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Parshas Vayeira - Vol. 10, Issue 4
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Avrohom excelled in the mitzvah of hosting guests. Three days after he had circumcised himself at the age of 99, Hashem didn't want Avrohom to burden himself with caring for guests. He brought a heat wave to deter all travelers on that day. Still, the weak Avrohom's greatest concern was that the unusually hot weather would deny him the merit of welcoming guests. Avrohom decided to sit at the entrance of his tent in the hopes that he might spy a stray traveler.
When Hashem saw Avrohom's suffering over the lack of guests, He sent three angels in the guise of people. Rejoicing at this improbable turn of events, the elderly and weak Avrohom ran to personally invite them to his home to serve them, where he proceeded to serve them a lavish and abundant feast. The Medrash records that initially, Avrohom sent his trusted servant Eliezer outside to search for guests, but he returned to report that he was unable to find any. Avrohom responded by commenting that servants cannot be trusted. In other words, he felt that Eliezer hadn't tried hard enough and exhausted all of the possibilities, and as proof, Avrohom went outside personally and returned with three guests.
This Medrash is difficult to understand. Eliezer was indeed Avrohom's trusted and reliable servant. He knew how valuable the mitzvah of hosting guests was to his master, and when he went outside to look for guests, he certainly looked in every possible location, but he was unsuccessful because, unbeknownst to him, Hashem had taken out the hot sun to keep the guests away from the ailing Avrohom. What was Avrohom's complaint against Eliezer, and what more could Eliezer realistically have done to locate guests?
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein recounts that when he was growing up in Yerushalayim, he and a group of several other boys studied together with a private teacher. At one point, they were studying tractate Shabbos during World War 2. At that time, it was virtually impossible to find complete Talmudic sets, and only the Rav of his neighborhood possessed an entire set of the Talmud, which was shared by everybody.
The teacher requested each of the boys to bring his own Gemora to their class, but every boy returned to say that he had searched throughout the entire neighborhood and was unable to locate an available Gemora, as in fact there weren't any to be found. However, there was one boy who returned successfully with his own copy. To the present day, Rav Zilberstein has no idea where the boy found it, but he explains that he was successful because he wanted more than any of the others to locate a Gemora. Because he desired the Gemora with his entire being, Hashem helped him to locate one where everybody else had failed. Not surprisingly, that boy grew up to become a well-known disseminator of Torah.
Similarly, Rav Zilberstein explains that although Eliezer indeed tried his utmost to locate guests, his lack of success emanated not from laziness or a half-hearted effort, but from a lack of desire. Avrohom understood that if Eliezer shared his burning desire to find guests, he would have been successful, as Avrohom subsequently was. Although the circumstances in which we find ourselves are often beyond are control, when we truly want something badly enough and exert ourselves to the fullest, Hashem often miraculously sends us the results for which we yearn.
Parshas Vayeira details the destruction of the wicked city of Sodom and its environs as punishment for their evildoing. The angels that were tasked with destroying Sodom instructed Lot to flee with his wife and two daughters in order to be spared, but he was cautioned not to look behind him to witness what was transpiring in Sodom. Rashi explains that the reason for this restriction was that Lot was guilty of the same sins as his neighbors and should have been killed together with them. He was only saved in the merit of his righteous relative Avrohom, and as such, he did not deserve to look back and witness the punishment that befell them.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski offers another reason why Lot was warned not to turn around based on an astute psychological insight. He explains that often, a person who is motivated to repent his actions and change his sordid ways struggles to leave his past conduct behind. The evil inclination shows him how far he has fallen and how much he has sullied himself in an attempt to overwhelm him with feelings of despondency and hopelessness. The yetzer hara argues that he has distanced himself from Hashem beyond the point of no return, and any efforts to mend his ways will be an exercise in futility. As a result, the person abandons his thoughts of repentance before he has even begun the process. In doing so, he is making a fundamental mistake when it comes to doing teshuvah.
In Parshas Eikev (Devorim 10:12), Moshe tells the Jewish people: V'atah Yisroel mah Hashem Elokecha sho'el me'imach - And now, Israel, what does Hashem your G-d ask of you. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 21:6) teaches that the word V'atah - now - always connotes teshuvah. What is the connection between "now" and repentance? Chazal are teaching us that the key to doing teshuvah is to focus on the present. Although one regrets his past, it is unchangeable and therefore counterproductive to obsess about it. It is much more constructive to instead concentrate on the present, which a person does have the power to change.
In the evening prayers, we beseech Hashem to remove Satan from in front of us and from behind us. Several commentators point out that while it is understandable why Satan would be in front of us attempting to entice us to sin, it is difficult to comprehend what he is doing behind us. Rabbi Dr. Twerski suggests that this expression alludes to the approach of Satan in his attempts to make us feel hopeless by reminding us of our past mistakes, which are chronologically "behind us." This strategy is so powerful that we must pray daily for Divine assistance to combat it.
For this reason, in the beginning of his work Yesod HaTeshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah writes that when a person who has sinned becomes sincerely motivated to turn over a new leaf, he should cast off all of his prior deeds and view himself as if he was newly born on that day with a clean slate. As far as his prior actions, he should cast off the heavy burden of the past in order to prevent his sins from weighing him down and discouraging him from the possibility of making a fresh start.
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel suggests that this concept can help us understand why we do not confess our sins on Rosh Hashana, when we are being judged for them. He explains that Rosh Hashana is the first day of the new year and the day on which the entire world is reborn, and it is intended to serve as an opportunity to recreate oneself in the manner described by Rabbeinu Yonah. Because we tap into the spiritual energy of rebirth and renewal on Rosh Hashana, we dissociate ourselves from our past, and it would therefore be inappropriate to confess our prior transgressions at that time. This also explains why we are accustomed to bless everyone that we encounter, even known sinners, that they be immediately inscribed with the righteous in the book of life. Although a person may have a lengthy trail of misdeeds, on Rosh Hashana everybody has the opportunity to break with his past and fashion a new beginning on a righteous path which merits him being inscribed immediately for life.
With this understanding, we can now appreciate that when the angel told Lot to escape before Sodom was destroyed, it emphasized that the key to saving his soul was not to look behind him. Although on a literal level the angel was advising Lot how to save his life, the words can also be understood as instructing Lot that the key to saving his soul is "not to look backward," to leave behind his personal history in Sodom and productively move forward with his life, a message which is relevant to each of us as we strive to grow and improve.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (18:1) that Hashem came to visit the weak Avrohom on the third day after his circumcision. If one can fulfill either the mitzvah of visiting the sick or the mitzvah of comforting a mourner, which should he do? (Rambam and Radvaz Hilchos Avel 14:7, Bach Yoreh Deah 335, HaEmek Sheilah 3:6, Shu"t Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 4:40, Ma'adanei Asher 5769)
2) Avrohom invited his guests (18:5) to join him v'sa'adu libchem - and sustain yourselves. Rashi explains that he said libchem instead of levavchem to hint to the fact that angels only have one inclination, the yetzer tov. Why did he speak to them as if they were angels when at that point they hadn't yet revealed their true identities? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Gur Aryeh)
3) Because Lot's wife violated the warning (19:17) not to look back at the destruction of Sodom, she turned into a pillar of salt (19:26). Was this a punishment for violating the angel's command, or in looking back, did she lose her merit to be saved and was destroyed as part of the general decree to wipe out Sodom? (Biurei Mahar"i, Nesivos Rabboseinu, Tzafnas Paneiach)
4) Rashi writes (19:31) that Lot's daughters assumed that the entire world had been destroyed, leaving no man with whom they could have children except their father Lot. How could they think that nobody was left alive when they had fled to the city of Tzo'ar, whose inhabitants were spared as per Lot's request to the angel (19:18-23)? (Tosefos Rid, Paneiach Raza, P'nei Dovid)
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