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LIFE LESSONS



During these weeks, we begin the Torah readings devoted to Avraham Avinu. We know that these are not just stories or ancient history. The hachamim teach, “Ma’aseh avot, siman labanim - the actions of our forefathers are an indication for us.” This means that we should apply the lessons learnt from their lives to our own lives. I would like to analyze the account of Avraham’s extraordinary performance of the misvot of brit milah and hachnassat orhim (hosting guests), to glean three powerful messages that can make a difference in our lives.

The First Lesson: Peering into Avraham’s Refrigerator

Any medical procedure on a ninety-year-old man is difficult. But a brit milah without the benefits of anesthesia or pain killers is excruciating. The rabbis tell us that the third day after the brit is the most painful of all, and that is exactly when we meet Avraham standing in the grueling heat, without the comfort of central air-conditioning, hosting three strangers in his tent.

It is interesting to note that Avraham served his guests tongue. The gemara says he slaughtered three calves for his guests in order to serve each one a whole tongue, which was a delicacy in those days. Rashi goes out of his way to say that he even served them the meat with mustard. It always bothered me why we need to know about the mustard. Would the misva have been incomplete without the topping?

I would like to suggest that Rashi is revealing the greatness of Avraham. If we would sneak into the kitchen of the greatest rabbis of our generation and peek into their refrigerators, what would we find? I can only assume that we would see the bare necessities: milk, butter, eggs. Maybe some juice. However, I highly doubt that we would find fancy condiments like A1 Steak Sauce or Grey Poupon Mustard in the gadol hador’s refrigerator. The saddikim usually live an austere life. Yet, Avraham is greater than our greatest rabbi. He probably fasted most of his life. If the Baba Sali fasted every weekday, Avraham was certainly not used to sitting down to steak with mustard. So why did he have mustard? It must be that he kept the delicacies, like mustard, in his house for his guests. Although he, personally, was above gourmet treats, he did not impose his level of spiritual abstinence on others. He didn't force them to eat bread and water as he did.

From himself, Avraham demanded the highest religious stringencies and practices; he did not care at all about material pleasures, yet for others, it was just the opposite. He was concerned about the material welfare and physical comfort of the people around him. Unfortunately, in our day, we do the opposite. We stick our noses into other people’s spirituality, saying, “Why do you do this? Why aren’t you keeping that?” but when it comes to the creature comforts and pampering, we put ourselves first.

They tell a story about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Ba'al Ha-Tanya. Once, he was studying Torah in the far corner of a three-room house.  Two rooms away there was a baby sleeping, and in the next room, his grandson, the Semah Seddek, was learning.  Suddenly, the Ba'al Ha-Tanya heard the baby cry.  The elder rabbi rose from his studying, passed through the room where his grandson was studying, and went to the next room to soothe the baby back to sleep.  Meanwhile, his grandson was too involved in his studies to notice the baby crying.  On returning to his room, the Ba’al Ha-Tanya told his grandson to stop learning.  He said, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear a baby’s cry, there is something wrong with his learning.”

He told him to stop learning, because it is unacceptable to advance your spirituality at the expense of another person’s pain or discomfort.

In a similar vein, they say that the Vilna Gaon was once sitting in his sukkah, engrossed in Torah, when an elderly gentleman entered. The Gaon was so engrossed in his learning that he did not acknowledge the guest's presence, so the man left. Later, the old man came to the Gaon saying that he was insulted that the Gaon did not welcome him earlier. The Gaon apologized, “You are right. I’m wrong,” and he told the man. “Torah learning is not supposed to make one cold and inconsiderate. I bless you to live until the age of one hundred years.” It is told that when that man reached the age of ninety-eight, he became very ill, and his family wanted to rush him to the doctor, but he refused, saying, “The Vilna Gaon blessed me to reach one hundred. I have nothing to worry about.” Sure enough, he got better, and on his one hundredth birthday he passed away.

We see from here how sensitive the hachamim were if they denied someone else’s welfare because of their high level.

This lesson from Avraham can be summarized by a very important statement by Rav Yisrael Salanter, which we always have to keep in mind. He said, “Your friend’s gashmiyut (physical needs) is your ruhniyut (spiritual achievements).” Although pampering ourselves is a vanity, generously spoiling and pampering others is a misva.

The Second Lesson: Don’t Play Gd

At the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, when Hashem told Avraham to perform brit milah, the rabbis tell us that Avraham had three confidants with whom he consulted: Aner, Eshkol, and Mamreh. Aner told him not to go ahead with such an excruciatingly painful and dangerous procedure. Eshkol discouraged him saying that he would be weakening himself and become vulnerable to attack by his many enemies. But Mamreh told him to go for it. The hachamim praise Mamreh, giving him credit for encouraging Avraham’s brit milah. This is a puzzling story. Why did Avraham need to consult with his friends? If Mamreh would not have encouraged him, would he have had any doubt what to do?

The Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh, Rav Shach, offers a profound answer. He explains that there are two levels of prophecy, “Aspeklaria Meirah”- the clear lens - and “Aspeklaria She’eno Meirah”- the unclear lens. Only Moshe achieved the higher level of “Aspeklaria Meirah,” in which the intent of Gd’s prophetic message is crystal clear. Moshe was able to understand without a doubt what Hashem wanted from him. The other type of prophecy, “Aspeklaria She’eno Meirah” is also a communication from Gd, but it was still somewhat hazy and left room for interpretation as to how to fulfill the word of Gd. Based on this distinction, we understand thatAvraham's question was not whether to do the misva, but how to do it. Of course, Avraham wanted nothing less than to fulfill Gd’s command, but since he was on the lower level of prophecy, he sought clarification.The question he had was how exactly to interpret Gd's message. Keep in mind thatbrit milah was unheard of until that point. Avraham was a public person - a world famous philosopher and spiritual leader. He was concerned about the ramifications of doing the brit on his ability to continue to carry out his mission of spreading faith in one Gd. If he would do the brit publicly, it may cause his followers to be turned off. If people saw him doing such an unusual act, they may think he was crazy. Or, they might stop following his teachings out of fear that one day he would also instruct them to do such a painful act. That is why he consulted his friends. The first two advised him to do it in secret, avoiding a potential backlash. But Mamreh told him not to be afraid and do it publicly. He said to Avraham, “Years ago you had a debate with the king of the world, Nimrod. Nimrod claimed there was no Gd, and you argued. He threatened to throw you in the fiery furnace, and you weren’t intimidated. If not for Hashem’s miraculous intervention to save you from the fire, you would not be here today, and neither would your followers. You have to do Gd’s command without calculating the risks and benefits to your spiritual mission. Whatever Gd says - that is your new mission.” In effect, he told Avraham, “You can’t play Gd. Your business is to follow the misva, and let Gd worry about the outcome. Don’t hide your brit milah and everything will be okay.”

This lesson was the merit of Mamreh; and that is why, immediately after the brit, the Torah records that Avraham was sitting in his tent in“Eloneh Mamreh - the plains of Mamreh.” Why does the Torah go out of its way to mention the address of the tent? What’s the difference whether his tent was in Mamreh, Deal, or in Brooklyn?  Moreover, why did Avraham make such a super-human effort to host guests on that particular day, under such difficult conditions?

The answer is that after his brit, he wanted to fulfill Mamreh’s advice to continue doing outreach and to proudly interact with people, confidently continuing his work without hiding or being embarrassed of Gd’s misva. That is why the address of the tent was in Mamreh’s plain, because it was in his merit.

Here we learn from Avraham never to be embarrassed of doing the misvot proudly in public. There is never a need to make calculations as to a “risk” that may be incurred by keeping the Torah. If we fulfill the misvot, we will always come out ahead.

Lesson Three: How to Get Your Teenage Son Out of Bed

The Torah says that Avrahamgave the calves for the guests to be prepared by the “na’ar - lad.” The hachamim identify this lad as Avraham’s son, Yishmael. From this, we learn an important principle in educating our children. Namely, get your children actively involved in doing the misvot. Don’t just explain to them the importance of misvot, such as hachnassat orhim. Bring them onboard.

Yet there is an interesting twist to this episode. That day was also the third and most painful day for Yishmael, as well, who received his brit milah on the same day as Avraham, at the age of thirteen. While it may not have been the same level of pain as Avraham, it was undoubtedly tremendously difficult for Yishmael to entertain guests. He was probably suffering in bed, under the covers, when his father called him to come out and help prepare the lavish meal. It was likely the last thing on earth he wanted to do. So how was Avraham able to get him out of bed and run to serve the guests? The answer is that Avraham practiced what he preached. Yishmael knew his father was in no less pain than he was, yet he saw him running and preparing for the guests. If Avraham would have been sitting on the side, Yishmael would not have listened. Avraham wasn’t only training his family to do misvot. He was teaching them, by example, to do the misvot with self-sacrifice.

This is a very important lesson in parenting. We have to be very careful not to expect our children to do things that we ourselves do not practice. Avraham would not have asked him to do it, if he wasn’t doing it himself. Hinuch (education) means not just telling the children, but being an example. Always be certain that you model the behavior you expect from your children and follow the same advice you give them.

Avraham’s powerful example didn’t only impact Yishmael, but also his nephew, Lot. In Parashat Lech Lecha, we read that Lot made the journey to Israel with Avraham. When he could not stand the tests, he leaves Avraham and goes to “Sin City”- Sodom. His choice of Sodom says a lot about Lot’s moral character. This is the equivalent of someone who studied and served Hacham Ovadia for many years, all of the sudden leaving Jerusalem to go live a life of decadence and vice in Las Vegas. Obviously, such a person is not of the highest caliber.

In Sodom, hosting guests was a capital offense. Lot’s wife wouldn’t even offer them salt, and that is why, when she looked back at the destruction, she was punished by becoming a pillar of salt.

Yet, when the two angels, appearing as wayfarers, arrived in Sodom, Lot enthusiastically took them in, literally risking his life. Where did he get the strength to host these guests? This is a man who said, “I efshi b’Avraham v’lo be’elokav - I want no part of Avraham nor his Gd.”

The hachamim explain that when Lot was young, he witnessed his uncle Avraham taking in guests with tremendous self-sacrifice, and that left an indelible impression. Hospitality became “hardwired” into his personality to such a degree that, although he was lacking in so many other areas, the impulse to offer hospitality became a built-in reflex.

That is a great lesson for us as parents. The behaviors our children see at home will stay with them into adulthood. Sometimes you see people who are not so observant, but there is one trait or practice in which they excel. For example, you may find a man who doesn’t come to minyan all week, but he never fails to be the first to arrive at Minha on Friday to say Shir Hashirim. Is he a hypocrite? No. If you ask him for an explanation, he will tell you, “When I was a kid, my father never missed Minha on Ereb Shabbat. How can I?”

These experiences become so deeply ingrained that they defy logic. This also applies to negative experiences. If children were subject, chas v’shalom, to abuse, there is a tendency for them to model abusive behaviors as adults. How can this be? Despite all the pain they went through, and the many times they swore that they would be different when they grow up, it is almost uncontrollable, and they do it.

We must learn from Avraham to be careful what values and behaviors we model in our home, so that our children will absorb the Torah values that are so critical to instill in the next generation.