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Responding to Nature

Written by D Fine

Parshas Lech Lecha; Listening to the Call

The Ramban asks a scintillating question at the start of our sedra[1]. Most righteous people in the Torah are awarded an introduction as to who they are before the Torah mentions their deeds, attributes, or righteousness. For example, even before we are told of the burning bush episode, the Torah tells us about Moshe’s birth, rescue from the river, and saving the Jew from the Egyptian. Similarly, before being told about HaShem’s command to Noach to build the ark, we are first told that Noach was a righteous person. The exception, the Ramban notes, seems to be Avraham Avinu. With very little introduction in the psukim as to who Avraham was, let alone any mention of his merits or righteousness[2], we are thrust into parshas Lecha Lecha with HaShem personally speaking to Avraham to tell him to go to Eretz Yisrael. Why, asks the Ramban, are we not told what righteousness of Avraham saw him merit this direct call from HaShem?
The Sfas Emes[3] would cite this question of the Ramban more or less each year on parshas Lech Lecha, and in various years he would give different answers. The first answer recorded in his sefer is the one we shall quote and build our theme on. The Sfas Emes quotes a Zohar and says that HaShem called out to everyone. It was just that Avraham was the only one who was listening. [Perhaps the answer fits best with the deep explanation of HaShem’s order lech lecha to mean ‘go to yourself,’ ie work towards your spiritual core and fulfil your spiritual role and potential in life]. This theme of HaShem ‘calling out’ to every one of us is our topic this week.

The mishna reports[4] that every day a ‘heavenly voice’ (bas kol) goes out from Har Chorev and declares ‘woe to the people because of their insult to the Torah, for whoever does not involve himself with the Torah is called ‘rebuked’…’ The classic question asked here is who exactly is this heavenly voice meant to be heard by:- the people who are on a spiritual enough plain to be able to hear such a holy heavenly voice do not need to be reminded to commit to Torah, whilst the people who need this reminder of the heavenly voice are not on a spiritual enough level to hear it? Rav Pinkus said a beautiful answer to this question[5], along the lines of the aforementioned Sfas Emes. He said that this bas kol is indeed talking to us all; it is giving us messages through nature and the happenings of the world around us. We just need to make sure that we are listening.

The Chafetz Chaim understands the words of the mishna[6] ‘the owner of the house is insistent’ to mean that HaShem wants us to do good in life. Thus, there is a form of direct communication between us and HaShem to further this goal. This can take the form of a life-changing event or sudden realisation and spiritual awakening, which some are fortunate enough to have. Or, moments of inspiration can occur every now and again in life. But the regular communication that we are privy to [assuming we want to listen] is through nature and events in the world. Rav Leuchter[7] explains that when the Rambam says to look at HaShem’s deeds and creations in the world[8], this does not stop with the goal knowing that there is a Creator from looking at the amazing world of nature. It also refers to this dialogue between HaShem and us that takes place through the natural world, from which we can understand (messages of) HaShem. So far this is all rather abstract and hard to grasp; ‘messages from nature from HaShem’ etc. We shall try and make it a bit more practical and easy to grasp via some examples.

The basic point is to realise how the Torah is reflected in the world around us. For example, Rav Dessler[9] understands the concept of zechus avos to mean that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov instilled within their descendants certain traits and values that remain with us until this very day. It is interesting to note just how true this is. Avraham Avinu underwent much suffering to perform a bris milah, and to this day many secular or anti-religious Jews still perform a bris milah on their child. Similarly, Avraham Avinu’s crowning characteristic was the attribute of chesed (kindness), and to this day the Jewish population has excelled in charity work, raising money for good causes, and donations – again, regardless of how religious the donor is. The same applies, to a lesser extent, with the concept of prayer that the Avos instituted; Jews from around the world have some connection to prayer, and have called out to HaShem at moments in life even if they do not do so on a regular daily basis. Just visit the Kotel for yourself if you want to see Jews of all backgrounds and religious standards coming to pray to HaShem. The Kotzker Rebbe takes this one step further, quoting Rashi’s explanation[10] of HaShem’s bracha to Avraham at the start of our sedra that ‘they will sign off with you,’ which normally refers to the fact that though we mention all of the three Avos in the opening bracha of shmone esrei, we end off with Avraham (‘magen avraham’) alone. The Kotzker Rebbe understands Rashi’s ‘they will sign off with you’ to also refer to the status of the generations in history. At the end of current history prior to the arrival of moshiach, the generations will represent Avraham Avinu; their main attribute will be chesed. One does not have to look too far to see this today.

In a similar vein of our theme, Rav Wolbe (see note 7) used to comment about how the various revolutions and overthrowing of monarchies across Europe in the 1800s mirrored a new period in our history too; a time of shechinta begalusa, where HaShem (the King of kings) was also in a new period of exile and hidden status. Since the happenings in the world are messages to us, this was the conclusion that Rav Wolbe reached with his understanding. There are other examples that you and I are able to point out. It is no coincidence that the modern-day world-changing events of September the 11th and the fall of the dollar both happened in Elul, the month which Chazal describe as one in which the world is standing in a fragile and precarious, easily-toppled position.[11] How many other examples can you think about of natural events giving us such messages or reinforcing spiritual lessons? Let me know please.
The idea we are trying to convey can be summed up by an explanation of another mishna in Pirkei Avos. The mishna reads[12] ‘Rav Yaakov says: one who walks on the way and is learning (Torah), and interrupts (himself) from his learning and says ‘how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this ploughed field,’ the pasuk considers this person as if he is deserving of a death penalty.’ What does the mishna mean; why is admiring the tree’s natural beauty in the middle of learning almost deserving of death penalty, and if so, why did the mishna decide to give this example as opposed to someone ‘spacing out’ in the middle of his journey? The relevant explanation for our topic this week is that the mishna does not say ‘one who is learning on a journey and says the tree is great.’ It mentions that this person has ‘interrupted and said this tree is great.’ The point is that this person’s sin/error is that he has divorced the world from any connection to the Torah he is learning. In order to comment on the beauty of HaShem’s world he has to interrupt his learning, for he does not see the Torah as reflected in, and indeed anything to do with, the wider world. It is for this reason that he is considered as if deserving of the death penalty for he has belittled the greatness and relevance of the Torah.

HaShem should help us to ‘see’ Him through His world and His Torah,

Have a great Shabbes,

[1] Ramban Bersishis 12;3 ‘venivrechu’

[2] There is the veiled reference at the end of parshas Noach (11;28) to the midrash about Avraham having been thrown into the fire for his religious beliefs. But this is only a veiled reference and is not as explicit an introduction as the other tzaddikim are allocated in Chumash.
[3] 1847-1905. He was the Gerrer Rebbe. The answer we are quoting is from Sfas Emes al HaTorah, parshas Lech Lecha, under the year taf reish lamed beis.

[4] Pirkei Avos 6;2

[5] I think it was on his tape on the topic of ‘Shabbes Chazon’

[6] The mishna is Pirkei Avos 2;20. The Chafetz Chaim here can be found in his sefer ‘Zechor LeMiriam’ perek 23

[7] Close(st) talmid of Rav Wolbe (1914-2005), who was mashgiach in yeshiva Be’er Ya’akov.

[8] Rambam sefer hamitzvos aseh 3, hilchos yesodei hatorah 2;2
[9] At the start of Michtav Me’eliyahu chelek alef. The article is called ‘zechus avos’ I think, or maybe ‘middas hadin vemidas harachamim’

[10] Rashi Bereishis 12;2

[11] The dollar crash and Elul connection I heard from Rabbi Brazil, the September the 11th connection is my addition.

[12] Pirkei Avos 3;9

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