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Of Conversations and Commandments

Parshat Chayey-Sara



Summarized by students

Dedicated to the memory of
R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

1. Eliezers Mission
2. A Deeper Look
3. Blind Faith?
4. Long-Standing Debate
5. Coming Full Circle
6. Of Late

ELIEZER'S MISSION
In this week's Torah portion, "Chayei Sarah," we are treated to a lengthy version of the story of Eliezer, Avraham's servant, and his choice of Rivka as a wife for Yitzchak. Our sages noted the unusually long nature of the Torah's account of the events, and penned the following midrash:

"Rabbi Acha said: More significant is the simple conversation of the servants of our forefathers than the Torah of their children. The portion dealing with Eliezer's choice of Rivka goes on for pages and pages, while details of the impurity of rodents and bugs, for instance - a basic law of the Torah - are learned only via one extra word in the text..."

We can learn some crucial moral lessons from the manner in which Eliezer recounts his choice of Rivka as Yitzchak's bride; he seeks a woman whose personality is consistent with the atmosphere of Avraham's home. The bride-to-be must be a woman for whom extending kindness to others is a given; for Eliezer, it's not enough that Yitzchak's future wife be someone who responds kindly when asked to do so - she must also be someone who actively seeks to perform "chesed" for others. Why? Such an approach is characteristic of someone for whom kindness has become an integral part of his or her personality. From the Torah's account of Avraham's hospitality and his concern for even the wicked people of Sodom, there is no doubt that Eliezer learned of the fundamental importance of this quality from Avraham himself. Furthermore, Eliezer's great belief that God would help him find the right match for Yitzchak - who would fit the necessary criteria - is also an approach to life he learned from Avraham Avinu; the Torah teaches us on several occasions that Avraham is a firm believer in Divine Providence.

A DEEPER LOOK

That said, it is still incumbent upon us to try to clarify why it is that the "conversation of the servants" is more significant than the Torah given to the Jewish people.

It seems that the one quality that typified Avrahams service of God more than anything else - is that he acted voluntarily. Avraham does not perform acts of loving-kindness because he is asked to do so, but because of the natural goodness embedded deep within his personality. The same goes for all other aspects of his service of God; he behaves not because he has been commanded to so, but because of his complete love of, and dedication to, his Creator. It is in reference to Avrahams descendants that the prophet Isaiah says, "the seed of Avraham my beloved..."

Avraham also has a very well-cultivated fear of Heaven, as he himself is told by God at the climax of the Binding of Yitzchak, the Akeida: "Now I know that you truly fear God..." This prophetic revelation comes in response to the Akeida - as a natural response to Avraham's intense internal drive to serve God.

BLIND FAITH?
The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) tells of Rav Yosef, who was blind, and who was famous for saying that if anyone ever proved to him that a blind man was exempt from performing Torah commandments, that he - Rav Yosef - would sponsor a festive meal for his rabbinic colleagues. "Why did Rav Yosef make this offer?" asks the Gemara. He was of the opinion that someone who performs mitzvot voluntarily is serving God more fully than someone who acts in response to a Divine command. As such, would it have been proven to him that a blind person is exempt from mitzvot, Rav Yosef would have celebrated the fact that he, a blind man, has the opportunity to serve God more completely than other Jews. Later in that same Talmudic passage, we are taught the opposite principle: namely, that one who acts in response to a Divine command is serving God more fully than one who acts voluntarily. This information prompts Rav Yosef to remark that he is now prepared to sponsor a festive meal if it is proven to him that blind people are in fact obligated to perform the Torah's mitzvot!

At first blush, the above halacha - that acting out of obligation is greater than acting voluntarily - is rather surprising. Human reason dictates that the opposite should be true!

If so, why does the Jewish view on this matter seem to fly in the face of reason? The classic Talmudic commentators - the Rishonim - offer two approaches to solve the mystery.

The school of the Tosfot bases its explanation on the psychological assumption that a sense of obligation creates a resistance within a person to perform that which he is commanded to do. When you know that you absolutely must do something, your evil inclination pushes you to resist. In contrast, someone who is not obligated to perform a given action knows that at any point in time, he can choose to abandon the task at hand; this calms his "evil inclination," thus enabling his positive human qualities to take hold. Therefore, a person who acts in response to a command is greater, since he needs to draw on greater spiritual resources to successfully battle his negative inclinations, and ultimately complete the required task.

Other Rishonim, however, explain that one who acts out of obligation is greater - since he is fulfilling, by his actions - the order of the King; the absolute, compelling nature of his mitzvah is that which invests it with its significance. This second approach jibes with that of the Maharal, who explains the reason why the Torah was forcibly given on Mount Sinai; our sages tell us that God threatened the Children of Israel at Sinai, that if they did not accept the Torah, He would drop the mountain on all of them, and crush them on the spot! Maharal notes that what the rabbis mean to say is that the giving of the Torah was an absolute necessity - a virtual "law of nature," stemming from the Divine truth that God, Israel, and His Torah are all part of one organic entity. The three cannot be separated. In fact, the very continued existence of the world is contingent upon the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people...

LONG-STANDING DEBATE
Throughout the generations, Torah scholars have debated the following question: Must an understanding of the fundamentals of Jewish faith stem from the individual Jew, after personal intellectual investigation leads him to the conclusion of the clear necessity of the truth of Jewish belief? Or, perhaps, belief should be born out of a prophetic, Divine revelation?

The main difficulty with the former view lies in the self-evident limits of human intellect, and of mans ultimate inability to attain a level of complete faith in God, to embrace all the nuances of Jewish belief and fundamentals of faith through reason alone.

On the other hand, it is clear that belief obtained through a form of private "Divine revelation" must remain external to the believer to a great extent, since such an overwhelming prophetic experience would effectively force him to believe in Torah. Such a faith would not sprout forth from some sort of natural, internal understanding of the truth of the belief in question.

In light of the above, it is clear that the ideal - the healthiest type of faith - is that which synthesizes both faith that is a product of an external, "forced," Divine inspiration (along the lines of what we referred to as "Greater is the one who acts out in response to a command") but which nevertheless does not preclude the striving of the believer to intellectually identify with the fundamentals of our faith (parallel to the concept of "One who does not act in respond to a command").

COMING FULL CIRCLE
The service of God exhibited by our forefathers prior to the giving of the Torah which is a code of obligatory, systemized behavior - may be viewed as a service "that was not commanded." It stemmed from an internal awareness of the value of moral behavior. The term "Torah" has at its root the word "teaching," or "guidance." With Torah, the danger exists that the believer will perform mitzvot by rote, without any personal, internal identification with the mitzvah he is performing.

In contrast, "conversation" is natural, free-flowing. The "conversation of the servants of our forefathers" represents the healthy, natural lifestyle that the servants learned from the forefathers. This natural behavior would eventually be forged into an obligatory Divine command - the Torah. Despite this later historical development, we have much to learn from the natural, healthy service of God by our forefathers; it was a type of spirituality that apparently had to precede the giving of the Torah, along the lines of the concept of "Derech Eretz Kadma LTorah" - "Moral behavior precedes Torah." Thus, even though the rule is that one who acts in response to the Divine mandate is more praiseworthy, still - "more significant is the conversation of the forefathers servants than the Torah of the children..."

OF LATE...
In many of the rabbinic sources, mention is made of the "Yeridat Hadorot," or the "progressive deterioration of the generations;" from the time of our forefathers to the present, the spirituality of successive generations of Jews has been spiraling downwards.

Paradoxically, we are also witness to another phenomenon: in recent years, the later rabbis have, more than ever before, been stressing meticulous adherence to mitzvot and even stringencies, over and above what had been viewed as obligatory in previous generations. It seems, then, that the recent generations of Jews, who are of a lower spiritual level, have been more stringent than their ancestors! How can this paradox be explained?

Perhaps it is the very "downward spiritual spiral" that can explain this phenomenon. In earlier days, service of God flowed more naturally, and people intuitively strove to establish a connection with their Creator. In recent times, though, "holiness" is harder to attain - its less natural; in response, our rabbis sought ways to re-awaken us, to inspire us to strive for spiritual heights...

The generation of the Mashiach, is however, different. So says Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook in his work, "Orot." This generation is one of lofty souls striving to return to the natural spiritual state of their forefathers, to the level of the "conversation of the fathers servants." This is the reason, explains Rav Kook, That numerous Jews resist that which they perceive to be the external means by which our teachers have tried to bring them closer to God. This, says Rav Kook, is the source of the rejection by some of many of the rabbinic stringencies of recent generations; although the attitude is superficially apostasy - a denial of the authority of Torah - it really represents a striving for a return to the classic, natural holy way of life typified by the "conversations of the servants of our forefathers".


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