversation and then deliberately leave its content unrecorded?

On one level, we could simply answer that God wants us to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, a portion of the Torah is left unfinished in order to make us partners in the text. God challenges us to read into that text the myriad of possible lessons that are relevant to our lives.

Had the Torah told us the content of Kayin’s dialogue with Hevel, the questions would not have been asked, the Midrash would not have been written and its fundamental lessons would have never been conveyed.


There may, however, be an even deeper and more powerful reason for the Torah’s omission in the text before us.

The Torah edits out the content of Kayin’s words to Hevel because God wants us to understand that those words, whatever they might have been, were of no ultimate consequence. Sometimes an act is so depraved that its cause and motivation is unimportant; no valid excuse can be offered.

Perhaps Kayin had justifiable grievances against his brother. We, however, will never know. Kayin loses all claims upon our empathy and understanding the moment he murders his brother. Nothing can explain that heinous act, and certainly nothing can justify it.

Once again, the eternal Torah text, this time through omission, delivers a message that is frighteningly applicable to our time. No matter what their cause, acts of terror, mayhem and murder perpetrated against innocent victims are inexcusable. The perpetrators of these crimes, through their very actions, render their own potential grievances irrelevant.

God wants us to know that Kayin said something to Hevel. He also wants to us to know, however, that what Kayin said ultimately doesn’t matter. The text conveys this lesson in the most powerful way that it can. We are told that a conversation took place, but we are not told the content of that conversation.

Sometimes the Torah teaches us not by what is included in the text, but by what is left out.