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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: Holy osmosis
The Torah describes many details about the mission of Eliezer. The donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was careful not to eat barley that has not been tithed. Just like physical bacteria may contaminate the surroundings, so it is with spiritual flaws. The holiness of the righteous helps everyone and everything around them to do right. We are greatly affected by attitudes and moral standards of the society we live in.
Lessons for all generations
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer on a mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac. The Ramban explains that the Torah does not tell us stories about our Patriarchs to record the history how the Jewish nation developed. Rather, every story mentioned in the Torah teaches a lesson for all generations. The Torah (Bereishis 24:2-62) describes many details about Eliezer's mission. It is especially noteworthy that the Torah relates how Eliezer repeated everything what had happened when he arrived at his destination. The Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 60:8) comments that the conversations of the servants of the Patriarchs recorded in the Torah are dearer to G'd than the teachings of their children. Many commandments are only mentioned with a few words or even by inference. On the other hand, Eliezer's journey is described in great detail. This implies that we can learn some very important lessons from the details of this mission. Nothing is more pleasing to G'd than when we internalize these lessons.
We can learn one lesson from a small detail which may at first appear insignificant. It says (Bereishis 24:32) "And the man [Eliezer] entered the house, and he opened up for the camels and gave them straw and feed …" We find two interpretations as to the meaning of "opened up". Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (60:8) that this means that Eliezer removed the muzzles from the camel's mouths. The Ramban quotes a second opinion in the Midrash that the rope connecting the camels to each other was let loose. Let us try to analyze the difference between these two explanations.
The explanation that Rashi quotes is based on the fact that Abraham was extremely careful not to take anything that did not belong to him. This included his animals being muzzled to prevent them from grazing in other people's fields when they were away from home. This had been the cause of the break-up between Abraham and his nephew Lot. As it says, (Bereishis 13:7) "There was a quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and the shepherds of Lot." Abraham instructed his shepherds to prevent his camels from eating others property, but the shepherds of Lot were not too concerned.
The Ramban is not happy with Rashi's explanation and brings the other interpretation of what it means that Eliezer "opened up". The Midrash quotes Rav Chuna and Rav Yirmeyah who stated that there was no need for Abraham to muzzle his camels. Abraham's camels were definitely not inferior to the donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair.
The donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair
The Midrash continues to relate that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair's donkey was once stolen by a gang of robbers. For three days it would not eat anything. The robbers got nervous. They feared that the donkey would soon die and start to smell up their cave. They therefore decided to send the donkey back to its owner. The donkey knew the way back and was soon at the home of the Rabbi. It started to bray and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair instantly recognized that his donkey had returned. He instructed his servants to open the gates to let the poor donkey enter. The Rabbi's servants fed the donkey some barley but it would not eat. They informed their master that they could not get the donkey to eat. He asked them whether they had made sure to clean the barley. They assured him that they had. Next he asked them whether all tithes had been separated. They informed him that this barley was permissible for animals but not for human consumption as the tithes had not been separated. The Rabbi sighed: "What can I do, my donkey is stringent with itself beyond the letter of the law and insists on eating only food that is permissible for human beings."
Says the Ramban, if Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair's donkey was careful not to eat barley that had not been tithed for human consumption, there was no need to muzzle the camels of Abraham. They for sure would not eat anything that did not belong to Abraham.
This seems very strange. Animals have no intellect. How can it be that they know the difference between what is permissible and what is not?
If we go back in history to the time of the flood, it says in Parashas Noah (Bereishis 6:12) "And G'd saw the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth." Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) that even the animals were corrupt. The Midrash explains that prior to the flood, the dog would mate with the wolf, the chicken with the goose, and so on. Again, we may ask, how can animals, that have no evil inclination and only live with their instincts, become corrupted?
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains this with a modern-day episode. When he was young, he learned in the Yeshiva in the Town of Lomze, where there was an old hospital. It often happened that people who were hospitalised there for some time contracted illnesses totally unrelated to their original conditions. No one understood why this was happening. They brought some specialists in from Warsaw who investigated the situation. They came to the conclusion that over the years the hospital had become contaminated with numerous types of bacteria that had grown all over. These bacteria were causing the patients to be infected with new illnesses. The overworked staff had not taken sufficient care of the hygienic needs of the hospitals and thereby created breeding grounds for various bacteria. This is not an isolated case. A few years ago, at the University Hospital in Sherbrooke, Quebec, one hundred patients died over a period of 18 months from bacterial infections. These kinds of situations are a major concern for healthcare professionals all over the world. Says Rabbi Lopian, just like physical bacteria contaminates the surroundings, the same is true with spiritual flaws. The spiritual bacteria contaminate the people who transgress the word of G'd. This contamination spreads and affects their surroundings as well. Both humans and animals are affected by spiritual bacteria, just like they are affected by physical contamination.
Good brings holiness, evil corrupts
In the time prior to the Great Flood, human society had fallen to a very low moral standard, only paralleled by recent developments in our own society. People conducted themselves in a corrupt manner, and affected everyone around them, even the animals. Rav Chaim Valozhiner (Nefesh Hachaim 1:6) explains that whenever someone does a mitzvah, he brings down an aura of holiness into this world. In the same way says Rav Chaim, when someone transgresses one of the commandments it causes impurity and spiritual bacteria that affects everyone surrounding him. With this insight we gain a deeper understanding of the words of our sages (Negaim 12:6): "It is good for the righteous and it is good for his neighbour; woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbour". The holiness of the righteous helps everyone and everything around them to get elevated and do right (see Rashi in the beginning of this week's parasha Bereishis 23:17 and Path of the Just Chapter 1). This effect is not limited to the present. It appears from Rashi (Bamidbar 3:38) that the influence stays on for hundreds of years. We find that the tribes of Yehuda, Issachar and Zebulun produced great Torah scholars for many generations due to the fact that they camped in the wilderness next to Moses who was always busy with Torah study. On the other hand, the spiritual impurity of wrongdoers contaminates everyone and everything around them.
We do not realize how much we are affected by attitudes and moral standards of the society we live in. No doubt if someone from just a few generations back would enter our society, they would not be able to tolerate the low moral standards of today. The mere fact that it does not disturb us more should alert us to build social fences to minimize the influence. With this in mind, we can appreciate the words of the Midrash (ibid): "If previous generations are comparable to angels, we are comparable to human beings. But if we consider previous generations like human beings, we are comparable to donkeys. But not like the donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair". So great is the distance between one generation to the next.
Be close to the righteous
The donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, by being a member of the household of this holy man, was affected by his holiness, not by choice but by proximity. In a similar fashion, Abraham's camels were affected by his holiness, and therefore would never graze from fields not belonging to their master. On the human level, this teaches us the importance of being close to righteous people so that the holiness emanating from their conduct will affect and inspire us to do likewise. In this way, we secure the continuity of Torah observant and righteous generations.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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