Friday, October 30, 2015

When It Comes to Helping Others- Just Do It!

The first two verses in this week’s Parsha make mention of two encounters that Avraham has. In the first verse, Hashem appears to Avraham. In the second verse Avraham encounters three “people”. In light of the fact that these three strangers are identified by the Medrash as angles, the Rashbam understands these two verses as referring to a single encounter. Angels are Celestial beings that appear for the purposes of a Divine mission. According to Rashbam, Verse two explains that G-d’s appearance to Avraham was in the format of a visit by three angels.
However all other commentaries explain the verses as referring to two separate episodes.  In doing so, they are able to learn that Avraham encountered G-d, and then put G-d on hold as he tended to what he thought were three guests in need. The lesson learned from viewing these verses as two separate encounters is that we see how Avraham valued his work with guests more than having a private audience with the Almighty.
Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (Hegyonot El Ami) explained that from Avraham’s actions we can see a fundamental difference between Mitzvot Bein Adam l’Makom (between man and G-d) and Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Chaveiro (between man and his friend). Mitzvot between man and G-d require kavanah, proper intent and preparation. Avraham, who was feeling ill, may not have felt ready or worthy to engage in ritual activity, strictly focused on his relationship with the Divine. However when it comes to interpersonal obligations and mitzvot, no preparation is necessary: Just Do It (in the words of Nike). By interpersonal actions there need not have a separate kavanah: the intention is made clear by the action alone.

Along the same lines, Rabbi Amiel suggests that the notion that we get credit for planning to do a Mitzvah, even if it does not come to fruition may only apply to Mitzvot bein Adam L’Makom. However when it comes to interpersonal mitzvot, we must get the job done. It’s not enough to have a plan to help our fellow human being- that plan must be put into action. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Tower of Bavel on "Ground Zero" of the Flood

In explaining the word “Mabul” "flood", Rashi suggests three  etymologies:
1)      related to the word Bila- destroy
2)      related to word Bilbel- confusion
3)      related to word Hovil- to bring down, because the waters swept everything down to the lowest point possible. As proof of this third etymology, Rashi quotes the Talmud in Shabbat 113b  that Babylonia was also called Shinar, because Shinar is related to the word “Naar” which means to shake. Since Babylonia is in a valley, and the Talmud explains that all of those who died in the Flood ultimately landed in Babylonia.

All of the death and destruction from the Flood was swept to one spot called Shinar, identified by the Talmud as Bavel.

Later in the Sedra, in Chapter 11, we read about the Tower of Bavel. The Torah tells us that the location of this story is Shinar (11:2).

            It is no coincidence that the Tower of Bavel was built in Shinar. The commentaries explain that this tower building effort  was a response to the Flood. They thought that the tower could be a line of defense in case of a future flood. This helps to explain the decision to build the Tower on “Ground Zero”: the spot where all of the destruction from the flood was most apparent.
Though it may be true that “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, not everyone who has been in a foxhole remains devout after they are out and safe. In some cases,people who have experienced war have a difficult time remaining religious afterwards. They  wonder how a kind G-d could allow so much suffering in the world. After seeing such pain and hardship they may come to the conclusion that there is no one to rely upon, but themselves.

The fact that the Tower of Bavel was built on the collection site of all of the debris from the Flood gives us pause to consider the various responses that people have to tragedy and difficulty. Some are constructive and add comfort and meaning to the situation. Others, like those involved in the Tower of Bavel, unfortunately perpetuate the destruction, and add another layer of tragedy to the story.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Prayer of the Selfish Child, The Tree of Knowledge, and Eating Broccoli in Spite

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University conducted the following experiment. A child, who had a dislike for broccoli, was instructed to look into another room where there was a child behaving badly. Then the observing child is informed that this badly behaving child will be getting his favorite food- broccoli. But before the plate of broccoli is brought to the badly behaved child, the observing child is given the option of eating some of the broccoli (which he doesn’t like) with the knowledge that only his leftovers will reach the badly behaved child. Bloom reports that some children would literally be in tears as they scarfed down broccoli- even though they don’t like it- just to make sure that the other child was not rewarded.

This is an example of spite. It reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem, “Prayer of the Selfish Child”:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use ’em. . . .

 This seems to me what Rashi is getting at in Parshat Bereishit 3:6
And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.

ווַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּתֵּן גַּם לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ וַיֹּאכַל:

Rashi comments:
and she gave also to her husband: lest she die and he live and marry someone else. — [from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 13]

ותתן גם לאשה עמה: שלא תמות היא ויחיה הוא, וישא אשה אחרת:

Eve gave Adam from the Tree of Knowledge to ensure that Adam would not be in a position to marry someone else (Ed note: who else was there to marry?) after she died.
Through this comment of Rashi I better understand why the Etz Ha’Daat is referred to as (2:17) “The Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.”

Knowledge can be both a force of good and evil in the world. If we utilize knowledge to appreciate the many blessings in our lives, then our awareness is a force for good. If our knowledge causes us to overthink things and forces us to consider how our blessings compare to the blessings of others, then knowledge can be a burden and a source of aggravation, pain and stress.
By eating from the Etz HaDaat, all of Adam and Eve’s descendants have both types of awareness available to us. Children often focus a lot of time and energy on thinking about what others have.  It leads them to eat broccoli even if they hate it, and pray that no one else will be able to play with their toys. As adults we must reflect on how we utilize the power of knowledge in our lives.  Have we grown up as much as we should, or are we still “eating broccoli in spite”?